Father Simon Says: My name was not always Simon!
I’ve had the same coworkers for a few years now, but three different names. Folks at the office went from calling me Tim, to Brother Simon, and now Father Simon.
People from my hometown in Ohio lost track. Many thought that after I was ordained, I would be known as Father Tim. Most of my family still calls me Tim or Uncle Tim, and when people realize I am a Benedictine monk and a priest, they are stumped and still call me Brother Simon.
Are you confused yet? Let me explain about monastic names.
Just as in the Bible, where new names were given to men and women to signal their special role in salvation history, we monks are given new names to signify our radical undertaking of our baptismal mission.
At baptism, God claims us as his daughters and sons. So, when we monks are given a new name at temporary profession in the monastery, it is our way of professing, “God, I am truly your son, and one way I want to show my desire to live fully for you by dying to myself, is to receive this new name from the Abbot.”
Sarai became Sarah. Abram became Abraham. Simon became Peter. Saul became Paul. Tim became Simon. Peter became Nathaniel. Jonathan became Joel. Thomas became Jean. Tony became Kolbe. Joseph became Stanley. Noel became Mateo. Christian became Basil. Dennis became Michael. (Starting with Tim, those are the most recent name changes in the monastery, to give you an idea of some of our new names.)
The names we are given are those of saints or blesseds or individuals from Scripture.
Each abbot gives new names a little bit differently. Our former archabbot, Father Justin, called monks into his office about a week before temporary profession. They would submit to him their top three choices of possible names and give reasons why they liked each one. About three or four days later, the abbot put a note in the monk’s mailbox stating something to the effect of “You will be called …” and it listed the monk’s new name.
Our current Archabbot, Kurt, meets with the one to make temporary profession about a week or two before profession, and he has a conversation with the monk about that monk’s top three name choices. At the end of the conversation, Archabbot Kurt decides right there what the monk’s new name will be. Not every monk receives his first choice of name.
Father Justin was abbot when I was given a new name. So, you can bet that about two or three days after my meeting with him, I was in and out of our mailroom anxiously looking for the note to see what my new name would be.
Telling the world
The first time the community and our family and friends learn of our new names is at our temporary profession during the context of Vespers (evening prayer). We or another monk design what is called our “vow chart,” and on that we have our new name. Our “vow chart” is the “legal” (in the sense of Church legality) document that we read and sign publicly, attesting that we profess our three vows of obedience, stability, and conversatio for a period of three years (hence, temporary profession or first vows).
We or another monk create a solemn vows chart if the community accepts our petition to make solemn or final vows – which we profess for life in the context of a Mass.
Many monks arrive at discerning their names in various ways. Often, a saint or two “adopts” the monk. Something about the life of a saint captures the monk’s attention and various saints or blesseds become companions for monks along the way.
Or, perhaps, a virtue from a saint’s life resonates with the heart of the monk, and he desires to foster that virtue in his life by the example of that saint. Sometimes, a name just sits right with the monk.
For me, I was out to eat with some friends before I joined the monastery – both of whom are not Catholic and did not know a lot about the saints. My friend Becca looked up “saint names” on Wikipedia. One memorable name she suggested was “Oscar.” I almost immediately shook my head “no.” It did not seem like a good fit, at least, aurally for me. After a couple more suggestions, my friend Matt encouraged “Simon.”
I knew another monk named Simon from another monastery, and it seemed to fit him well. Since we did not have a Simon in our community, I filed it away as a particularly good possibility for a name. (We cannot submit a name to the Abbot of a name that is already in use in our community.)
Now, there were several possibilities for the name Simon: Simon Peter, Simon the Apostle, and Simon of Cyrene. I also looked up the etymology of the name “Simon,” and in Hebrew it means “he who listens, hears, or obeys.” The first word in the Rule of St. Benedict is “listen,” so there was a wonderful connection there.
Finally, I was reading a Stations of the Cross devotion that my mom gave me, and the reflection for the fifth station (Simon helps Jesus Carry the Cross) said something to the effect of, “Whenever you help others, you are Simon.” These were many “Godincidences,” as I like to say, about the name Simon. So Simon, especially Simon of Cyrene, rose to the top of my list.
Those not chosen
The other names I submitted to the Abbot were Titus and Michael. I liked Titus because I really appreciate the practicality of the Letter to Titus in the New Testament, and there is some connection between Timothy (my former name) and Titus. My home parish in Ohio is St. Michael the Archangel, and there have been some influential people in my life named Michael, so that is why Michael caught my attention.
The Abbot gave me the name Simon, and my patron is Simon of Cyrene. I rely a great deal on St. Simon of Cyrene’s intercession to help me as I journey with others, helping them carry their crosses. I also need his intercession to help me let down my pride so that I can humbly accept the help of others with my cross.
Yes, it has taken some time to get used to my new name, but I am grateful for this unique aspect of monastic and religious life. Having a new name is a regular reminder that God has called us to devote our lives to Him in this specific way, to die to ourselves, and to be deeply open and authentically genuine in service to God and our neighbors.