Issue Date: September 30, 2005
A happy hedonist who became a monk
'He Who Is Blessed' recounts the roller-coaster biography of Harvey Simmonds
By MARK PANOS
How do you go from the heights of New York society to sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River contemplating suicide? And how do you get from that riverbank, a breath or two from death, to a state of ineffable grace?
One mans journey along that path is the subject of an inspirational documentary slowly making the rounds of PBS stations and film festivals throughout America. Its called He Who Is Blessed. The title is no understatement.
The film is about Harvey Simmonds, known for decades now as Br. Benedict, a Cistercian monk who lives in an abbey at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains beside the Shenandoah River.
Cistercians are a reclusive lot, even by monastic standards, generally preferring to live in anonymity and virtual silence. This rare glimpse into the life of one of them, particularly one so forthcoming, makes the film worth watching.
There are other reasons. Foremost, few works since Thomas Mertons Seven Storey Mountain have probed so intimately the human condition, dissected so cleanly the vacuous nature of certain kinds of success and demonstrated so vividly what godliness is.
This is no pontificating, proselytizing diatribe, however. You will find more supplications to the Almighty in contemporary political speeches and terrorist tracts than in the documentary. This is entirely different, teaching almost exclusively by example.
This is a story of transforming episodes, recounting a movement toward God, but not away from humanity. It is about the value of self-awareness, in the context of the lives we lead, in bringing us closer to the core of beneficent, as opposed to divisive, faith.
In recounting Br. Benedicts roller-coaster biography, the film invites reflection on the vicissitudes inherent in all of our lives. It forces personal re-evaluation of what we consider to be our successes, our failures and whether or not we spend the time we have between birth and death in a meaningful way.
The son of two missionaries, Harvey Simmonds spent his early life orbiting between parental assignments in Africa and private schools in the United States. He became a happy agnostic and erudite hedonist whose good looks, impeccable manners and affable personality would have ensured success in any venue. His passage into the social stratosphere of the New York arts scene was assured by the combination of those personal attributes and his professional prowess as an editor of fine books.
He put himself in service to luminaries of the arts, such visionaries and impresarios as George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, whose commitment to their muse occasionally eclipsed independent commercial success. The relationships were often symbiotic, and deep bonds were forged, among those being an enduring friendship with legendary ballerina Suzanne Farrell, who remains close to Benedict today.
A dizzying array of others, both famous and those of ordinary stripe, appear on film. Riverboat captains, gardeners and scholars are among those who offer reminiscences ranging from the bawdy to the sublime.
And yet, despite a life that would be the envy of many, Harvey Simmonds crashed. Those looking for a specific cause for Simmonds crisis of confidence will not find one.
It may have been the loss of a mentor for whom Simmonds served as caretaker and companion. It may have been his apprehension of the apathy the upper classes displayed to those less fortunate. Whatever the reason, he nearly chose to end his life.
He has bravely allowed his human frailties to be bared in the documentary. Drinking, depression and divorce are but a few of the markers on his downward spiral.
Br. Benedict has said that his turn toward monasticism, though influenced by Merton, was the product of no sudden revelation, no blinding road-to- Damascus conversion. Rather, the cumulative effect of innumerable forces led him toward the change in thinking that precipitated a profound change in life.
The vow he took was one of ongoing conversion, striving day by day toward living an exemplary life. For him, connecting spiritually with others involves reducing barriers, neither arguing theology nor imposing his beliefs on anyone else.
His has been a slow, sometimes halting, evolution toward his present state. That revelation makes his transition all the more appealing, more accessible and more attainable for the rest of us, whether we are inside or outside the refuge of a monastery.
Watch the film and be transformed.
Mark Panos teaches writing at Towson University in [Towson, Md.] and works with the National Fellowships Program at Loyola College in Maryland.
National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005 [corrected 10/14/2005]
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