New Maronite Monastery in Portland, Oregon


Maronite Bishop Robert Shaheen of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon established the Oregon Monastery of Jesus, Mary and Joseph June 27 during a ceremony in St. Raymond Cathedral in St. Louis. Brother Anthony Joseph Alles professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and received a simple black habit. The bishop blessed Abouna Jonathan Decker, a longtime Maronite priest and spiritual director, as prior.

Father Jonathan and Brother Anthony Joseph
in the monastery chapel

The new monastery is for now housed in a simple home on a suburban cul de sac. Abouna Jonathan and Brother Anthony Joseph hope with the support of backers to purchase land for a larger monastery that will endure through the centuries. Abouna, which is Arabic for "Father," is still known by a few as Father Decker. He's a hermit who also is pastor of St. Sharbel Maronite Parish in Portland. The Monastery of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is the first Maronite monastery in the western U.S. The only other is in Petersham, Mass. and is home to about two dozen monks.

The new monastery is located in an area of Beaverton known as Bethany. That's the name of the Palestinian village where Mary and Martha lived and where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. These facts are not lost on the monks as they seek to live lives of deep attention to Jesus. A former bedroom has been transformed into a chapel, paneled with cedar from Lebanon, a deeply symbolic choice. This room is the heart of the small monastery. The two monks chant psalm-based prayer five times daily, including at 3 a.m. "There are no days off in the monastery," Abouna Jonathan says. "This is not a profession, it is a life. It's disciplined, but it's disciplined by love."

The Maronite tradition is one of the eastern rites of the Catholic Church. Maronites, who trace their ritual to the 5th-century monk Maron in the mountains of Syria, are in full communion with the Holy See. "Ours is a spirituality of the desert," Abouna Jonathan says. "Monasticism is our topography." Some early Christians took to the dry lands and mountains of the Levant to live simple, undistracted lives. The Maronite rite emerged in that context and became the primary expression of Christianity in Lebanon, but has adherents from all backgrounds.

Maronite monasticism includes distinctive charisms and language, but it shares tradition with Latin rite monks. The most common guidelines for all Christian monastic life come from St. Benedict of Nursia, who drew partly on eastern traditions when he wrote his 6th-century rule. "We are not reinventing the wheel," Abouna Jonathan says. "What we can do is bring eastern mysticism to the people, to the whole church." Brother Anthony Joseph, 26, is a graduate in philosophy from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. "We live in a world filled with noise," he says. "We operate in that world and we operate impulsively a lot of times. This is about going out to the desert — silence, external and internal. It's a rich silence, a musical silence."

For his monastic name, Brother Anthony Joseph combined a 3rd-century monk — Anthony of the Desert — and the earthly father of Jesus. In them, he valued perseverance and resilience. "Anthony's life was spent conquering unredeemed parts of himself and giving them over to Christ," says Brother Anthony Joseph. "He was totally given over to Christ." He chose St. Joseph because the saint became fully what God wanted him to be, and because St. Joseph moved through a time of confusion into clarity.

"We have to be godly men like St. Joseph," says Abouna Jonathan. "We need constantly to be discerning what we are supposed to do." Monks, like St. Joseph, should respond "immediately" to God's messages, the priest says. The monastery is named after the Holy Family because of a deep commitment to Christian love and unity, as in a family.

"This is called a monastery, but it's a family and families are built on love," says Abouna Jonathan, holding out his clasped hands in a gesture of gratitude. "We are constantly asking ourselves, 'Are we loving one another as he loved us?' We came from loving families. They taught us how to love. We continue that love here."

As among the Desert Fathers, hospitality is key at the new Maronite monastery. Visitors receive an embrace at the doorway, a sprinkling of holy water and kisses on the cheeks. Then guests are taken to the tabernacle for prayer. Back in the living room, a warm cup of tea and a snack appear. The conversation flows.

When there are no visitors, it's largely a silent life inside the monastery's clean white walls. There is conversation on occasion, but it's not trite. "When we talk, it is about something with meaning," Abouna Jonathan says. Still, these monks laugh regularly. For example, they explain why Abouna Jonathan does most of the cooking. Brother Anthony took charge of a meal once when visitors were expected and set the smoke alarm off three times.

The monks do their own work, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping, washing windows, dusting the holy statues. Friends send food on occasion, but the men do go grocery shopping. At Fred Meyer, the store workers know them by name and greet them joyfully. At meals, the monks listen to holy recorded books or read to each other.

Abouna Jonathan and Brother Anthony are balanced men. Drawn to silence, they also seek fellowship with people in the world. Eastern monasticism fits them well. Instead of a strict cloister tradition, eastern monks have a custom of welcoming sojourners who want to tap into the holy pursuits. The desert hermits saw people all the time.

The monks look for an example to the 4th-century monk St. Pachomius, who left the Egyptian army to begin an ascetic life near the Nile. The saint went into the desert precisely so he could help visitors encounter God more deeply. "You share the fruits of your contemplation with others," Brother Anthony Joseph says. Another model at the monastery is St. Sharbel Makhlouf, the 19th Maronite monk after whom the Portland parish is named. St. Sharbel was a hermit but not a recluse. Fasting and praying through decades, he made himself available if someone needed spiritual guidance or advice.

"The fruit of silence is to give back," Abouna Jonathan says. "It's not for yourself. It's to give back to God, to God's people." "This monastery is for the whole church," he says. In his 1995 encyclical letter on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II said the Western and Eastern Catholic rites like the Maronites work together to embody the fullness of Christian tradition and spirituality.

"The Church must breathe with her two lungs," Pope John Paul wrote. Oregon is also home to St. Irene, a Byzantine Catholic parish in North Portland and Nativity of the Mother of God, a Ukrainian Byzantine parish in Springfield. "We came not to compete, we came to complete," Abouna Jonathan says of his own arrival in Oregon in the mid-1980s, when few people here knew the Catholic Church had eastern rites, many of them in the Middle East.

Brother Anthony Joseph studies theology via online courses from Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut. At the monastery, he receives spiritual and human formation. At St. Sharbel, he gains pastoral experience as the people of the parish teach him about family life and how to love. Abouna Jonathan makes sure his junior monk stays physically active each day, swimming and running.

Chanting God's praises comes naturally to Brother Anthony Joseph. He spent six years in a Portland children's choir singing Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant. He was able to travel to Mexico and Rome with the group. The young monk has long been a thoughtful and insightful man. In 2008, just out of college, he began working in the pro-life movement. That year, he spoke with the Catholic Sentinel outside the construction site of a new Planned Parenthood building in Portland.

“People see abortion as a way to protect their freedom. I think our society has lost its sense of real freedom,” he said then, wearing a red shirt with a small white cross and the words, “Lifeguard for the unborn.” Even before he became a monk, he would help homeless people whenever he could. He'd have long conversations about faith with a Protestant workmate.

Young Nathaniel came for spiritual direction to Abouna Jonathan, who suggested visiting various religious communities to discern his call. After getting to know the options and getting to know himself, the young man chose Maronite monastic life. "You take the gifts God gave you and you put them in God's hands to be at his disposal," Brother Anthony Joseph says. "This is not a human vocation; it's a divine vocation. You can only live it by God's grace."

Inquiries about the monastic vocation and life can go to the monks’ recently launched website at www.mmjmj.com, and they can be reached by mail at Maronite Monks of Jesus Mary and Joseph, 1804 SE 16th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. To reach the monastery by phone, call 503-231-3853. Good will donations and prayers are greatly appreciated.

In gratitude to almighty God for His many graces already received, the monks would also like to thank Bishop Robert J. Shaheen of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon for his blessing and support as well Archbishop John Vlazny for his generous welcome on behalf of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. The monks say they are grateful for "this wonderful opportunity to serve God in this capacity."


by Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel


3 comments:

  1. Here is some news about The Maronite Monks of Jesus Mary and Joseph:

    www.maronitemonastery.com

    http://tdn.com/news/maronite-catholic-monks-raising-million-for-a-castle-rock-monastery/article_4b7e7012-badb-11e4-862a-535f153cc1f3.html

    Maronite Catholic monks raising $3 million for Castle Rock monastery
    tdn.com

    Maronite Catholic monks raising $3 million for Castle Rock monastery
    tdn.com

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  2. Shaino wShlomo
    Praise be to our Lord who rose from the dead to lift us up to New Life.

    I am returning to the States on May 11 after many years in Turkey among Syriac Orthodox communities (Mor Gabriel etc. ) I would like to visit you for a few days. Is this possible? I fly into Seattle and will take the train to Portland. We have corresponded a few times over the years. Your community is about the only one that is closoest to my tradition. I am a Syriac Orthodox priest who has been serving refugees and our displaced peoplesince 1991.
    Remain in Peace
    Fr. Barhanna (Dale Albert Johnson)

    ReplyDelete