Our Brother Benedict was born Harvey Albert Simmonds, Jr. on 30 November, 1938 in Liberia, West Africa. His parents were the Rev. Harvey Albert Simmonds and Ethel Louise Byerly Simmonds. His parents had met in Liberia, both serving as missionaries in the Episcopal Church. In 1948, the family moved back to the United States serving Saint Andrew’s School near Sewanee, Tennesee.
Young Harvey graduated from Sewanee Public School and went on to Saint Andrew’s School, graduating in 1956 and acting as Valedictorian. Although accepted as a National Merit Scholar for Williams College, at the beginning of his senior year, he left to travel through the United States. He became assistant to poet and Herald Tribune critic, Gene Baro, faculty member at Barrington College, traveled through Northern Europe and returned to finish his degree at Williams. In the years following, he experienced his first major clinical depression; upon recovering, he moved to New York City in 1963 and joined the horticultural staff of the New York Botanical Garden. Anyone who knew Br. Benedict knows his life-long love of gardening; even in his protracted final illness it was not unusual to see Benedict, in straw hat and bathrobe, working in the flower beds of the Abbey’s Butterfly Garden. The contact with the soil, as any gardener knows, was as healing as it was a portal to the holy.
Throughout the 1960’s, Harvey battled with depression but continued to forge his career, entering the School of Library Service at Columbia University and joining the staff of the New York Public Library Special Collections. This employment opened doors to work at Eakins Press, then a new publishing house in New York. In later years, mail delivery to the Abbey would be enlivened by correspondence with Valerie Eliot (with whom Harvey had worked on the manuscripts of her late husband’s, T.S. Eliot, poetry) or marvelous and beautifully printed books from the Eakins Press.
In 1969 he married Harriet Rosenstein; the marriage ended in divorce in 1973. Eventually Harvey dwelt in Verona, Italy, supervising the printing of a monograph by cultural patron and NYC icon, Lincoln Kirstein about the sculptor, Elie Nadelman. Harvey discovered the writings of Thomas Merton and initiated contacts with Cistercian monasticism. At the same time, he published the bibliography of Lincoln Kirstein’s writings and a complete record of George Balanchine’s choreography. In later years, the Abbey’s library minuscule music collection would swell with books on dance, tapes and CD’s of modern music and DVD’s on Dance in America. As varied as his employment was, did Benedict ever pursue a field that was not his passion? His lively interests would continue to the last week of his life, as evidenced by the massive reading that continued through all his life.
Amid all this, Harvey reconnected with Fr. Harold Fly, a mentor from his school days, and helped care for him in his old age. After Fr. Fly’s death and several in-house retreats, Harvey converted to Catholicism and sought admission to Holy Cross Abbey. Although Harvey, now Br. Benedict, willingly submitted to the normal routine and seeming anonymity of monastic life, his capacities eventually moved him from responsibilities as cook and bakery crew member to gardener, Abbot’s secretary, Prior and then Superior (1996-1998). In 1991, his efforts had managed to pay off the debt on the new Retreat House. Clinical Depression remained a challenge and then, in 1999, the diagnosis or irreversible kidney damage seemed to change everything. Dialysis proved more draining than helpful and in 2005 Benedict opted to let nature take her course. To everyone’s surprise, especially Benedict’s own, he would live another seven years after piloting a Capitol Campaign (2002-2005).
This data of his life fails to manifest what the many comments to previous posts do: Bendict’s “work”, no matter how professionally managed, was contact with people more than handling abstract problems. One thing Benedict could not do was not give of himself; this touched many people’s lives but could also be draining on himself. It was not always understood by others. However, I could never say that Benedict was oblivious to that effect and he certainly wasn’t unapologetic! He appreciated the shades of grey in human experience and was sensitive to the negative reactions of others.
Br. Benedict’s life in the monastery, as a curriculum vitae, may look unconventional. In actual fact he lived what every monk and nun lives: he incarnated his monastic vocation as a fabric woven from the strands of his personality, experience and life. It would be inaccurate to claim that monastic discipline and community life did not impact Benedict choices and service. Except in a very superficial level, Benedict’s life at Holy Cross Abbey was qualitatively different from what he had lived before; the continuity may not have been broken but the intent of his life found it’s native depth. What do I mean? To the end, Benedict was a student of God’s will, humbly accepting the consequences of his choices. He kept learning, was open to learniong that however good a plan he could cast, his life was in God’s hands, not in the management of his own (God-given) talents. That is no trivial development in anyone’s life!
I found that in the last three months of his life, as the community began serious work on our communications with one another, Benedict seemed re-engaged, despite his health. He joined a small group of us attending the memorial service for Shirley Echelmann’s husband, Martin, in December and was with us in the refectory for Christmas Day. He seemed more present, perhaps reassured that his gradual passing from life was not a burden on the community but a very precious and appreciated witness and gift.
Benedict died peacefully about fifteen minutes after Compline Thursday evening, 17 January. Abbot Robert of Berryville and Abbot Damian of Spencer were reciting the prayers for the dying as he crossed that threshold he had anticipated for so long.
In lieu of flowers, the Simmonds Family requests that donations be made in Br. Benedict’s name to Holy Cross Abbey, 901 Cool Spring Lane, Berryville, VA 22611.