Brother EliasGenessee Abbey

“A good and simple life…”

Elias’s room contains not much more than old prayer books with frayed pages, statues, bread wrappers and a hat–remnants of his simple life here. I’m sitting at Brother Elias’s desk in his damp, abandoned hermitage. It’s a 15-minute walk through the woods to the monastery where he lived as a Trappist monk for 16 years. Elias was given permission to move here, where he lived as a hermit for the next 15 years until his death in 1985. I prayed upon my arrival, read some, and with the wind blowing gently, dozed a few minutes on the floor. A summer breeze cools me from the warm noonday sun.

This hermitage is where my spiritual journey began. In the summer of 1973, I had just been made promotion director for United Artists Records and was living life in the fast lane of rock ‘n’ roll. Music, drugs and free love were everywhere. I stopped going to church and was running spiritually on empty. I felt independent, important and successful, yet inwardly aching.

One day, after working a late evening rock concert the day before, it occurred to me that the monk in my family was only an hour’s drive away. I took out a map and headed south, the radio blasting. Pulling off the exit toward the monastery, I suddenly turned off the radio and absorbed the silence–as I do now in this abandoned hermitage. Just who was this monk? Born in 1922 to Lebanese immigrants, George Morad grew up on the west side of Cleveland and attended St. Elias Church. In his large family, George was the most popular of all the cousins. After finishing high school he held many different jobs, including a stint as an amateur prizefighter. Well respected and known to be a gentleman, he was also a very worldly man about town. If there was a party, George would be at the center of it, drinking the whiskey he could consume in huge quantities and charming the women who gravitated toward his warm personality.

When World War II erupted, George became a Marine. Though his cousin, my uncle, lost a leg to shrapnel, George returned from the war unscathed, ready to resume his life of whiskey and women. George and his cousin were swimming at the Y.M.C.A., when George, complaining of chest pain, was rushed to the V.A. hospital. The doctors didn’t expect him to survive his heart attack, so a priest was called to give George the last rites. He was 29 years old.

Years later, George told me that the priest would not give him absolution because he was not truly sorry for his sins. That’s when George received his wake-up call from God. Though not fully recovered, he was released from the hospital. Armed with heart pills and a newfound fear of the Lord, he promptly broke off his engagement with a woman, left his job and family and traveled to Lebanon. For six months he traversed the country on foot, visiting the villages outside Beirut, where his parents were born. He returned from this odyssey to Cleveland and, telling no one but his priest and his mother, boarded a bus early one morning for the Abbey of the Genesee in western New York State.

At the monastery George immersed himself in the simple, austere life of a novice monk. While he worked as a cook and a carpenter and prayed regularly, his soul was reborn and his spirit renewed. His heart was strengthened. George threw away the pills and grew in the knowledge of God. He also took the religious name of Elias, the fiery prophet in the Old Testament. For many years only his mother came to see him. The rest of the family felt he had abandoned them. As the years passed, however, more and more people from Cleveland joined his mother in her yearly three-day visit. George had shown by his perseverance that he was serious about this monk business.

I pulled into the abbey drive, parked the car and walked slowly up to the reception area, where a man in black-and-white robes greeted me. When I asked where I could find Brother Elias, he promptly told me that he was a hermit and was allowed no visitors. But I explained that I hadn’t seen George since I was six years old and that my father and he were cousins. I had driven here out of my way and might not have this time again. That was enough for this monk, who motioned me closer and whispered to me while looking over his shoulder. “Don’t tell the abbot I told you, but go up this dirt road to a path that will lead you into the woods; at the crest of the hill turn right; when you see a green bench keep walking till you see a small hermitage; there you’ll find Brother Elias.” I smiled and chuckled to myself as I slowly proceeded up the road, “Don’t tell the abbot….” I wouldn’t know one if I saw one.

My mind started to race as I proceeded deeper into the woods. What should I say? How should I act? What am I doing in these woods? Then I grew quiet. At a distance there appeared what seemed to be a hut set back on a hilltop. I slowed down, taking it all in. But everywhere I turned, no monk.

I began rustling the leaves, making noise just in case he was around. I did not want to startle a hermit. I finally made it to the crest of the hill, my heart pumping faster, and walked around behind the dwelling. I stopped short; 12 feet ahead I saw the back of a man in long black-and-white robes. The sun reflected off his shaved head. He stood erect with his arms and hands apparently moving. I assumed he was praying.

The image of a monk in continual prayer–was I hallucinating? I stood and stared, frozen in my tracks for what seemed an eternity. Finally, he turned and spat. So much for visions. He had been eating an orange! Our eyes locked in silence. I spoke, introducing myself, and saying my father’s name. When his bearded face broke into a wide grin, he called my name, “Michael, Michael,” as he came toward me, arms outstretched for a magnificent bear hug.

He said we must say a prayer so that the Holy Spirit would join us in this reunion feast. I had never prayed spontaneously with another person; my prayer had always been ritualized with formulas and books. But this was as natural as talking.

I found Elias, at 50 years of age, to be the happiest of men, his face radiating youth and timelessness. Compared with all the rock stars I had been around, Elias, with his great black forest of a beard, shaved head, flowing robes and sparkling eyes, was authentic, the real thing! I was struck. Many of the people I had been working with appeared to be happy and full of joy, but most of the time that energy was drug-induced. By contrast, this monk’s joy came from a place deep within. It was contagious.

Brother Elias showed me his home. I followed him down a short path filled with the summer’s wildflowers and came to a small front porch with a chair and table with books and a writing pad on it. He opened a screen door, and I entered one large room partitioned into three sections. His prayer room had a small altar with a crucifix and icons on either side of the Blessed Mother and Jesus. He showed me his sleeping room. Because of his back trouble, the abbot had supplied him with a small mattress to soften the flat board on which he had grown accustomed to sleeping. There was a statue of the Virgin above a mat he used for yoga and exercise. His garden produced vegetables; his water came from the rain gathered into a barrel from the roof. His toilet was a pit outside.

We sat and talked. His warmth and receptivity made me feel safe. I opened my heart and shared with him my love of music and the spirit of freedom it now gave me. In conversing with this heart-centered monk, I found myself speaking and retelling my story from a new perspective, an honesty about my life that had been missing. I felt good. When I told him about the Beatles and their effect on my generation, a quizzical look came upon his face. He was unaware of them. I explained that these four young men from Liverpool, England, were even bigger than Elvis. He stopped me-Elvis? Wondering how far back I had to go, I mentioned the sensation Frank Sinatra had caused in the ’40s. That struck a chord and Elias understood my idol worship.

Then it was time for lunch: tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers from Elias’s garden, with bread, cheese and a tasty peach for dessert. I had not realized how famished I was. After a lifetime of striving to have more, how satisfied I was now with less.

After lunch, we walked. Elias paused many times to praise God and his abundant creation. He invited me to stay at the guesthouse. I told him with regret that I could not. Something deep inside me knew I would be coming back here. Soon it was time to leave. The spirit of hospitality and welcoming that Elias had shared enveloped me, and I knew I had found something new and deep within myself that I didn’t have to let go of ever again. As I sit now in Elias’s hermitage, this memory has become my strength. Silence and quiet times in prayer help me to stop talking and start listening to God instead.

Br. Elias Abbey of Genesee: "A good and simple life..."During my last visit with Elias, he told me that he, a man who had turned away from the world to be with God alone, living a good and simple life, was now facing death. He was suffering from lung cancer. As my tears welled up, I tried to be light, saying that since he would soon be in the cemetery I would not have to come back to the monastery to visit him. He smiled, but pierced me with his eyes, “You’ve not been coming here to visit me; you know why you come to the monastery.”

I have concluded that a potential monk lives inside each of us, inspiring and listening and praying with us to God. Brother Elias, a hermit of the Genesee, enlightened me to the monk within, and I encountered the deepest part of myself–the self that wants to love unconditionally, the self that wants to forgive and show compassion to all people, the self that is aware that every person is a mysterious part of God, that we all form the mystical body of Christ. To meet that self, one inevitably must meet many false selves; like an onion, the person we think we are now will be peeled away, sometimes with tears of pain and other times with tears of joy.

If silence and solitude take you deeper into yourself, if a monastery is the place that will allow this…then go…do it. But if you cannot get to a monastery, then “go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. And your Father who sees what you do in private, will reward you…” (Mt 6:6).

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