When Being Present isn’t Possible

As members of the St. Benedicts community watch via live stream, Benedictine monks Br. Asiel Rodriguez (left) and Br. Simon Clayton profess their solemn vows. Health protocols due to the coronavirus barred a celebration and public viewing.

Photo by Jack Barsody

As members of the St. Benedict’s community watch via live stream, Benedictine monks Br. Asiel Rodriguez (left) and Br. Simon Clayton profess their solemn vows. Health protocols due to the coronavirus barred a celebration and public viewing.

Mr. Stephen Adubato, Religion Teacher

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.