March 22, 2020
Two Newark Abbey Monks Make Solemn Vows
Surrounded only by the monastic community of the Benedictine Abbey of Newark and close family members because of coronavirus pandemic safety precautions, Br. Simon-Peter Clayton, O.S.B. ‘08, and Br. Asiel Maria Rodriguez, O.S.B., professed their solemn vows on Saturday as Benedictine monks at the Abbey’s St. Mary’s Church. In doing so, Clayton, 29, and Rodriguez, 28, committed themselves for life to the monastery.
In a first for the monastery, the Rite of Solemn Monastic Profession, a sacred Benedictine ritual that dates back centuries, was live streamed on YouTube, allowing hundreds of viewers access to a scene that, in its serene and mystical nature, offered a stark contrast to the anxious flurry of activities portrayed in mass media of a world in the grip of an outbreak.
(Click here for more photos.)
The event was of special significance to long-time members of the monastery, who viewed the commitment of the young monks as a sign that their monastic community has a promising future. The professions of Brs. Simon and Asiel is part of a wave of renewed interest in monasticism at the Abbey: Eight monks have joined the community in the past four years and are in various states of progression toward monkhood, from having already made solemn vows to those working toward a lifelong commitment.
“At the ceremony, we thanked God for sending us these new monks, for giving them the perseverance and other graces they need, and we prayed for them, that they’ll continue to find happiness on the road they’ve chosen to walk with us,” said Fr. Albert Holtz, O.S.B., who last year celebrated 50 years of priesthood. “The vows ceremony is a public reminder that our community is alive and well.”
The ceremony was also a source of inspiration to the monastery’s junior monks.
“This was a ray of light in the midst of darkness which we are seeing today in the world,” said Br. Mark Dilone, O.S.B., who professed his simple vows conveying a three-year commitment to the monastery in December 2018. “In the midst of a pandemic, which is creating fear, I was able to witness two young monks say ‘yes’ to the ‘Light of the World.’ That is, ‘Yes,’ to Christ, who will shine through them, helping them and others to find their way in a world which is often dark.”
A Solemn Profession of vows is a monk’s definitive commitment to the community monastic life. Monks in the Benedictine Order follow the Rule of St. Benedict, written by St. Benedict of Nursia in Italy in the Sixth Century. They promised to follow the specifically Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion through the monastic way of life.
The last time two monks professed on the same day was in 1989, according to Fr. Augustine Curley, O.S.B., the Abbey prior and historian. Br. Francis Woodruff, who came to the monastery after hearing Fr. Luke Edelen, O.S.B. preach a mission appeal at his parish, professed along with the late Br. Gereon Reuter, who had transferred to Newark Abbey from Mt. Saviour Monastery in upstate New York. Woodruff and Reuter were of Irish and German ancestry, mirroring what had been the ethnic composition of Newark Abbey monks for most of the abbey’s history. Their backgrounds also reflected the community the monks serviced, according to Fr. Augustine.
“Br. Simon Peter, who is of African American and Puerto Rican ancestry, and Br. Asiel Maria, who was born in Cuba, represent a more recent trend in the monastery,” Fr. Augustine said. “We pray that this is the beginning of a trend that will allow the monastery to mirror the ethnic and racial composition of our ministries – St. Benedict’s Prep and the community that worships at St. Mary’s Church – as it always has.”
In professing their vows, Brs. Simon and Asiel become full and permanent members of the Benedictine community.
At the start of the service, the monks processed in carrying parchment scrolls upon which they had inscribed their vows. They signed them on the altar and left them there as a powerful symbol of their sacrifice of being united with the Sacrifice of the Mass.
As part of the service, the monks, first with arms stretched out and upraised and then humbly kneeling with arms crossed over their chests, sang the “Suscipe,” the ancient song of monastic self-offering derived from Psalm 119. They repeated it three times, each time with ascending notes:
“Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam et non confundas me ab expectatione mea.”(“Sustain me O Lord, as you have promised, that I may live; and disappoint me not in my hope.”)
During a high point of the service, the monks received their cucullas – large, pleated, black, hooded robes worn for important liturgical occasions. This clothed the newly professed monks in full monastic habit, signifying, as St. Paul said, that each is re-clothed in Christ, having “put on the new man.” Monks keep the garments for life and are buried in them.
During the ceremony, the monks prostrated themselves on the floor before Abbot Melvin Valvano, O.S.B, and the altar, signifying the death of their previous lives. It is meant as a powerful depiction of the monk’s resolve to die to the world and rise to a new life in Christ. When they arose, they emerged, metaphorically, in their new lives as monks.
The prostration scene was one of Br. Simon’s favorite parts of the service. He remembered listening as the cantor, St. Benedict’s chemistry teacher Dr. Dennis Lansang, sang “The Litany of the Saints.”
“To me, it was especially powerful because, at that moment, I was saying, ‘Okay, God, I am literally committing my life to you and this community,” he said. “It was as if the community on earth as well as the community of all the saints in heaven were praying over us so that we could persevere in this life and piss off all of those who are in hell and work against us.”
Br. Asiel’s favorite part of the service was when the monks applauded them, signaling their acceptance of them. “They were saying, ‘Now you are fully one of us,’” he said.
In addition to the monastic community at Newark Abbey, Deacon Brian Murphy, who is Br. Simon’s godfather, attended, as well as Br. Asiel’s uncle and aunt, Idil and Aida Rodriguez. The couple self-quarantined for 14 days before the event to ensure their presence. Auxiliary Bishop-elect Elias Lorenzo, O.S.B., who is also the president of the American-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictine Monasteries, also was present at the service.
As a sign of the times, Dr. Lansang, who is a physician and came to the property for the service, took special precautions to perform as cantor and organist. He entered the church from the back door and wiped down the organ’s surface with disinfectant before he played and after. Following strict public health protocols, he also maintained a distance from the monks and the Benedictine volunteers to avoid introducing any infection. Dr. Lansang and Benedictine Volunteer Kevin Lamb, who provided harmony by playing trombone, performed several numbers including: “O God Beyond All Praising,” “Pescador de Hombres,” and “Hymn of St. Benedict.”
“It was a beautiful, powerful event,” Dr. Lansang said.
Brs. Simon and Asiel tried to balance their sense of focus on the event with the reality of what was happening just outside the church doors.
“The Profession, in light of all that is happening, was kind of bittersweet in the sense that some members of my family couldn’t be there and the (St. Benedict’s Prep) community couldn’t be there,” Br. Simon said in a telephone interview, alluding to rules in place because of the coronavirus outbreak. “But, at the same time, I was just happy we were able to do it.”
Clayton was born and raised in Newark. After attending St. Benedict’s Prep, he graduated with a degree in marketing from St. Vincent’s College, Pa. He enjoyed a successful career in the financial industry for several years before returning to Newark to answer God’s call, as he puts it. He works as director of Leahy House, the dormitory for St. Benedict’s students, and serves as kitchen liaison for the monastery. He is also pursuing a master’s degree at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University.
Br. Asiel was also affected by the negativity stemming from news of the coronavirus outbreak and said he struggled over the past week to maintain his concentration. But when the ceremony started, he decided to let it all go and immerse himself in the moment.
“I felt embraced by the community and by God,” Br. Asiel said. “I was hoping and praying that something would happen during the celebration that would make me feel the love of God. It needed to happen today. And it did.”
Born in Cuba, Br. Asiel moved to Union City, N.J., when he was 14 to live with his father. He did not speak English. The difficulties he encountered then, he has said, have guided him as a teacher of Spanish and ESL at St. Benedict’s, giving him the gift of empathy, remembering the utter confusion of being in a world where one does not understand a word of what he is hearing. After spending time in Spain with another religious community, he transferred to Newark Abbey in 2015. Last May, he earned his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University and was awarded the Pope John Paul II Medal for Academic Excellence. He serves at the monastery in several roles – as the infirmarian, Socius of novices, and director of monastery publicity.
Brs. Simon and Asiel have been preparing for their profession for years. They entered the monastery within three months of each other — Br. Simon joined first — applying as candidates and then being accepted. Once that happened, they moved into the monastery and entered the first step of monastic formation – the postulancy. After they completed this phase, they were accepted by the community into the next stage – the novitiate. Three years ago, following completion of their one-year term as novices, they professed “simple vows” as Benedictine monks, committing themselves to the monastery for a term of three years. Within the past few months, both were cleared to take their solemn vows by Abbot Melvin and the rest of the community who agreed that they were being “called” to lifelong membership in the monastery.
Brs. Simon and Asiel noted that, though they have taken their solemn vows, they are by no means “done,” but must spend the rest of their lives seeking God in their community through prayer and work. They will take part in the daily common practices of the monastery, from attending Mass and prayer services, to eating meals and spending time together.
They will be receiving new assigned responsibilities from Abbot Melvin, which could include a host of tasks — teaching at St. Benedict’s, managing hospitality for guests, caring for brother monks, conducting pastoral work at the abbey church or at local parishes, attending classes at higher educational institutions, groundskeeping, helping with maintenance, working at a craft or trade, or assisting with any other need of the monastery.
There may be a lesson for all in the quiet circumstances imposed on this life-changing religious ceremony that at one time was planned to be very public.
“As much as I am helped by their witness, especially in such a bleak moment for the world, I’m still sad that we couldn’t celebrate this moment properly,” said Mr. Stephen Adubato, a religion teacher at St. Benedict’s Prep. “And yet I trust that the sacrifice God asked of them will strengthen their monastic vocation and will bear fruit for the entire community.”
When Being Present isn’t Possible
I remember the day two months ago that Br. Asiel came up to me and told me to write down this date in my calendar: Saturday, March 21. “Simon and I are making our final vows. You need to be there…we want everyone to be there.” I assured him of my presence. “This is going to be such an important day for us. And we’re planning a really special celebration!” He expressed that people would be coming from all over the country to celebrate this momentous day with them.
As the dark cloud of the coronavirus started encroaching over the U.S., the entire school community wondered what would happen to our usual schedule of events. Would we suspend classes? What about athletic events? When I saw an email listing the events that would be cancelled and postponed, my heart sank as I scrolled down to see that the Mass at which they would make their vows was still on, but the reception was cancelled. My disappointment worsened a week later after finding out that the Mass would be closed to the public.
“God, why are you letting this virus interfere with this vocation that you gave them?! I want to be able to celebrate with my friends!” Finding out that we could participate through live stream was only a partially satisfying answer to my prayer.
I kept seeing comments in the live stream page expressing gratitude for Brs. Asiel and Simon’s dedication to the community. I must admit, such words of praise give me pause. As much as their solemn vows indeed involve dedication to the St. Benedict’s and Newark Abbey communities, their vows, in essence, imply something much more radical and perturbing than this.
Consecration to Christ, especially through the monastic life, involves a sacrifice that is impossibly challenging—one can even say it is “unnatural.” The monks are taking the specifically Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion through the monastic way of life. Naive sentimentality can easily obscure the gravity of the sacrifices being asked of them.
Why give up things so natural as marriage and child rearing, owning property, and getting to live their lives as they see most fit? Asiel dreamed of marriage and becoming a loving father. Simon left behind a promising career path. Neither of these alternatives to monasticism pose obstacles to “giving back to the community.” One can surely be of service without making such radical sacrifices… So what made these versatile and talented young men make such an outlandish decision?
If these mysterious sacrifices involve giving up things that are so natural to us humans, how can these two young men live such an impossible way of life? The climax of the ceremony provides us an entry point into this mystery. When Simon and Asiel lay prostrate on the ground in front of Abbot Melvin, they were witnessing to the true content of their calling. This peculiar action of lying face flat demonstrated their human frailty, their inability to live up to these ideals lived by Christ Himself. And by doing so they visibly and humbly begged God for the “supernatural” grace to live a life that surpasses the natural human capacity for love and self-gift.
During Communion, Dr. Lansang began singing one of Br. Asiel’s favorite songs, “Pescador de Hombres.”
“Señor, me has mirado en los ojos…” Lord, you’ve looked into my eyes. We can only say “yes” to Christ’s example when looking into His eyes, when we know He is present in our midst looking at us. We are empowered to enter into suffering and sacrifices, embracing the Cross, when we see His promise of infinite love take flesh in our midst. By our own effort, we cannot take up the call to carry our crosses and make our lives a total gift of love. This is especially true for those who take the extra step of consecrating their lives to God, but is true for all of us who say we are followers of Christ.
Those lyrics also resonated with my experience of facing the coronavirus. I’m finding myself turning to prayer more and more, looking to Christ, asking where He is in the midst of this, and pleading with Him to show me the way. How can I make sense of all this suffering? How can I be of service?
I can’t claim to have all the answers at this point. All I know is that watching those young men intone the “Suscipe” made Christ’s presence in the midst of this chaos all the more concrete. As they cried out to Him, higher pitched each time they repeated it, saying, “take me to thyself, O Lord, according to Thy word, and I shall live,” a ray of light pierced through the dark overcast of the virus. It was as if God was “looking into my eyes,” reminding me to be still, and trust that he is here. I prayed that he may look into the eyes of those dying from the virus, of their caretakers, and of all those who are alone in isolation.
Not being able to throw a lavish celebration afterward imposed yet another sacrifice on these men, and on all those who love them and wanted to celebrate with them. But in a way, being asked to forego the afterparty and participate in their own sacrifice allowed me to more deeply understand what is most essential to this vocation.
Consecrated life is a call to live in a radical imitation of Christ. They skip the natural, temporary state of marriage and jump ahead to the supernatural destiny that all humans are called to: unity with Christ. Their foregoing of these secondary, nonessential goods is a witness to us all. It is a provocation to ask, “am I dedicated to what is most essential in life? Or do I attach myself to things that won’t last beyond this lifetime? Do I seek infinite happiness from temporary realities?”
As much as I am helped by their witness, especially in such a bleak moment for the world, I’m still sad that we couldn’t celebrate this special moment properly. And yet I trust that the sacrifice God asked of them will strengthen their monastic vocation and will bear fruit for the entire community.
I’m anxiously awaiting the day we can celebrate this event properly. But for now I’m very much united to these brothers through prayer, and through the WiFi.