The Maronite Monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a new monastic order of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, have purchased 65 acres of land in Castle Rock in the Southwestern region of the State of Washington. 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.
“We believe in the diversity of vocations, whether they be diocesan or religious, active or contemplative,” said Bishop Zaidan. “The establishment of this monastery fills the gaps we had in the eparchy, so that we reflect the full image of the Church.”
The bishop continued, “It is our hope that the monastery continue to grow in the upcoming years, be an oasis of peace and a place of special contact with the Lord.”
Leading the budding community is Abouna Jonathan Decker, age 66 (“Abouna” is the Arabic word meaning “our father”). He was born into a devout Maronite Catholic family in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania. The faith was central in the Decker household, Abouna Jonathan said, and his extended family included bishops, priests, nuns and hermits in the Maronite tradition. He aspired to be a priest from a young age, and was ordained a priest for the Maronite rite in 1977.
He served as a parish priest, but felt “a call to the quiet,” and lived as a hermit for a time before being called back to again serve as a parish priest. He served as pastor of St. Sharbel Maronite Church in Portland, Oregon for 26 years, and was sought out for spiritual direction by his fellow priests and men discerning vocations to the priesthood. Laif Waldron, a laymen who assists the monastery, said, “Abouna Jonathan is a very humble man, but is a spiritual icon to those who know him.”
Working in cooperation with Bishop Emeritus Robert Shaheen and Bishop Zaidan, Abouna Jonathan founded the Maronite Monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in 2011. He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: How did your community begin?
Abouna Jonathan: We believe it was the work of the Holy Spirit. The Maronite rite has strong monastic roots, dating back to the late 300s and early 400s, and Bishops Shaheen and Zaidan wanted to continue this tradition in our eparchy. Our Maronite eparchy in the eastern United States has a monastery, but ours did not.
Our bishops wanted us to be a contemplative community, established in a single place, and not serving at different parishes. Our purpose is to adore God, make reparation for sin and pray for the clergy and the people of God. This is our charism, adoring the living God in silence and solitude in the tradition of St. Maron, St. Sharbel and St. Nimatullah Kassab. And, secondarily, we can offer spiritual direction and lead retreats.
We live in silence and solitude, and only leave the monastery when it is necessary. We’re serious about our call, serving the Church in the way we do. But it is not our own doing; we’re continuing the life that St. Maron and others began 1700 years ago.
CWR: How large of a community do you hope to have?
Abouna Jonathan: We want as many men as the Holy Spirit will bring us. We hope one day to grow to include 18 to 20 monks, which is about the maximum size to which I think we can grow.
CWR: What is your typical day like?
Abouna Jonathan: We get up at 3 a.m. to pray. Some may go back to sleep afterwards, but we’re all up again by 5 or 5:15 a.m. for a period of adoration and meditation. At 6:30 a.m. we celebrate the Holy Mysteries, which most people know as the Mass. We then have breakfast and begin our daily chores, which could include study, work or offering spiritual direction.
At noon, we have mid-day prayer. We then work some more and have our second meal. We have only two meals a day; the main meal we eat in the afternoon. We then have quiet time, followed by evening prayer at 5 p.m. We then finish our work, have recreation and night prayer. We’re in bed by 8:30 or 9 p.m.
CWR: What clothing do you wear?
Abouna Jonathan: We wear a simple black habit with an iskeem (belt) and hood. On days that are particularly hot, we have white habits we can wear. We wear a crucifix around our necks and have beards.
CWR: What are some of the differences between a Maronite liturgy and the Latin Rite Mass?
Abouna Jonathan: One of the most notable would be the language. Rather than using the vernacular, we pray in Syriac [a form of Aramaic], the language spoken by Jesus. Also, the vestments we wear are different.
And, if you attended our Holy Mysteries, you’d notice a great emphasis placed on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. We also have a great love for the Mother of God. The East has struck a good balance regarding the Mother of God, neither under nor overemphasizing her role. As St. Ephrem said, she is the ship and Jesus is the treasure. We are the monks of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; we carry her name as well as that of Jesus and Joseph.
CWR: What is your relationship with Bishop Zaidan?
Abouna Jonathan: We operate under his authority. We are not allowed for found a monastery on our own, but we must be sponsored by our bishop. So, after obtaining canonical approval, we started our community.
Both Bishops Shaheen and Zaidam have been a tremendous help to us. Bishop Zaidan, for example, is funding the education of our monks.
CWR: What kind of man would be good fit for your community?
Abouna Jonathan: The same kind of young or middle-aged man who would be a good fit for a Latin Rite community. One who is passionately in love with Christ and is willing to leave all things to follow Him, to be totally His; one who feels the call to live a chaste, celibate life in community under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
It is the Holy Spirit who calls a man to the religious life. We don’t choose Christ. He calls us and waits for our yes.
I’m 66, the old man of the community. Our other monks are age 34 and under.
CWR: Why was Castle Rock a good site for the monastery?
Abouna Jonathan: We had been looking for a site for five years. We were given some land in Idaho, but it was too remote. We sold it, and began looking for another site in the Northwest. Our bishops thought the Northwest was a good location, as it is the most unchurched place in the country and most in need of our presence. The Maronites have always been a light in the world, and our communities are a place of Christ’s work.
We found the site in Castle Rock, and prayed to the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph to guide us. We asked, “Where do you want to lead us? This monastery is not ours, but is for your Son.”
We could afford to buy the property, so we did. It is not a wealthy area; in fact, it is in one of the poorest counties in the State of Washington. Since we’ve arrived, the people of Castle Rock have been most welcoming. Once, for example, about 20 people came to our property and spent the day helping us bale hay for the winter.
I think our story is like that of Mother Angelica. She was my friend; I knew her when I lived in Alabama. God called her to leave her home and establish a new community in the Bible belt in the South where there were few Catholics.
CWR: How do you think the monks will bring religion to this unchurched region of the country?
Abouna Jonathan: The same way the early Church brought the faith to the world: by the power of God. We hope to be prayerful men, faithful to our vows, and draw down God’s blessing on the community. As Thomas Merton said, we’ll be the trees purifying the air in quiet.
CWR: Where do you hope to be in ten years?
Abouna Jonathan: First off, it’s the men who make a monastery, not the buildings or walls. That said, we live on donations and need help to build our monastery. We want to build a chapel. Currently, we’re using an old barn on the property as our church. We need a place for the monks to live. We are now living in a small house on a cul-de-sac in Beaverton, Oregon. We’re out of room in the house; some of us sleep on the floor. We hope to raise $1 million to build these buildings and the infrastructure we need in the first phase of our project; $3 million will fund the entire vision we have for the monastery.
We’re learning to be farmers, and hope one day to be able to sustain ourselves. We have good pasture land, and hope to sell hay. We also would like to sell some kind of food, such as goat cheese. We have cows, but they have not yet been a particularly lucrative business for us. We’ve lost some cows to cougars in the area.
But right now, we’re living off the generosity of others. It hasn’t been easy, but doing God’s work is never easy. If you read Church history, every monastic order has had to bear the Cross.
But despite the difficulties, we are very joyful. We’ve seen many fruits. Once, for example, we had relics of St. Sharbel brought to our church and the bishop came to celebrate Mass. That was funny, in fact, having the bishop come to say Mass in the barn. But, on the few days we had the relics with us, myself and our other priest in the community spent 12 hours hearing confessions, nine hours on the first day and three on the second. This was non-stop. For Divine Mercy Sunday, we had another five hours of confessions. This is a beautiful fruit of our work, people coming to us for the sacraments and spiritual direction.
CWR: Do you accept prayer intentions and visitors?
Abouna Jonathan: Yes, we receive prayer intentions from all over the world. Our email for prayer intentions is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And yes, visitors can come to visit us in the same way they’d come to visit, say, a Trappist monastery. They enter and sit in the back of the church as we pray. They can join us for the Holy Mysteries and devotions such as the rosary and Chaplet of Mercy. As we’re still in a barn, there is not yet a separation between us and the people. But we do have prayer books to use and a benefactor donated chairs on which people can sit.
We also give retreats, and come out afterwards to say hello. But we’re monks, and we tend to stay away from the public. We have lay people who assist us, however. They help us with farming, run our website and come up to cook for us so we can offer hospitality to visitors. I can’t imagine where we’d be without our lay people. There’s an old Lebanese saying, “You can’t clap with one hand.” We’re grateful for all the help we receive.
For information on the Sacred Heart Maronite Monastery, including about upcoming events and how to donate, visit www.maronitemonastery.org.