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OUTSIDERS ARE GENERALLY FORBIDDEN to enter the walls of this cloistered monastery, but reporter Jessica Ravitz and photographer Paul Fraughton were invited inside. Though the monks spend most of their days, outside of Mass, in silence, this observance was lifted for the occasion.
CLARK, Wyo. -- The goodbye was bid not just to people he adored, but to a life he'd be leaving forever.
Nicholas Maroney embraced his weeping mother and grandmother, told them he loved them, then turned to his future. Three times he knocked on the wooden gate and listened as the small community assembled in the yard on the other side. As the gate opened, he stepped across the spiritual threshold.
Dressed in a dark suit and shiny black shoes, both of which he'd wear only once more in his lifetime, he knelt before his new family. Father Prior, as his superior would be known, handed Maroney a crucifix and offered a blessing: "May the passion of Christ strengthen you."
The young man kissed the Lord's feet, held tight to the crucifix and rose to follow the others in procession and praise, just as the gate shut behind him. As he walked across the lawn, awash in melody, joy and the Litany of Our Lady, his mother's sobs hung in the air.
"They knew I'd never leave these walls again," he explained recently, remembering that moment nearly three years ago. "But for me, this was an answer to so many prayers."
Brother Simon Mary, as the 23-year-old monk has been known ever since, had come home.
Beneath the Beartooth Mountains, off a dirt road only a few miles south of the Montana border, sits Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a monastery for The Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. The cloistered community, home to seven monks (as of early July), was founded in 2003 as an answer to young men's prayers.
"Because I'm on the younger side, I'm very in tune with what the young want. They're looking for what's authentic," says Father Prior, or Father Daniel Mary, 39, who conceived of the monastery (for entering monks between ages 18 and 30) with the support of Bishop David L. Ricken of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne. "If you're going to follow Christ, you have to go over the top. They don't want to be half-worldly and half-monk."
Herein lies what makes this community unique, on a global, Carmelite level. In the United States, the religious order has a couple hundred friars, who serve the wider community, and no more than 20 hermits, who live in seclusion. The tradition has cloistered nuns - in fact, one community is in Holladay - but the monastery in rural Wyoming is the only place where Carmelite monks can live "with constitutional enclosure," the prior explains.
The monks enjoy the support of brotherhood, while also living the secluded, contemplative life. Their days, which begin at 4 a.m., are devoted to prayer and are primarily spent in silence. It is through this vocation, they say, that they can pray to bring others closer to God and earn for themselves sainthood - something to which they all aspire.
They see themselves as intercessors, "a channel of grace for the entire world," Father Prior explains. By living their lives of prayer and sacrifice, they serve others. They do this because they were called to do it, because they can think of nothing better than to live their lives close to God. For this, they gladly trade in pillow-top mattresses for those made of straw. Worldly possessions and the possibilities of marrying and having children pale in comparison to what they've found.
The monks move through Mass, mostly codified in 1100 and unfamiliar to most Catholics today, in seamless choreography - never stumbling on the ancient Latin liturgy or tripping over their Gregorian chants. The monks read from their missals, bow and kneel without hesitation or direction. Brother Michael Mary, 28, a trained opera singer from Minnesota, serves as cantor. Though his asthma and allergies are acting up, when his lungs are needed to serve, he's given respiratory grace.
The chapel, where the monks gather multiple times a day, is in the basement of their modest home - "a really wide trailer," vacant and "infested with rats" when the monastery inherited it, the prior remembers.
Now clean and refurbished by the monks' own hands, the chapel's walls are lined with plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross, or the final hours of Jesus' life. The top of the altar is lined with saints, including St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and the Archangel Gabriel. A large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, holding Child Jesus, dominates the left front corner of the room.
To the right, next to the furnace room, is where the monks prepare for Mass, gathering - among other items - the cruets of wine and water, the incense, all that's needed to receive the Lord during Holy Communion; and donning the appropriate vestments (signifying where they are in their journey) over their brown, holy habits.
The servers kiss the prior's hands. When he was ordained as a Carmelite priest, his hands were consecrated with oil, and now when he celebrates Mass, he represents "the person of Christ," he explains later. After the hour-and-15-minute Mass, and as soon as they've returned everything - including the gold chalice, framed Mass cards and censure - to their proper place, the monks kneel beside the simple wooden stools that line the chapel to pray more.
They pray for families, for children, for all shepherds of faith. They pray that others might find salvation and, as a Web site devoted to them indicates, for the end of "attacks on human life," including abortion, contraception and terrorism.
The monks can speak with their families once a month by phone, and visits to the guest house that borders the property are always welcome.
But without televisions, the Internet, radios and newspapers, the monks are essentially cut off from the world, and that's just the way they like it. They only learn about horrors such as April's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech because people call to enlist prayers, which they're always ready to offer.
Others might view their lives as a sacrifice, but the monks view it as "paradise, a haven for peace and protection of their souls," explains the prior. When they're forced to go out into the world to visit doctors or transact business, they can't wait to return to the monastery. It's here where they can feel serene until they move on to someplace higher.
"Our earthly life is just like a test. We have to endure it as long as our Lord wills it," says Brother Peter Joseph, 25. "But mostly, we're just anxious to go home," which in this case means heaven.
This earthly home, however, is full of promise, says Father Prior. A former high-school football player, boxer and bullrider who grew up in Cody, he dreams big. Where the monastery is now, on 42 acres, is only the beginning, an interim stop.
He moves a plastic bottle of holy water, which rests on top of a coffee-table book in the guest house, so he can share some of his visions. Leafing through the photographs of Great Cathedrals by Bernhard Schütz, he points to the Gothic structures that inspire him most. Someday, he'd like the monastery to build a Gothic church, one where the faithful can pray, hear the words of Carmelite priests and be moved by the chants of hidden monks.
He pictures 500 to 1,000 acres of Rocky Mountain property, closer to Cody, where hermits can live in ravines with the support of lay brothers. Where the monks might till fields, raise livestock, develop a tree farm, maybe get into the honey business.
This would be a monastery where 30 monks could live out their days. All of it is doable, he says. Anything is possible.
Since its dedication in October 2003, the monastery has received inquiries from about 470 men across the globe. Several postulants are expected to enter this summer. And in addition to prayer, these monks, who dedicate part of their afternoon to manual labor, have plenty else to accomplish.
The one they've nicknamed "Grease Monkey," Brother Joseph Marie, 30, fires up a Cat. Raised in Queens, N.Y., he's been known to take apart and put together bulldozers, with only a manual to guide him, but on this hot afternoon - sporting a shortened habit, overalls, work boots and a cowboy hat - he's driving. The monks are building a new and bigger house, and he's got some leveling to do.
He's not the only one with skills - or a nickname, for that matter. There's the opera singer, of course. Father Prior put in a water line and taught himself to work a road grader, which the monastery bought at an auction. Brother Paul, 23, is strong in carpentry and has been key in building the hermitages - wooden playhouses, of sorts, where the monks take turns going on eight- to 12-day retreats where they remain in solitude. Brother Peter Joseph, or "Brother Cook," 25, serves as lay brother, working the kitchen and bringing food to those in seclusion. He also crafts everyone's simple leather sandals. The secretary to Father Prior is Brother Simon Mary, who - at 5-foot-4 - is called "the Little Monk," a name he takes in stride and with a big laugh.
And then there's "Brother Java."
"Oh, brother, that's a nice roast," marvels Father Prior, as he takes in the smell of the Sumatra beans swirling and cooling in the roaster.
At a nearby table, flavoring another batch of beans with Irish Creme, Brother Elias, 28, mans Mystic Monk Coffee, the monastery's newly launched business.
No java drinker himself, Brother Elias isn't sure why he was chosen for this specific job. But being chosen for this vocation, becoming a monk: That he attributes to "a couple big graces."
Born in Israel, raised on a kibbutz (a collective community), he is the son of an American Jewish woman and a secular Israeli Jew. The family moved to Florida when the boy was 11. Unlike the other monks, many of whom felt a call early in life, his came much later. The "typical college student" was turned on to Christianity by college friends. The last summer of college, he was hiking in Switzerland when someone told him, "Hey, you look like St. Francis," he remembers.
"I had a fancy for walking barefoot," he says with a laugh. "I also had a long beard, and I wasn't particularly clean."
But the comment was enough to make the former slacker student and snowboarder do some research. St. Francis, he says, became his "original patron." Once he joined the Air Force, he began devouring Scripture and found himself increasingly drawn to Catholicism and, most especially, "Our Lady."
He speaks of the Blessed Virgin Mary with unfettered love. Through the "intimate relationship" he has with her, he says he's found the easiest way to get close to God.
He admits he's still attracted to women, but instead of pursuing marriage, he chose to consecrate himself to God.
"Who could make me happier? Our Lady, or a very nice woman I can marry," he asks. "I chose the Queen in Heaven."
All of this, he knows, is hard for his family to digest. But he says they just want him to be happy, and with the love and sparkle in his eyes, he most assuredly is.
The years have passed since Maureen Maroney watched her son walk through the monastery gates.
"It was the hardest thing I've done in my life, to this day," she says. "I never cried so much."
Nick, as he was formerly known, is her oldest, and they were always so close. She visits twice a year and is at peace with where he is. Even so, it's still hard, sometimes, to imagine that he'll never be around for holidays, weddings or graduation parties. But his answer to her, one she's learned to embrace, is that he's forever with her in spirit.
"Brother Simon," as she effortlessly calls him now, was always spiritual, she says by phone from rural New York. He was full of questions when the family attended weekly Mass, and while other kids ditched the church after confirmation, he hungered for more.
It's been easier for her than for her husband because she feels so rooted in her Catholicism, she says. Having this strong faith, sharing it with her son who's thousands of miles away, helps her.
"When I go to church, when I do any kind of praying, . . .it makes me feel closer to him," she says. "As a mom, you always just hope that your kids are happy and contented in their life. What more can you ask for?"