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Prayers optional: A vacation spent at Italy's religious guesthouses

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The most traditional – and conservative – abbeys are run by monks and nuns of the Cistercian, Trappist, and Benedictine orders, and guests there are generally expected to participate in the community's spiritual life, Brother Richard explains, since their very presence suggests some desire for retreat, silence, or discernment.

Creature comforts are fewer at these traditional abbeys, where house rules, curfews, and prayer schedules are common. Some convents and monasteries accept only men or only women, though even the more relaxed houses expect that couples be married.

No matter where we stay we find twin beds, crisp sheets, gleaming floors, a reading lamp, a lower than average number of mirrors, and a crucifix on the wall. Even though our digs are plush by hermitage standards, some things are missing – computer, remote control, outside news, the incessant need to try this and visit that. But the lack of these things makes room for the new. "I feel like I can hear my thoughts again," my daughter announces two days in.

Funny, because pulling up at Villino Noel, run by the Oblate Missionary Sisters of the Assumption on Rome's loud and busy Via Andrea Doria, you would expect to hear only traffic. Sharing the sidewalk with a gas station, the convent gate looks like the entry to an impound lot for cars. But on the other side lies a delightful garden refuge made all the sweeter by the fact that – despite a note asking that guests respect the silence – there's a table for eight here. Several garrulous Italian couples put the spot to happy use (silence, in these places, being something of a moving target).

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