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Priest celebrates diversity

He says life is mix of choices combined with God's hand

For a celibate Greek Orthodox monk, Father Makarios (Mannos) can sometimes surprise people when he uses words like "cool" or "man." But then again, this Utah-born Greek has never seen differences in people and in life as barriers.

The 60-year-old monk's life is a fascinating road that has taken him from the humble immigrant mining town of Bingham to spending 15 years in a monastery in the unforgiving Sinai Desert in Egypt. His life has also taken him through some of the more turbulent conflicts in recent history, which, he said, has taught him many important lessons.

Dressed in his austere gray cassock and sporting a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard, Makarios' image certainly speaks traditional Greek Orthodox, but speaking with him, his laid-back personality and hearty laugh put one at ease.

For Makarios, life is a balance of making choices combined with the influence of God's hand. Through his years of doing for others, Makarios said he also sees Americans making some very poor choices in their own lives. Doing good can come in many ways.

"I think one of the best examples is Frank Sinatra, when he sang 'I did it my way,' " Makarios said.

The fourth-generation son of Greek immigrants, Makarios said his father and his brother spent many years working in the copper mines in Bingham. Growing up among Chinese, French, German and other immigrant families, Makarios said his childhood was a big influence in his life.

"It was a very diverse place," he said. "The differences that exist between people are really insignificant, because we all live together."

But still, there were reminders that others hated diversity. "The Greeks were singled out in Utah," Makarios said. The story of a Greek man who was hung by members of the Ku Klux Klan and left in a tree in Price was still told to his family as a reminder of what minorities can face.

For the most part, Makarios said his childhood was fairly mainstream. When the mine closed, his family moved to Midvale, where he attended Jordan High School. High school band influenced his love for music, and after high school he attended the University of Utah, majoring in music. At the same time, a conflict in Asia was to touch almost every college-age man in the United States.

"Things were getting really hot in Vietnam in those days," he said. Just after he transferred to Westminster College, the draft caught up with him. By that time Makarios had already enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to an Army music school in Virginia. Makarios said his family's long tradition of serving the Greek Orthodox Church and his own personal beliefs caused him to worry that he might be forced to take lives if he was sent to Vietnam.

But soon Makarios said he found himself at a base in San Francisco, with orders in hand for Vietnam. It is then that Makarios speaks of God's hand changing his life. "I was standing in line when this guy in uniform went to the line and counted 17 men and stopped at me, and he said, 'You guys follow me.' "

In seven days, Makarios found himself on a plane to Korea instead. In a strange twist, Makarios said it was in Seoul that his connection with the Greek Orthodox faith was strengthened. It turns out that in the 1950s the Greek Orthodox Church followed Greek soldiers to Korea and set up missions. By the time Makarios arrived, Korean converts spoke Greek and were baptized with Greek names. It was while serving the most desperate in war-torn Korea for 17 months that Makarios said he realized his calling. By giving of himself, he received spiritual reward. "You have to give to get," he said.

After graduating from Westminster College in 1972, Makarios decided to enroll in theological school in Boston. From there his choices stood before him. In the Greek Orthodox faith, clergy have a choice of becoming a priest who can marry, a celibate priest or a celibate monk.

For a man in his late 20s, making the decision to never marry and have children was not an easy one, he said. "I made the decision that I would remain celibate." It was a commitment that would also take him from a "materialistic world" to a spiritual one. "The life of a monastery is not anti-social, it's anti-societal," Makarios said. "There's a difference."

However, in the '70s there were no orthodox monasteries in the United States. "I had to find a place where there were monasteries and that was either in Greece or the Middle East," he said.

In 1976 he ended up in one of the most interesting places on Earth. Built about 1,400 years ago, St. Catherine's Monastery is the oldest, continually running Christian monastery in the world. It is situated at the foot of what is believe to be Mount Sinai, where the Bible states the prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. It is also the site where Christians believe that after St. Catherine was tortured by Romans for her faith in Jesus, angels delivered her body, which was reportedly found by monks from the monastery three centuries later.

Living the monastic life in one of the hearts of Orthodox Christianity took some getting used to. "I went to a monastery where nobody spoke English. Everything was in Greek and others spoke Arabic, both inside and outside."

It was also a time after the Arab-Israeli War in which the Sinai was locked amid a struggle between Egypt and Israel. At times instead of Arabic, regional government officials were speaking Hebrew. "One thing was, I was able to drive a vehicle," he said, which made him the monk who would leave to run errands, putting himself amid the military tension. "I would think of St. John and think, 'What do you have to be afraid of?' You shouldn't fear death, we should fear sin," Makarios said.

A lot of his time was spent in prayer for others and for peace. Being inside a monastery also means taking oneself out of the events of the world. Because the monastery is a steep, 3-mile hike up the mountain, visitors have historically been few, except for pilgrims and occasional tourists. The monks also worked with local orphanages and hospitals run by the church.

One popular story from the monastery, Makarios said, is when World War II came to an end. "Visitors came and told the monks that the war was over, and the monks said, 'What war?' "

Starved for news, Makarios admits some monks would try to talk tourists into giving up newspapers and magazines. "I recall a visitor came with a Time magazine in his back pocket and this monk from Utah was starved for news." After some sweet-talking, the man reluctantly gave up his magazine to Makarios.

Yet within a five-year period, this monastery, which existed with no electricity or refrigerator for food, soon could no longer keep the outside world out. Most Orthodox monasteries are now wired for the Internet and have electricity. At St. Catherine's tourists became more common.

This didn't seem to be a huge problem until word got out that the Egyptian government had kept tight wraps on a plan to build a tram to the top of Mount Sinai, considered one of the holiest sites for Christians and Jews.

"Monks do leave monasteries, but for specific reasons," Makarios said, leaning back in his chair, counting on his fingers. "If you're ill, if you're dead, or if there is an issue of heresy."

Makarios said he likes to think he fell on his sword for his order. He said he felt the Egyptian government's plan for a tourist tram was about to defile one of the holiest sites in Christianity. Makarios decided to leak the news outside Egypt, which sparked an outcry of protest against the plan around the world. Soon, Egyptian agents showed up at the monastery, threatening to make things difficult for the monks unless Makarios not only left the walls of the monastery, but left the country as well.

"The abbot ordered me to leave out of the best interest of the monastery and my personal best interest," he said.

That was in 1990. Since then, Makarios has been back for visits but still is not allowed by the government to come back permanently.

Being back in Salt Lake City brings mixed feelings for him. He is near his family but is not the same person as when he left many years ago. Makarios likes to think he remains on an "extended leave of absence" from St. Catherine's, but he doubts he will be able to return.

His introduction into Utah life again involved buying a car, getting insurance and even learning how to use a cell phone. Makarios said Americans suffer from an obsession with material items above anything else. "You see all those self storage places and there's more being built every day," he said. He feels Americans use material goods to fill the spiritual void in their lives.

Although he serves the Greek Orthodox Church part-time, in parishes in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, Makarios said the outside world is really no place for a monk. Since his return, the Greek Orthodox Church has built monasteries in California and Arizona. Yet, finding men willing to become monks is becoming increasingly difficult.

Makarios said there is land in Green River, Wyo., where he has a dream of starting a monastery — a place of sanctuary, like St. Catherine's, where he and others may serve others and spend time in prayer for humanity.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com