Standing at 6-foot-4 and riding a skateboard, Br. Apollo Rodriguez might not be exactly who comes to mind when you think of a monk.
But the 26-year-old has proudly lived as one at the Saint Leo Abbey next to University Campus north of Tampa, Fla. for a few years now.
Born in Hialeah, Fla., he and his family moved to Clermont in central Florida where he spent most of his childhood growing up. He is of American-Puerto Rican descent.
“When we enter the monastery as monks, we leave behind our family heritage and take on the monastic heritage,” he explains.
He has four older sisters – Tamara, Yvonne, Cachi and Chrystal
“I’ve gone from being the baby of my sisters to the big brother of the young monks,” he says.
In terms of education, he graduated from East Ridge High School and briefly studied at Lake Sumter College. Before adopting the monk lifestyle, he worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and was also a ballroom dancer.
“I saw an ad to become a ballroom dancer at a local rec center. So, my mom took me to try out. I made lots of friends through this, and I even got to compete in a national ballroom dancing competition.”
His favorite dances were the Waltz, the Foxtrot, the Salsa and the Cha-Cha.
The Molding of a Monk
As a teen in high school, Apollo started helping out with youth retreats at Saint Leo on weekends and over the summer in the Saint Leo Peer Ministry program.
“I built relationships with some of the monks and got to know them pretty well,” he says. “This is when I truly started practicing my Catholic faith. Overall, my mom grew up religious and forced me to go to church. Now she is religious, but my sisters aren’t.”
During this immersion, he observed older and more experienced retreat leaders and eventually became an assistant facilitator.
Thanks to his newfound friendships with some of the monks, he decided to take a leap of faith to try and become one of them.
“It was great early on because I had such a fascination with everything.,” he recalls. “It felt like I finally had a bright future ahead of me and that I had found something I could do for the rest of my life. It’s a viable way of life. Of course, if you’re not happy with it and are just miserable, you can always give it up and return to ‘normal’ society.”
Stepping into a New World
Prospective Benedictine monks typically have up to four years of immersion in a cloister to determine whether they want to formally adopt such a lifestyle. However, this can be extended to nine years under certain circumstances. Rodriguez began this process at age 21.
After about a year and a half, an individual must make his simple vows – obedience, stability and conversion of life. He must then practice these vows for a minimum of three years before he can make his solemn profession to officially be recognized as a full-fledged monk.
“This was the hardest decision I’ve made in my entire life,” he confides. “There were lots of things on the outside world that I aspired to do and had to leave behind.”
Held at an abbey, the solemn profession involves a formal ceremony at which an individual departs from normal society in order to enter the monastic lifestyle.
“I laid down on the floor, and I was covered with a pall. This symbolizes that I am dead to the outside world that I have left. Funny enough, of all people, it was my mom who got to cover me. So, she basically brought me into this world and sent me out of it. This part of the profession is known as a rite of profession. During this, the abbot reads a prayer of consecration. This prayer asks God to strengthen me and help me in my commitment to God.”
He also had to provide a handwritten contract of his three solemn vows. He’ll never forget the date of his solemn profession – Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
At first, his mother and sisters were a bit surprised about his decision since he would miss family functions throughout the year. However, he thinks they have adjusted pretty well to his new way of life.
The Monks’ Residence
There are 60 private rooms in the cloister where the monks reside at the Saint Leo Abbey. Twelve monks currently live in this residence. In addition, two monks live in a nursing home in nearby Dade City.
“The cloister is a place where we live, work and learn,” Rodriguez says.
Like his fellow monks, he has a number of tasks to handle throughout the week.
“Right now, I consider myself an electrician in training,” he says. “I’ve learned how to repair light fixtures and electrical outlets. I’m also the baker of the house and will cook bread from scratch. I’ve even cultivated live yeast. I am also our tailor and will work on clothing. Plus, I’m our vocations director and kind of serve as the face of our group. If someone is interested in becoming a monk, I will work with them.”
He was also a youth minister at Light of Christ Catholic Church in Clearwater.
He says he puts 100 percent of his effort into every task he tackles – large or small.
“We say you must do the job well and never settle for mediocrity. Everything you do should be planned and well-prepared.”
The cloister has a rec room, exercise room and a breezeway with a bonsai garden. It also has a few pets for the monks to enjoy.
“It’s a tradition of the house that the abbot has a dog. The Saint Leo mascot, Fritz, is named for the second abbot’s dog who lived in St. Leo. The current dog is a cocker spaniel named Baloo from Jungle Book. We also have three cockatiels.”
The monks range in age from 23 to 74 and come from all over the U.S. They can drink alcohol in moderation if it is provided for them. However, they must remain celibate and live a very structured and modest lifestyle.
“I really wanted to have a daughter and name her Isabela,” he confides. “But you just have to make certain sacrifices when you get into this.”
A Day in the Life of a Monk
While many may think that monks rarely speak and keep to themselves most of the time, Apollo says his group is together several times throughout the day.
“We’re very sociable with each other, just not so much with the outside world,” he explains. “We do a lot of things together. We always start each day with morning prayer and then midday prayer in the afternoon. We observe Mass each day at noon. We do evening prayer and have dinner together, and we sometimes play cards or ping-pong for recreation. Then we have our night prayer before the day ends at 7:30 p.m.”
There are several intentions behind each prayer.
“We pray for the world and for those who don’t pray,” he says.
Along with plenty of praying, they must spend a substantial amount of time reading and interpreting scriptures from the Bible. The group also sings together and chooses a variety of religious songs from the Middle Ages through the early 2000s. Gregorian chants are a big part of their selection.
For recreation, Apollo got into skateboarding two years ago and is sometimes seen riding his skateboard around the Saint Leo Abbey and campus.
“I’ve had a few falls, but I enjoy it. Also, I can’t claim to be the first to do this because we had another monk here at one time who was also into skateboarding.”
The group hosts similar retreats that Apollo himself participated in as a youngster. Saturday mornings are for chores, such as cleaning up their areas. Each monk has his own private room.
The Garb of Benedictine Monks
The outfit worn by Benedictine monks, which is similar to a robe, is known as a habit.
“The habit signifies that we are a part of the religious Order of Saint Benedict, to remind ourselves of our commitments and to show others in mainstream society that we are set apart from them.”
He explains the history behind this traditional attire.
“There’s a reason it is all black. It goes back to the early church. Back then, when people tried living a monastic life as hermits, they’d wear this garb to distinguish themselves from others so everyone would know their endeavors were different.”
Occasional Events and Interactions
Br. Apollo and the monks share “house cars” to get around campus and for occasional trips into town. Sometimes they will go shopping or will enjoy a meal at a restaurant. The monks receive a small allowance to help them cover certain expenses for gas and other household items they need. They can drive to doctor’s appointments and are provided health insurance to cover medication and other medical costs.
Most might not think monks interact with technology much, but this group does. Apollo helps maintain the church’s Facebook page and even streams certain services on the social network. The monks each have tablets and can watch movies on Netflix. However, as with any activity, this must be done in moderation.
Throughout the year, they host liturgical celebrations for special occasions. On those days they have an extended recreation where, “We celebrate with sodas, meats and cheeses,” he says.
Living beside a college campus means the monks receive opportunities to interact with Saint Leo students, faculty and staff.
“We try to have a relationship with the Saint Leo University community. We attend certain events, and some monks have even taken classes. Br. Stanislaw even taught an intro to religion class recently.”
If he can help humanize monks for those in mainstream society, Apollo knows he’s doing something right.
“We try to establish a good rapport with everyone on campus since some people will look at us and wonder who we are and what we do. So, if we make an effort to talk to others when we can, it makes people more comfortable around us.”