A contemplative life: Maronite Monks of Adoration a spiritual oasis in Petersham

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-07-2023 9:36 AM

Walk into a restaurant during a lunch or dinner rush and you’re likely to hear the hum of chitchat of diners talking about their lives and interests.

But the people at 67 Dugway Road in Petersham eat in silence, with only the clinking of silverware or the gentle turning of book pages to break the absence of sound. It offers a glimpse into the monastic lifestyle of men who choose to devote themselves to spiritual work.

Most Holy Trinity Monastery serves as the home of the Maronite Monks of Adoration, made up of 19 men living a life of prayer and Eucharistic adoration, a Catholic practice and devotion to what is known as “the Real Presence” — the Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in the truest sense, not merely symbolically or metaphorically.

“If you’re interested in this kind of life, you’ll find it,” said the Rev. Michael Gilmary, who has been at the monastery for nearly 34 years. “We have people who come here regularly for Mass or prayer time and they’re local folks, some of them, some of them from Boston even … but they know about us through the grapevine or whatever it is, and they want to come here.”

The Maronite Monks of Adoration was founded in 1978, and the monks moved onto the roughly 200-acre property in 1985. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church. Most Holy Trinity Monastery’s founder, Abbot William of the Sacred Heart, died on Sept. 19, 2021, and is buried in the property’s cemetery.

The monks live a contemplative, largely silent life as they strive to follow Christ. They wake up at 5 a.m. to prepare for a 5:20 a.m. morning prayer that is followed by Mass and then breakfast. Their daily schedule consists of worship, spiritual reading, study or chores — with breaks for meals — before retirement at 10 p.m. There is also free time in the early afternoons and recreation on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Abbot Patrick, voted by the monks to head the monastery as its abbot, said recreation often entails talking in a hall.

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“When you live silently, that’s recreation,” he said with a smile.

On Feb. 6, the monks convened as they always do at 11:30 a.m. for midday prayer in the chapel, where monks sit at choir stalls facing an altar and a crucifix. The chapel consists of a marble epoxy floor, 12 ceiling fans and 12 pews for guests. A man in one of the final pews is visiting from Florida for a month to help determine if monastic life is right for him. The chapel also has a stereo system used for readings and homilies during Mass.

“Not the Rolling Stones,” Gilmary joked.

When midday prayer concludes, the monks depart for the refectory to eat. All meals are self-service and buffet-style in the adjacent serving room. The monks were delighted the midday meal on Feb. 6 was prepared by Brother Theophilus, one of the monastery’s younger monks known for his cooking aptitude. The meal consisted of beans, eggs, pizza, salad and Brother Theophilus’ famous white bread with butter.

Meals are taken in silence, with most monks reading books while eating. There are designated tables for guests and retreatants. There are boxes of tea bags available and the monks aren’t shy to fill black mugs with coffee from a Curtis Gemini brewer or water from the refrigerator’s dispenser. And if you thought religious vows meant abstaining from Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix, Market Basket coffee creamer or Teddie All Natural Peanut Butter, you’d be wrong.

Joining the monastery

Monastic life starts with men contacting Gilmary, who serves as the vocation director, and visiting for a retreat of roughly a week. If that visit goes well, men are invited back for a one-month observership. They then return home and discern whether monastic life is the right choice. If they decide they want to live the monastic lifestyle, and if the monks believe that man would be a good fit, he is invited to be a candidate for six months to a year. After that, they become a novice for a year and then commit for a three-year period that can be extended for up to another three years, or they can leave the monastery.

“Since I’ve been here, the community’s basically doubled in size,” said Gilmary, 58. “Every couple of years, between a year and two years, somebody comes who stays.”

He said there are never any hard feelings when a candidate chooses a different path. Most find other ways to be God’s servant, and many join the parish priesthood.

“My job is to help you figure out what God wants you to do with your life,” Gilmary said.

Petersham is also the home of St. Mary’s Monastery, where Roman Catholic Benedictine monks live, and St. Scholastica Priory, for Benedictine nuns.

Different paths to God

A desire for a contemplative life leads men to Most Holy Trinity Monastery but a conversation with the monks there will convince you there is no cookie-cutter journey to the lifestyle. Some grow up open to the possibility while others practically stumble across it later in life.

Brother Matthew Maria grew up Protestant in rural New Jersey as one of seven children before joining the monastery a little more than five years ago.

“I was an accountant for a bank … and then I heard the Lord’s call, you know? It kept getting stronger and stronger, toward monastic life and then toward the priesthood, hopefully eventually,” he explained. “It took me time to actually determine where the Lord was actually leading me.

“It still hasn’t sunk in. I just took my solemn vows, my final vows, last August,” he continued. “In a sense … it does live up to everything that I have thought it would be. But in a sense, it’s a lot different, too.”

He said he never would have believed you if you suggested he would be a monk a little more than a decade after starting work as a bank teller and having a girlfriend.

“I would have thought you were completely out of your mind,” he said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Brother Matthew, 35, said he initially fought his calling because he felt he needed to stay the course of the career to which his skill set was naturally aligned, but he soon realized monks bring their God-given and acquired skills to monastic life.

“We’ve got to balance the checkbook, too,” Gilmary commented.

The son and brother of career businessmen, he started his life in the Midwest before his family moved to Florida when he was in high school. He always considered a life of devotion as a priest but did not see himself as a monk, specifically.

“I was a dating a gal. I thought I was going to get married,” he said. “But then this idea of priesthood and religious life never quite left me.”

He attended a small Catholic college in Virginia and spent time in a religious order in Europe before exploring similar options in the United States, though he couldn’t find the proper fit until he saw an advertisement for Most Holy Trinity Monastery and visited for a monastic retreat.

“And the rest is history,” he said.

Abbot Patrick, 48, joined the monastery in February 2003. He grew up in Miami, Florida as the son of a civil engineer and attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, graduating to become an aerospace engineer. He eventually worked for Lockheed Martin in northern Virginia for about three years.

“I like to draw and I like to go to air shows and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if what I drew could actually become reality, as opposed to just stay on the paper?’” he recounted, adding that he frequently prayed for success in his career. “I ended up having a real conversion back to the faith. I was going to church on Sundays but I wasn’t taking my Catholic faith seriously.”

Abbot Patrick explained that in 2000 he returned home to Florida for Christmas break and went to a bookstore with his mother, who bought him a copy of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” the autobiography by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk.

“It was the first nonfiction book I read cover to cover, without putting down,” Abbot Patrick said. “It’s all about how he became Catholic and then how he became a monk at Gethsemani Abbey, over in Kentucky. Until then, I hadn’t seen any monks in my life. I didn’t know if they even existed. But as I read this, especially as I read what life was like in a monastery, something deep within that I didn’t know was there cried out, “Yes! That’s the life. That’s the life for me.’

“And I closed that book and I said, ‘No way!’” he continued, to a roar of laughter from his brethren. “Then began the struggle of, ‘Well, what am I called to, marriage or monastic life, or whichever?’”

Abbot Patrick said he visited for a retreat at Most Holy Trinity Monastery, which “felt like home.” He then went home and spent two years paying off his college loan debt and decided Petersham was the place for him.

“I sold off or gave away all my belongings, I quit my job,” he said. “And here I am.”

While there are no “days off” or “vacations” from the monastic lifestyle, the monks may go home for serious reasons such as a death or serious illness in the immediate family. In fact, Gilmary recently returned to the Midwest to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. The monks live a cloistered life but are not cut off from their families, who are invited to visit.

More information about the monastery and how to donate to the monastic lifestyle is available at maronitemonks.org. There is also an option to submit prayer requests on the website’s homepage.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.

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