March 19, 2020
Br. Simon Peter: Very Much at Home
A monk born and raised in Newark’s community will now spend the rest of his life there. Br. Simon Peter Clayton, O.S.B. ’08 is preparing to profess solemn vows to Newark Abbey. Years of education, hard work, and soul-searching have led up to the religious ceremony that will take place Saturday, March 21
.”Before I came to Saint Benedict’s I had no idea of what a monk was,” Br. Simon said.
He only became aware of what it meant to be a Catholic monk after learning about the lives of the Benedictine monks, many who taught him while he attended St. Benedict’s.
As a very young man, Br. Simon had no intention of devoting his life to being a Benedictine monk. But slowly, as he learned more both at Benedict’s and at St. Vincent College, he became more receptive to the idea.
Br. Simon grew up in a challenging environment. He spent his childhood in a tough Newark neighborhood and was frequently called on to take care of his younger sibling. In his home environment, he was exposed to lots of arguing by some family members. In summary, Br. Simon described his childhood as “dysfunctional.”
What got him through a lot of difficulties during the years he was in high school was the thoughtfulness of the monks, he said. They were very supportive and would occasionally take him to buy groceries for his household.
Becoming part of the monastic community has also been a learning experience.
“Coming into the monastery,” explained Br. Simon, “I had to shift my line of thinking from doing whatever I wanted to do, to understanding that I’m committing myself to this community and committing myself to the needs of the community.”
Putting others’ needs ahead of his own was the hardest part of transitioning from his secular lifestyle to the ways of a monk. He continues to work on this aspect of his life on a daily basis, he said.
No life is without its challenges, Br. Simon said, noting that life in the monastery offers some of its own. Having to deal with the different personalities around the monastery is not always easy, he said. He does not get along with everyone, but he does try to solve all the differences he might have with an individual.
By using the philosophy, “If God can love you, I should try at least,” he attempts to appreciate fellow monks for the way they are, instead of the way he wants them to be. Br. Simon conceded that his personality may also offer challenges for other monks to deal with.
On the other hand, he said, one of the best aspects of being a monk is the happiness that comes from positive interactions and friendships built over time at the monastery. His friendship with Br. Asiel Rodriguez, O.S.B., is very strong because they have been on parallel tracks taking the necessary steps to pursue monastic life. Both Simple Vows at the same service nearly three years ago. And both will profess their Solemn Vows together on Saturday.
He well understands the weight of his decision that will commit him to the Newark-based Benedictine monastery.
“This is my home for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’m willing to grow. I’m willing to learn more and more about who I am as a human being and what that means.”
He also said he is clear about the idea that saying “yes” to this community is saying yes in obedience to his superiors. Br. Simon knows that there will be times where his superiors need him to do something for the good of the community that he might not want to do. With these vows, he said he is communicating his willingness to accept this and try his best to fulfill those requests. “Obedience is hard,” Br. Simon said.
Yet he said he will seek to obey as he knows that his superiors have his best interest at heart. He used to think that only he knew what was best for him. This was because no one else had lived his life so he believed their opinion might not be as informed. With time at the monastery, he has noted that this way of thinking could not help him progress as an individual or especially as a religious figure.
Br. Simon’s religious formation will continue. “That level of discernment does not stop at Solemn Vows,” Br. Simon said. “So even though we are saying yes, we are going to marry this community. We are also saying, ‘Yes,’ just like in marriage. An ongoing ‘Yes.’ “
He added: “I’m willing to continue the work at this, I’m willing to continue to learn how to love.”
Following the ceremony, Br. Simon said he will continue to work on himself for the good of the community. These vows do not exempt him from working to improve the monastic community, he said. In fact, it persuades him to do otherwise. For Br. Simon, change starts within. There’s no use in trying to change others, he said, when he is all that he can change.
“I can’t change people,” he said. “I can change the community. If I didn’t accept that, I think I would leave. The courage to change who I am, not the core of who I am, but more so conform myself to the community. Freedom comes from letting go of things that you don’t have control over.”
“Br. Simon has been a mentor, a friend, helpful… he’s thoughtful,” said Justis Worell ’20, “He’s just there when you least expect it, or when you most need it.” Justis also said that Br. Simon was a big aid in helping him use his talents for a better purpose. Justis moved into the Leahy House three years ago which was when he met Br. Simon, and Justis explained that Br. Simon has had the same desire to have a positive impact in the boy’s life as when he first arrived.
One of Br. Simon’s main responsibilities is the Leahy House. Br. Simon lived in the Leahy House during his student time at Benedict’s and has now been charged with the leadership over it. This is something that keeps him busy but has a great effect on some guys lives. Many of the people that live in the house can recall multiple stories of Br. Simon’s generosity and his drive to help others.
The other monks are also grateful to the younger men. “Something that is so great about having them [Br. Simon and Br. Asiel] here is that they come here with a strong interest in community life. When I first came here back in 1994, the emphasis was so much on the school and the other postulates,” explained Fr. Maximillian Buonocore, O.S.B. Fr. Max says that Br. Simon and Br. Asiel have really improved the energy of the monastic community, the energy the monks have towards each other.
Br. Simon has been a help to his abbey in a number of ways, from encouraging more of a friendship between the monks, to helping out students who are in need, to taking charge with singing psalms during times of prayer. Br. Simon plans to take his vows for this community that he loves on Saturday, March the 21. His example should be one that is taken for inspiration.
Br. Asiel Rodriguez: A Long Road Leads to Newark
After a long and arduous journey of faith, Br. Asiel Maria Rodriguez, O.S.B., is preparing to fully commit himself to the Benedictine Abbey of Newark. His many years of religious practice and study will culminate with the profession of his Solemn Vows on Saturday, March 21. Upon undergoing the ancient religious rite, he will become a fully-fledged monk.
Br. Asiel was born in Cuba on July 11, 1991. Growing up in Cuba, Br. Asiel had to endure the effects of Communism there. He was not allowed to openly practice his faith.
“There’s a lot of painful experiences there…we would have to go through the back door of the Church because we couldn’t go through the front,” he said, explaining how secretive his family needed to be in order to fulfill their responsibilities as Roman Catholics.
His persistent adherence to his faith caused his education to suffer, too. He was taunted in school by administrators who set him up for teasing by other students. Eventually, he was “kicked out of school for being Catholic.”
He left for the United States when he was 14 and settled with his father in Union City in Hudson County. Years later Br. Asiel, still committed to his faith, would join a religious community in Spain. However, he would not stay there.
“I found myself looking for a better experience of prayer and work,” he said.
He would first come to Newark Abbey in 2015. He had prior connections to the monastery. “I kept in touch with the monks here before…I came here for Monkfest in 2015,” he said. “I spoke with Br. Patrick and the Abbot and they suggested I come here and give it a try.” When Br. Asiel left for Newark Abbey a year later, he knew he was relinquishing his studies there. He was mere months away from becoming a priest.
Most people might assume that, when a monk joins a monastery, he is required to give up his old name and take up one of religious significance. However, this assumption is not always true. Monks are encouraged to do so but are occasionally allowed to keep their own name. Such is the case with Br. Asiel. Asiel is his real name. Abbot Melvin Valvano, O.S.B., allowed him to keep it, in honor of his mother who passed away when he was young.
“It actually means made or created by God in Hebrew,” Br. Asiel said. “That was my original name and I didn’t change it. It was a name given by my parents.”
Br. Asiel is not only a member of the monastery; he is also an active member of the St. Benedict’s Prep community. At Benedict’s, as both students and faculty colleagues describe it, Br. Asiel has been a beacon of inspiration, friendship, and faith, not only to his students and group members but also to his fellow faculty and staff members.
Br. Asiel has a close relationship with his students in his Religion II and ESL classes as well as the members of his group, Father Thomas Long. He tells his students about his experiences growing up in a country where his freedoms were suppressed by a Communist government.
“I always tell my students to appreciate the freedom they have here,” he said.
Br. Asiel stepped in as a group moderator along with Ms. Kitta MacPherson for TL. “Since he has joined our group as moderator, the feel of the group has been lifted dramatically…we have gone up in Group ranking too,” said Kevin Jackson SY, Group Leader for TL.
Just like his teacher-student relationship, he also is close to many members of the faculty.
“I would say whenever I’m working with him I feel really inspired by his enthusiasm and also by his faithfulness to his vocation as a monk,” said religion teacher Mr. Stephen Adubato. In the Business Office, Br. Asiel helps “wake up” some of his associates there, making them some espresso to reinvigorate them.
“He’ll make espresso, but what he does with the espresso is he whips it with sugar at a certain point,” said Ms. Danielle Assadourian, who works in the Business Office from which Br. Asiel manages the Abbey’s social media account. “He starts clicking the cup for us to let us know the coffee’s ready. That embodies him; he’s just an uplifting person.”
Just as he would do for his students, Br. Asiel tries to brighten his coworkers’ days, and helps them get that push they need to get through the day. “In my opinion, he has made the Business Office a more pleasant place to work in,” said Ms. Bebi Amzad, another colleague there. “He puts you in the mood to work. He’s always pleasant; he makes your day go faster.”
Br. Asiel has been an inspiring member of both the Abbey and the Benedict’s community. He has lifted up many people here ranging from students, teachers, coworkers, and some of his fellow monks. His journey will culminate with the profession of his Solemn Vows of stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience on Saturday, March 21.