YOUR GIFT is in the giving, the old holiday nostrum goes. But you also can get a feel-good gift in the buying, especially if you tap the monasteries, convents and hermitages scattered around the world. Many specialize in making food products, the range of which goes way beyond the usual fruitcake to include spice blends, jams, cheese, truffles and even coffee.
And no matter whether they're Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, they do it while pursuing what they say is their main mission: prayer.
"Prayer and labor have been in the monastic tradition from the very beginning," said Sister Gail Fitzpatrick, a member of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, known popularly as Trappistines. She is based at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa.
The nuns there make candy, including their signature Trappistine Creamy Caramels. Fitzpatrick is up every day at 3:45 a.m. By 5, she's at the candy facility tempering chocolate. Then she goes back to the abbey to pray, read and celebrate Mass before returning to tend the chocolate.
"You do have to weave tasks," the nun said with a chuckle. "Chocolate has demands."
Fitzpatrick is proud of the candy. She points to the quality ingredients used but notes the fact that nuns make them is also a selling point with the public.
"I think they can trust us, that what we put into that candy is good," Fitzpatrick said. "The environment in which we make candy is one of love and care. And if they believe in prayer that will mean something because we pray as we work."
Will Keller has been selling products made by nuns and monks for 10 years through his Cleveland mail-order company, Monastery Greetings. Among the religious communities Keller's company represents are the monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Clark, Wyo. The brothers began roasting, blending and selling coffee beans in 2007 to finance construction of a permanent monastery.
"One of the brothers was something of a coffee expert. He was a barista," said Brother Paul Marie of the Cross, who oversees the coffee business. "His family owned a coffee plantation in Costa Rica."
Now, the monks roast and blend 30 different coffees, including decaf. Brother Paul Marie said some customers buy the coffee to support the monastery but others buy it because it tastes good.
"We use good arabica beans. The gourmet coffee drinker appreciates it," he said.
For John Tapert of Duvall, Wash., it was disappointment in a gourmet cedar plank used to grill fish that led him to make fish planks out of alder wood and package them for sale with bottles of his own St. Benedict barbecue sauce and spice rub.
A onetime jewelry maker, Tapert now specializes in religious art. He and his artist wife, Candace, belong to the secular branch of the St. Joseph Carmelite monastery in Shoreline, Wash. They live in their own hermitage in Duvall, Ill., following many of the same rules and traditions as the cloistered nuns, who are part of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. In addition to the alder grilling sets, he makes a range of jams named after various saints.
The 5-acre hermitage provides both the alder wood and the fruits and berries for the jams.
"It's a simple, honest, straightforward way to make a living," he said. "It involves a lot of quiet labor. We're not out in the world doing it for the most part. The end product is something you can be honest about. It has integrity, if you will."