What Can a Monastery Offer the Lay Faithful?
The monk’s life makes present, here on earth, the full meaning of Christian existence
The Maronite Monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a monastic order of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, purchased 65 acres of land in Castle Rock in the Southwestern region of the State of Washington to 2014. The Eastern rite eparchy (diocese) serves 50,000 registered Maronite Catholics (and many more unregistered) in 42 churches and missions the western United States, is under the authority of Bishop Elias Zaidan and is in union with Rome. The land was purchased to establish the Sacred Heart Maronite Monastery which, once complete, will accommodate a cloistered community of up to 20 men. The community is the only one of its kind in the eparchy.
Its monks wear a simple black habit with an iskeem (belt) and hood, have beards and wear a crucifix around their necks. There are currently five. They rise daily at 3 a.m. to pray, and celebrate the Holy Mysteries (Mass) at 6:30 a.m. They follow a set schedule, which includes prayer, study, work and offering spiritual direction. They have two meals daily, with the main meal in the afternoon. They’re in bed by 9 p.m.
Abouna Jonathan Decker leads the community. He was born into a devout Maronite Catholic family in Pennsylvania, and was ordained a priest for the Maronite rite in 1977. He has lived as a hermit and served as a parish priest, most notably as pastor of St. Sharbel Maronite Church in Portland, Oregon, for 26 years. He established the Maronite Monks in 2011.
As he and his fellow monks work to establish the new community, Abouna Jonathan paused to reflect on the question: what can a monastery offer people living in secular society?
The life of the religious is not fundamentally different from that of lay persons, but rather is a more radical and complete embracing of the new resurrected life which Christ gives to all of us. Through this, consecrated religious become living icons of this new life in Christ. A good example of this is the religious vow of poverty. Lay Christians are not only permitted but even expected to work for their living and may even acquire a certain measure of wealth. The consecrated religious, on the other hand, completely renounces this natural right to own property. This is not because owning things is wrong, but because the religious wishes to share more perfectly in Christ’s total dependence on his Father for every one of his needs. Religious poverty is a continual reminder to all the faithful that Christ’s Father is their Father also, and that everything they have is a gift from him to be shared with gratitude and generosity.
The life of the cloistered monk in a particular way speaks to value and power of prayer. Many of the monks may have abilities that would have enabled them to achieve successful careers in the world. To spend their entire lives in prayer might seem in the eyes of many people to be a waste. But by spending his entire life seeking union with God through prayer, the monk reveals the true power of prayer to change the world. The monk is also a constant reminder that no accomplishment lasts in this life except for the fruits of prayer and love inspired by God.
Lastly, in this day and age, perhaps the most important witness given by consecrated religious is about family life. The monk, when he takes his vows, does not do so as an isolated individual, but as a brother, with brothers, in community. True holiness does not consist in saying lots of prayers, or thinking much about God, but in loving much, and this first of all involves loving those with whom we live. Every family is, as John Paul II said, a true “school of love,” and the monastic community is called to live and learn in this school to the highest degree. A monk is only mature when he knows himself truly to be a child of God, trusting in God’s Fatherly love for him as represented in his brothers, and in exercising that same fatherhood and brotherhood on behalf of others. Likewise, women religious must learn to become spiritual daughters, sisters and mothers, like Mary.
The lay faithful ultimately benefit from the life of cloistered monks, and of all consecrated religious, by their witness to the reality of God’s promises, and above all his promise of eternal life with him, through his Son, Jesus Christ. The monk pursues the call of God radically, even before he fully enjoys the life of heaven, because God inspires in him, and in all of us, each in our own way, a total response of trust and love to his promise and call of love.
In observing the life of religious, lay faithful can draw a light for their lives which, please God, mirrors the light and life of heaven. The monk’s life makes present, here on earth, the full meaning of Christian existence, begun in baptism, nourished in the Eucharist, and centered on Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.