Brother Benedict: Publisher who became a Cistercian Trappist monk

'My life here?' he wrote about Holy Cross Abbey, 'Silence intensifies, feelings deepen'

Below the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia's Shenandoah valley lies Holy Cross Abbey, home to 12 Cistercian Trappist monks. In 1983, his first winter there, Brother Benedict wrote: “Last night we sang the last office. Before sleep a brittle whispering began, shthithing sounds and occasional sharp pips; then walking along the corridor toward bed, outside lights showed icy sleet falling. Each grass blade trebled in size and rounded by its icy casing. And my life here? Silence intensifies. Feelings deepen, and pale out towards the center.”

Benedict had left a successful life as an archivist, publisher and horticulturalist based in New York City before he entered Holy Cross, and 30 winters later he wrote: “I am looking out over fields of white, the snow having begun two hours ago... A beautiful setting for this evening's Mass, and the quiet pleasures of the morrow.”

Benedict was born Harvey Simmonds, in Liberia in 1938, to Episcopal missionary parents who built a school at Cape Mount. He survived his birth in 1938, when his doctor raising a glass to the day-old Harvey noticed his umblical cord unknotted, and saved his life.

After the war the family, which now included Harvey's younger brother Andrew, settled in Sewannee, Tennessee. The boys' priest and history teacher at St Andrews School was Father Flye, who mentored James Agee: 32 years later, as director of the New York Eakins Press, Simmonds would edit Flye's photographic folio, Through the Eyes of a Teacher.

Simmonds enrolled at Williams College, Massacusetts, from where he often hitched to New York to watch ballet and theatre from the gods then sleep in Grand Central Station. He met the poet, art critic and curator Gene Baro, with whom he lived at various junctures and locations, including, in 1963, a period in the bohemian lodging house of Duckworths publisher Colin Haycraft and novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, in Camden Town.

Back in New York he became the keeper of native plants at the Botanical Garden, until 1966. After taking a library science degree at Columbia he joined the special collections staff at New York Public Library where, in 1968, he curated an exhibition devoted to John Quinn, an important patron of impressionist and postmodernist works. He catalogued the typewritten manuscript of Eliot's The Waste Land, and became a cheerful correspondent of the poet's widow, Valerie Eliot.

Simmonds also began to work with the Eakins Press, and became librarian of America's oldest bibliophile club, The Grolier. In 1969 he married Harriet Rosenstein, but the union foundered, and in 1970 he went travelling again, taking a job on the steam boat The Delta Queen, where he rose from dishwasher to bartender and established an on-board lending library, with book plates printed from woodcuts by the artist Harlan Hubbard.

Hubbard lived an austere life on the banks of the Ohio, on the verges of society, and Simmonds saw to it that Eakins Press published his Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe of Society in 1974. He also wrote Lincoln Kirstein: a First Bibliography, for Eakins. For five years he researched the work of George Balanchine, for the first catalogue raisonné devoted to a choreographer. He present it to Balanchine in 1982; Balanchine died in April 1983.

In 1973 Simmonds and his wife divorced and he went to live with his brother in Sewanee. There, in the St Andrews Library, he found the autobiography of the Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton. It smouldered in his imagination. In 1975 he went on a three-month retreat at the Holy Cross Abbey and in 1983 went to live there full-time, as a monk.

As Brother Benedict he became a baker of esteemed Holy Cross fruit cakes and gardener, librarian, Abbot's secretary, then Superior. The abbey was debt-ridden, and Benedict by 1989 had partially re-entered his old world of arts and patronage, to reverse its fortunes and protect its land. He edited a book, Conversatio (1994), about Holy Cross, in which Lance Hidy's photographs complemented the monks' candid essays. In 1993 he made his last voyage to Europe, a pilgrimage Santiago de Compostela in a party of 30, witnessed by Paul Kolnik, photographer for the New York City Ballet.

Since 1963 Benedict had suffered clinical depression. He weathered breakdown and hospitalisation. Depression was familiar at Holy Cross too, yet his brothers grew to know how to help him. In 1999 he was diagnosed with kidney disease and in 2005 was advised he had only months to live, but survived a further seven years.

His cell became his hospice. At good times he continued to write and garden, to serve at meetings, seek prayers for those who asked, and sometimes slip to Washington to see the ballet.

Father James Orthmann wrote that in his last three months, Benedict “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.” After compline two Abbots “recited the prayers for the dying as he crossed that threshold he had anticipated for so long”.

Harvey Albert Simmonds (Brother Benedict), monk: born Cape Mount, Liberia 30 November 1938; married Harriet Rosenstein 1969 (divorced 1973); died Berryville, Virginia 17 January 2013.

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