The laypeople witnessing the 2014 rainbow over the 65 acres of lush, rolling hills thought that the rainbow was no coincidence. After all, it took three years, with lots of seeming dead ends, to find a suitable spot for the only Maronite monastery on the West Coast. The only other Maronite monastery in the United States is in Petersham, Mass.
Founded in 2011 by Abouna (Father) Prior Jonathan Decker with the ecclesiastical blessing of then-Eparchial Bishop Robert Shaheen, the Order of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a Catholic community of contemplative monks called to a prayerful life of service to the Church, the clergy and the world. It has the complete support of current Eparchial Bishop Elias Zaidan.
“We are called to live Eucharistic lives, entering into communion with the Holy Trinity,” Abouna Decker said.
In seeking the heart of God in silence and solitude, the monks share the fruits of intimacy with God through fraternal love, hospitality and spiritual healing and direction.
“People are bombarded with things that take away from our interior compass, which is the Holy Spirit. The monastery will provide a place for people to go into that interior silence, to rest themselves in the loving arms of our Blessed Mother,” Abouna Decker said.
“The Holy Family created an environment of love and accepted people wherever they were at. We seek to follow their example,” newly ordained Abouna Anthony Joseph Alles added.
The need for a monastery that can assist Catholics to breathe with both lungs, as St. John Paul II put it — East and West — as well as to serve as a “supernatural lighthouse” in the Northwest is deeply felt by all involved in the project.
“We live in a very dark time. There’s such a need to offset the darkness that’s so severe. The culture of death is ... mainstream here,” said Laif Waldron, a member of the fundraising committee. “The Lord led us to this group of monks. They’re small, but powerful. They live in constant prayer to make reparation for the sins of the local area and for the whole world.”
“We’re called to be that place hidden away, where God can have the freedom to move in people’s hearts,” Abouna Decker said.
The persecution of Christians in many parts of the world, especially at this time in Syria, the birthplace of the Maronite Church, has also been pressing upon the heart of the monastic community. “We join in praying for peace, reconciliation and provision for all those suffering the consequences of such a devastating conflict,” Abouna Decker said.
The Maronite Church is the only Eastern-rite church whose name is derived from its patron saint’s name, Maron. St. Maron was a fourth-century Syrian priest monk who embraced a life of quiet solitude in the mountains and was known for his simplicity and a desire to discover God’s presence in all things. His feast day is Feb. 9.
The Maronite Church is one of the 23 sui iuris (self-governing) Churches that exist as part of the Catholic Church. It professes the same apostolic faith, celebrates the same sacraments and is united with the Pope. It has its own distinct spirituality, liturgy and canon law. “The tradition of the Maronites has been one of faithfulness to Peter,” Abouna Decker said.
Contrary to a common misperception, the Maronite Church is not an ethnic Church. It consists of Catholics from a wide variety of racial heritage and cultural backgrounds.
The Maronite rite runs deep in Abouna Decker’s family. His family’s homeland is the Lebanese village of Hardine, which was also the home of St. Nimatullah Al-Hardini, the 19th-century Maronite monk whom Pope John Paul II canonized in 2004.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Abouna Decker attended a Maronite parish during his formative years and was steeped in the Maronite monastic tradition. “Monasticism is one of those pillars in the Maronite Church,” Abouna Decker said.
Last year, Abouna Decker left his post as pastor of St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church in Portland, Ore., where he served for more than 20 years. He has since been able to make the much-needed shift into the task of monastery-building.
The monastery site has been graced with Eucharistic celebrations, processions and the visit of the relics of St. Sharbel (also spelled Charbel), another Lebanese monk and mystic. “Many people have commented about the peace and serenity they have experienced at the site,” Waldron said. With plans to make room for 20 monks and temporary guest quarters, Sacred Heart Monastery is seeking God’s provision for its multimillion-dollar building project. The most immediate needs at the site are for suitable living quarters, a chapel and space sufficient for spiritual direction.
At present, the monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are comprised of four: two priests, a brother and a novice, who currently occupy a modest city dwelling in the Portland, Ore., area. “The house is a tight squeeze. They hope to move soon so they can continue growing,” Waldron said.
In regards to breathing with both lungs, Abouna Alles remarked: “We’re not here to compete, but to complete. There’s so much richness in the East. How can we be one lung without the other, one ventricle without the other?”
Sister Mariam Sharbel Vianney, a Latin-rite diocesan hermitess who has embraced both Latin and Maronite rites, has found that the “awe-inspiring reverence” she has experienced at St. Sharbel parish, as well as the great integration between the community and the monastery, makes it worth the long drive every Sunday from her home, the Cave of the Heart Hermitage, in Salem, Ore.
“There’s a profound sense of reverence for the Eucharist and a deep sense of rootedness that comes from a rite that dates back to Antioch, where Christians were first called Christians. Taking in the words of Our Lord in Aramaic during consecration — to have all the senses, the whole person engaged in prayer and worship — is something I had longed for,” Sister Mariam said.
A devoted cross section of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest provides the nucleus of volunteer support for the monastery project.
“It’s a blessing to be a part of this project. How often do people get on the ground floor of a new order? It’s going to be a long road. We need those prayers, so we can get behind it with everything that we have,” Waldron said.
Abouna Prior Decker’s sights are on the one thing necessary: “Christ thirsts to give us his love. People are too busy to receive his love. We’re here to be receptacles of divine Love, to be that altar, and, through that, change will happen. External change will happen. I believe if we are faithful to our monastic life — we may not see it in our lifetimes; maybe we will — seeds will be planted, and new life will spring up.”
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from
Mount Angel, Oregon.
HOLY SPACE. Abouna Anthony Joseph Alles (left) and Brother John Michael Morgan in the backyard of their Beaverton, Ore., prayer house. Lynne Herndon