Christmas is right around the corner, and I’m not ready. I still have a number of papers to write, cards to address and mail, cookies to bake, and music to prepare for Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. While Advent is supposed to be a season of anticipation and expectation, what I’m feeling right now is overwhelmed. There’s just so much to do in order to get ready for the celebration of our Savior’s birth. It seems like every time I cross one task off my list, two more pop up in its place.
So I can respond in one of two ways: I can procrastinate and put everything off until the last minute, or I can heed the advice of one of my brothers, who once told me, “Do work, son.” While tempted by the first option, I am sure that the second is best. I need to get organized, develop a plan of action, and get to work, now. That’s the only way that I’m going to get everything done. Besides, if I wait until the last minute, I’ll probably end up making myself sick.
The same principle holds when it comes to the spiritual life. So often we sit back and wait, wanting to be told what to do. Sometimes it’s because we’re afraid to make a mistake. At other times, we are simply unwilling to make a commitment. So we avoid doing what it is God wants us to do. Instead of practicing virtue, we become slothful. We put off going to confession, and end up staying away for months, or years at a time. But this is not what God desires.
God wants us to be happy. He wants us to experience everlasting joy as we gaze upon his face. If that is to happen, then we must follow the example of our Blessed Mother. In the Gospel of Luke, we read that after the Annunciation, Mary “went into the hill country with haste” (Luke 1:39). Inspired by the angel’s news that her cousin was pregnant, Mary didn’t wait around. She packed her bags and quickly made her way to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Once there, Mary’s greeting caused John the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth to cry out, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42).
Despite what some theologians have said, the story of the Visitation is not about acting impulsively. Mary was responding to God’s revelation, and we are called to do the same, in the same manner. We should not delay when it comes to the movements of the Holy Spirit. If a young man feels called to the priesthood or religious life, then he should call his diocesan vocation director and ask for more information. If a young woman feels God is calling her to do missionary work, then she should contact one of the many organizations that can help make it happen.
And if it has been awhile since your last confession, now is the time to come back. So many parishes offer communal penance services during this holy season, so that we can get our hearts, and not just our homes, ready for Christmas. Make haste, do not delay, and enjoy the mercy God is ready to bless you with during this sacred time.
A reflection on Feast of St. Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Scientists.
A white hole is thought to be a source of light and matter that is radiating into our universe from an unknown and unapproachable source. Unlike a black hole, which pulls in unceasingly all that approaches it, a white hole is thought to have such a thrust that nothing can enter into it. This speculative model describes an event which spews out energy, light and matter, but which may be highly unstable, collapsing upon itself and then exploding. Some theorists posit a "cosmic counterpoint" to black holes, so that there would be a cosmic balancing, a supernal yin-yang of light, matter and energy. There is no firm evidence that they actually exist, but the concept of a white hole, an unceasing font of waves, vibration and spectra, makes for a marvelous model of contemplation.
As created beings, we can identify the subsistence of all substances at any moment, and reflect that all created things are unceasingly supported and upheld by Being. Unlike the concept of the white hole for which we have found no positive confirmation, when it comes to the source of being, we do stand on evidence: it’s called reality. You’re touching it now. And yes, it’s really real.
Adding another level of intelligibility to this vital sustaining process, we could speak of the other transcendentals such as the good and the true, as well as the related realities of beauty, communicability and love. The leap that allows one to move from the basic physical speculative model of the white hole to the awareness of the font-of-life as emanating from within us, is grounded in the principle that all creation may serve as the springboard towards contemplation. It is wisdom that allows us to order our experience and reason thus, from effects to their cause. Through creation, God ceaselessly offers endless paths for contemplating Him. Man-made artifacts show their wear and begin to age as soon as they are constructed. The table I am writing at shows its age by the exposure of the composite material underneath the varnished surface, which has been rubbed away by constant use over the years. In the brickwork opposite me, visible through the window, I see white lines of more recent mortar that has been used to fill in cracks caused by tremors, weather, shifting. From these artifacts and all others we can come to the conclusion that ‘stuff’ doesn’t last: it wears away, it deteriorates, and if it is living, it dies.
Even great stellar events, such as white holes, stars, and galaxies are limited and in a state of transition but their vastness and abundance of years gives them a fabled, quasi-infinite authority. Yet beyond them, not in size and age, but in mode of being, in perfection, and in goodness, shines the source of all, who even now is in our presence and closer to us than our very self. It has been said that, “The wise man will dominate the stars.” The truth of that statement does not rest in warp drives, time travel or harnessing the energy potential of stars. It rather lies in this: that we will be lords of the stars to the extent that we are lords of our own hearts ordered to the praise of God. In the wondrous signs of creation, and the speculative thought of the sciences, we are afforded manifold opportunities to contemplate the depths and the riches and the knowledge of God. May devotion and knowledge increase hand-in-hand, as God's holy people walk through the darkness of this world into the light with joy, understanding and song.
O, Font of Life and Wisdom, Holy Trinity, God beyond all praise! Amen.
"What role does music play in the Church?" Two events last month brought this question into focus as the brothers of St. Albert's Priory celebrated Solemn Vespers and the blessing of our new Paul Fritts Opus 36 pipe organ. The Saturday Solemn Vespers was followed on Sunday afternoon by an Organ Dedication Concert given by the impressive Prof. Craig Cramer, DMA, of the University of Notre Dame. One could become entranced by the dance of Prof. Cramer’s feet tapping out peals of bass from the pedals, and not yet ask the question in the title; or one might hear the full range of timbre, resonance and overtones of the organ, unmatched by any other single acoustic instrument, and still be excused from delving into the relation of music to liturgy, of tune to text, and of song to sanctification. But the excuse could only last so long.
As exciting, moving and tremendous the experience of music might be, we tend not be satisfied until we have answered the questions, "why?," and "for what reason?" do we use and listen to music in church. Until this mystery is explored and comprehended, it will continue to elude our grasp, like a clever thief who leaves us exhilarated from the chase, but finally exhausted from tapping our toes and wagging our tongues, clutching at a few seams of his fleeing cloak. Opening a treasure chest requires a key—as does music.
In our musical and religious culture the organ concert is a well-established event, and it is certainly right to display the heights of musical art in churches and chapels at appropriate times, for example between liturgical hours. Just as we love story and art, we love music, and it is a wholesome thing to use the arts to delight in the world God has created for our use. But what is the true purpose of commissioning such a glorious instrument? What is the goal of our singing, chanting, and hymning, whether accompanied or a cappella? As well, how are we affected by music, especially sacred music?
It is no small thing to lift our voices to God in praise. Scripture declares, “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, oh my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God, while I have my being” (Psalm 146:1-2). It is a very great thing indeed to offer Sacred Music to Our Savior.
It is so great that the Catechism, in the section on singing and music, teaches that "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy" (CCC, 1156).
Our musical tradition is of inestimable value! It has the goal of giving glory to God and sanctifying His people. With the highest object of goodness, beauty and praise in our mind and hearts, we lift our voices united in song, bringing alive texts that conform to Catholic doctrine, drawn principally from Sacred Scripture and approved liturgical sources. As the liturgical action takes place, the beauty of musical prayer is matched to the text in a fitting and integral manner, so that the faithful may display a unanimous participation in conferring a sacred character on the solemn rites. We perceive in liturgical music, as with all aspects of the life we have been given, that our ultimate goal is nothing short of the All Good, the Summum Bonum, the worship and glory of our Loving God, whom we will one day embrace face-to-face as He has promised. If any activity on earth is worthy of the word, then it is this liturgical worship before the Most Holy Eucharist that is surely awe-some, in the fullest and proper sense of the word!
Hence "religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services," in conformity with the Church's norms, "the voices of the faithful may be heard" (CCC, 1158).
Whether you join us here at St. Albert’s Priory for daily hours of worship and liturgy, or worship at your own local parish, we pray that your sacramental life will be directed with right knowledge, devotion, and love, to Him who is above all most knowable, most loving and most lovable. Many thanks to all who attended the Solemn Vespers and Organ Dedication Concert with us!
Now, from the Book of Blessings of the Roman Ritual, I leave you with the majestic words that were prayed over our pipe organ: Lord God, your beauty is ancient yet ever new, your wisdom guides the world in right order, and your goodness gives the world its variety and splendor. The choirs of angels join together to offer their praise by obeying your commands. The galaxies sing your praises by the pattern of their movement that follows your laws. The voices of the redeemed join in a chorus of praise to your holiness as they sing to you in mind and heart. We your people, joyously gathered in this church, wish to join our voices to the universal hymn of praise. So that our sound may rise more worthily to your majesty, we present this organ for your blessing: grant that its music may lead us to express our prayer and praise in melodies that are pleasing to you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
On Saturday, November 2, we celebrated the feast of All Souls, that special feast in the church calendar in which we commemorate and pray for all of the holy souls in Purgatory. This Catholic feast and the beliefs which undergird it can be repugnant to many non-Catholics, and even ignored or denied by modern day Catholics. (I once heard a Catholic parish catechist claim, “Oh, Purgatory? Well...we just don't really talk about that any more...”). I suppose the idea of Purgatory strikes many contemporary people as some rather quaint, if not terribly misguided, idea that generally does more harm than good: a belief that induces fear and an obsession with working hard, following all the rules. After all, isn't an idea couched in language about law and punishment, about sin and pain, only a symptom of a rather morbid mind? And didn't Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation rather expose this medieval farce and break the shackles of such a terrifying and toxic mentality? Isn't the church just so old and slow that it has not yet caught up with the times and realized the foolishness of such legalistic preoccupations as “purgatory”?
Perhaps very few have not had one or more of the above objections to Purgatory. I, for one, used to think them all. And yet the Catholic Church continues to affirm, notwithstanding some of her naïve and misguided catechists, that Purgatory is real, and that we must concern ourselves with it; that is why she celebrates the Solemnity of all Souls every November 2.
Judas [Maccabeus] and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen…under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear...and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out...[Judas] also took up a collection… And sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. ... [Since] he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who follow godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Maccabees 12:39-45).
In this Jewish text, which is revered by Catholics as inspired Scripture,1 we see a Jewish belief and practice, narrated and extolled by a Jewish writer, claiming that it is “a holy and pious thought” to pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, that their sins might be forgiven. It is this basic thought and practice which is picked up later by the Christian church, and continues today in various Apostolic Churches, who continue to offer prayers, above all the sacrifice of the Eucharist, for their beloved dead. While the text from second Maccabees may not give a full-blown and well-developed Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, it does highlight something that is central to the Catholic position: that we can stand in need of further purification and forgiveness even after our own death, and that those left on earth can aid us in this “purgation.” And, furthermore, this text and the Catholic belief in purgatory are rooted in a strong sense of hope: that in spite of our imperfections, God is quite capable of preparing and perfecting us for heaven, even if He needs to do this after we die.
C.S. Lewis (who believed in a form of purgatory), in his classic Mere Christianity, says the same, when he puts the following words on the lips of Jesus Christ:
“Make no mistake...if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that.… If you do not push me away, understand that I'm going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect… This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”2
Purgatory, indeed, testifies to this conviction: God wants nothing else for us, but to unite us with Him in Heaven, and He will do what it takes, provided we do not obstinately resist His grace while on earth. It may involve painful forms of purification in this life, and it may, and often does, involve some form of purification after death. And it can offer us comfort when we see, today, our own weaknesses and sinful tendencies: "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own" (Phil 3:12). That is, our perfection in Christ takes time, and just because we have not yet "arrived" does not mean we never will. Provided we are in His grace, even if we die "unfinished," God is not done with us: He can still work on our souls—a sort of spiritual surgery, if you will, without much anesthetic.
And much like Judas Maccabeus, today we too can assist those undergoing such purification, by our prayers and sacrifices—especially by offering ourselves to God in the one sacrifice of Christ present in every Eucharistic celebration. To do so, paradoxically, may also end up helping us in our purification and growth in holiness on earth: offering such prayer moves us outward, beyond ourselves toward the good of another, and away from vain and fleeting distractions—away from the very sorts of attachments which necessitate Purgatory. To pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, then, truly is "a holy and pious thought."
1. There are six others books in Catholic bibles (and those of Eastern Christianity) that are not in Protestant bibles. See the article "Protestant and Catholic Bibles" by Father William Saunders. [Back to article]
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996; originally published by Macmillan publishing Company, 1943), Book IV, chapter 9, p. 174. [Back to article]
Truth escorts us to freedom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Jews who believe in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 32:14-15). Christ strengthens us with his promise in these verses. In our daily lives, however, false notions of truth lead us away from the promises of Christ. For instance, there is the drive for success in the American culture. We often hear success stories that promote "positive thinking" influenced by pop psychology, or a well-packaged six-step program for achieving perfect happiness. Can “Just Do It,” a motto by Nike Corporation, set us free? Jesus, of course, has something to say about truth performing that function. Amidst the smorgasbord of conflicting principles our society proposes for our attention, have any freed us? Truth that is revealed to us through Christ is evident in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.
The Catholic Church does not dogmatically ascribe to one specific philosophy, but she holds up Thomistic philosophy as the model to be taught in Catholic seminaries and institutions (see Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris; John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, 43-44; and the Code of Canon Law, 252.3). Thomas's "perennial philosophy" had fallen into widespread disuse by the 1800s in Catholic theological circles. Leo XIII penned Aeterni Patris to revive it. But in spite of this, a dominant stream working from modernity's presuppositions has continued to react against Thomas throughout the 20th century and down to today. One way of putting the animus against the Angelic Doctor is that many feel his scholastic technical language, and immense rational systemization of theology, is too abstract and disconnected from the "real world."
For a number of years, I also felt that Thomistic philosophy was dull and perhaps irrevocably constrained within scholastic categories which did not apply to today. Since then, and having become a Dominican, I have discovered not only immense riches in Aquinas, but discerned a positive and pressing need for Thomistic philosophy in the world: it leads people to truth and freedom. Freedom, in this context, derives from knowing ourselves in a way not bounded by the "status quo," or by whatever particular job or surrounding environment we find ourselves in at a given time. The fact that someone is a well-read professor, a rich businessman, or a rocking pop artist, does not reveal the essence of one's identity. What we do is always subordinate to who we are, our actions rooted in our being. Christian freedom, then, blossoms when we are more deeply rooted in the truth that God has placed within us.
There are many disparate, often conflicting, ways to understand man. Thomistic philosophical anthropology proposes that man becomes more himself as he grows in moral virtue, producing a harmony between reason and emotion within his soul. Thomas, following the Aristotelian tradition, states that human beings have higher cognitive faculties than plants and animals. Due to man's cognitive power, his emotional life is likewise more sophisticated. Through the power of imagination and memory, emotions can be unpredictably triggered from a past sequence of events. But Thomas asserts that reason and will are distinct faculties and that we can choose to use reason to influence our emotions.
There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to the relation of reason and emotion. One is to let emotions fly loose and our passions govern us—this only leads to unstable behavior and unhappiness, since our lives will not be rooted in the truth. If we simply follow our passions as they lead, we will find ourselves more and more unable to make lasting commitments based in the truth. The other mistake is the opposite: to employ our reason as a tyrant over our emotions, trying to suppress them altogether at any hint of their operation. Aquinas offers a different way.
Harmony between reason and will leads to a healthy emotional life, which is essential to knowing who we are as persons. Disorder between them may be the leading cause of why commitments are so often not made in today’s world. The philosophy of "voluntarism" is one way of pinpointing the problem. While a Thomistic approach looks at reason as the supreme faculty that guides will and emotion, voluntaristic philosophy holds up the will as more superior to reason and emotion. Voluntaristic philosophy encourages a person to will the good with self-control and effort, even if a person dislikes doing it. The moral act of willing without the proper use of reason sets one up for irrational decisions. If a person is constantly willing without the guidance of reason, he or she may eventually be bombarded with unstable emotions --- depression, feelings of guilt, obsessive compulsion, etc.
What saddens me is how much voluntaristic philosophy has influenced our society. I sense that actions based on this philosophy lead a person away from living an authentic moral life. The reasons for high divorce rates, low number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and lack of commitments made in our daily lives may derive, in many ways, from this philosophy.
While false notions of truth have influenced our society, St. Thomas Aquinas and the teachings of the Church give us hope. For people who have been living with disharmony of reason, will, and emotion, the Thomistic view of man can powerfully re-order a dysfunctional state of life into a one that is meaningful. Reason that guides the will and emotions, rather than the reverse, frees people from a gloomy life filled with emotional disturbances. Christ himself experienced emotions such as desire and aversion to despair and fear, but he had virtuous responses to these appetites. For Thomas, continual perfection of the virtues results in stronger passions --- through our striving for a virtuous life, we begin to be more Christ-like. The reason for studying the scriptures, philosophy, and theology is that our faith becomes intelligible (fides et ratio, "faith and reason"—both are important), and that our contemplation of the truth guides our will and emotions.
Popular principles and philosophies have misguided us. Many philosophies, especially the voluntaristic philosophy, have influenced our society with unreliable truths and defense mechanisms in dealing with ourselves. But have these given us truth about man? Have these philosophies and the principles given us the “truth” and the “freedom” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John? The Thomistic understanding of man sets us free, for it teaches the truth of man. If you desire to live a virtuous life that is guided by reason, Thomas’ inspired philosophy will lead you to fulfillment. Let us live by the truth and do all we can to show others this path, which leads to freedom. Showing others this path of truth, reaching out to people facing any number of personal and situation problems, can help salvage their genuine commitments, as reason guides the will and emotion into a genuine human freedom.
The Scriptures, and the God who inspired them, invariably disturb and surprise us. In the readings for my recent preaching, the prophet Joel describes a Day not of Light, but of Darkness; and our Lord Himself is accused by his adversaries of exorcising demons in the name of Satan. What, pray, could such contrasts have to say to us today? Much if we are willing to embrace what St. Paul calls the "foolishness of the Cross."
Anniversaries are unique phenomena where the past takes priority over the present time, illumining it with a light of meaning that permits a clearer vision of our self-identity, of our goals for the future, and of what truly ought to matter in life. For example, wedding anniversaries remind couples of love and commitment and the gift of their lives to one another. The particular day, be it December 21st or April 27th, is not significant of itself, but because of what happened in the past, i.e., marriage, a couple recalls who they are to one another, where they hope to be in the future, and why they came together as man and wife. Anniversaries, then, if we are attentive and mindful, can be moments of profound change as we are awakened to something greater than the routine now of everyday life.
It is for this reason that Catholics, especially vowed religious, should hold very dear the date of October 28 as the anniversary of Perfectæ Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on this date in 1965. Of particular significance in this document is the call for religious orders and institutes to look back to their founders and bring their inspiration to life in the contemporary world: "The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time." (#2)
This "constant return" to the "original spirit" of each order or institute is significant since, while all sharing a common "pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels" (#1), these communities individually offer to the People of God and to the whole world a unique expression of Christ's love manifested through their distinctive charism. "So it is that in accordance with the Divine Plan a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up, which has made it easier for the Church not only to be equipped for every good work (cf. 2 Tim 3:17) and ready for the work of the ministry--the building up of the Body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:12--but also to appear adorned with the various gifts of her children like a spouse adorned for her husband (cf. Apoc. 21:2) and for the manifold Wisdom of God to be revealed through her (cf. Eph 3:10)." As a body has many members, each of which performs a unique task for the benefit of the whole, so in the Body of Christ, each religious order and institute has been gifted by God with a unique charism, a unique task and role to play.
It is thus by strict and faithful observance to their respective rules, in a loving embrace of these unique charisms, that religious orders may experience a spiritual renewal and rejuvenation in pursuit of perfect charity. Perfectæ Caritatis is quite explicit on the point: "everyone should keep in mind that the hope of renewal lies more in the faithful observance of the rule and constitutions than in multiplying laws." (#4) Pope Paul VI, invoking the spirit of Vatican II, re-echoes this point in his Message to the General Chapters of Religious Orders and Congregations, given on May 23rd, 1964: "With respect to undertaking new projects or activities, you should refrain from taking on those which do not entirely correspond to the principal work of your Institute or to the mind of your Founder. For Religious Institutes will flourish and prosper so long as the integral spirit of their Founder continues to inspire their rule of life and apostolic works, as well as the actions and lives of their members." When religious orders and institutes begin to undertake ministries that are not in accord with the vision of their founder, they then declare such a vision to be irrelevant to the contemporary world.
For Dominicans, though, the commitment to the vision of St. Dominic will never be irrelevant so long as there are men and women who have not heard the Gospel, and so long as those who have already heard the Gospel are not moved to live it with the fire of the Holy Spirit. St. Dominic's radical vision was of an order of contemplative apostles: of religious who, from the silent base of a monastic and canonical environment, are sent out (apostoloi) preaching as contemplative shock-troops of God's love and truth. As itinerant preachers and as advanced teachers of doctrine, Dominican preaching, as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, comes from an abundance of contemplation, "abundantiam contemplationis." (III.40.1 ad 2) This is also articulated in the Fundamental Constitution of the Order: "It [the Dominican vocation] is an apostolic life in the full sense of the word, from which preaching and teaching ought to issue from an abundance of contemplation." (1 §IV) The famous Dominican motto contemplata tradere aliis presupposes that what has been handed on in preaching, has first been contemplated (quid traditaest , contemplata est). For Dominicans to engage in non-contemplative preaching and ministry is to, effectively, ignore the vision of St. Dominic.
Thus it is that any authentic renewal of Dominican life must begin with an intensification and rediscovery of the value of the contemplative life within the monastic and canonical settings of our priories. This is argued for by Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., in his book Renewal in the Spirit of St. Dominic: "Dominican renewal must begin with an all-out attempt to recreate esteem for the contemplative spirit. Any renewal that does not enrich the contemplative element in the Dominican way of life must be rejected." (55) It is also clearly and forcefully explicated by Valentine Walgrave, O.P., in his book Dominican Self-Appraisal in the Light of the Council, " the future of the Preachers depends on a renewal of the contemplative spirit." (73)
As a unique order of contemplative apostles, Dominicans should not do what is proper to Carmelites, Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, or diocesan clergy, nor should any of these, likewise, do what pertains to the Dominican charism; this would be to trivialize the unique gifts belonging to each member of the Body of Christ. Rather, Dominicans must hold fast to the contemplative life and its observances, and to the itinerant preaching and doctrinal teaching that flows from it. Dominicans as contemplative preachers do not set out to find Christ in the world, but they set out to bring Christ into the world; a world which hungers for the contemplative encounter of God. All men and women are born to have contemplative knowledge of God, and it is up to the Dominicans to awaken, stir, and enable this loving knowing.
As we hold dear the anniversary of Perfectæ Caritatis, let us also hold dear to the original vision of St. Dominic, and our unique Dominican charism. Let us always strive towards the ideal, correct what hinders progress, and guard zealously the charism to which we have vowed ourselves.
Last Winter I discovered an absolute gem of a book. Thanks to the diligent work of two translators, Instructions for Novices by Bl. Hyacinth-Marie Cormier, O.P., was made available in English.
Now this book, much like black coffee,1 is a highly acquired taste, and this in two ways. First, the audience that would profit from this book is probably rather particularized. The Master General, Fr. Emmanuel Suarez, O.P., wrote in 1950 that this book would appeal to every member of the Dominican Order, and possibly be profitable for members of other Religious Institutes. Bl. Cormier himself foresaw many persons, whether Dominicans, other religious, or lay, all benefiting in some way from this work. My gut, however, tells me that Dominicans and other religious would stand to gain the most from it.
Secondly, Cormier published the work in 1880, which places it within a distinct cultural context. In the introduction written for this edition, Dominican friars Basil Cole and Ezra Sullivan make the point well: "Much of Part Two contains practical recommendations in which tradition, virtue, legislation, custom, and nineteenth-century French manners and circumstances are intimately intertwined."2 "Part Two" spans 179 pages of the 492 page book--not a small section. The point is important to make since, even if you are a Dominican, without a reading of all three introductions, Bl. Cormier's work is difficult to contextualize and so be profitable for the modern reader. Not all spiritual writers, from the novice to master, appeal to the same audience. We all, I imagine, pick and choose.
In all honesty, I haven't been devoted to reading this work since day one; only recently have I made it a part of my early morning spiritual reading. It should also be noted that while there are assuredly many passages that come from the pen of Bl. Cormier himself, the work is "Assembled from ancient manuscripts" from the Toulouse Province during the 17th Century. The translators themselves are probably in the best position to differentiate the sections directly from Cormier from the others. Many passages resonate in a special way with someone, like myself, who has some years in profession under his belt. I find myself laughing out loud occasionally when I encounter a passage so rich with the lived experience of the cloister. When cautioning against visits with women, treated in the section on living the vow of chastity, Bl. Cormier lists the objections brothers might give, and then responds in a way that only a wizened Novice Master could: "One [who seeks the conversation of women] equally finds around himself men of wittiness and knowledge, but he does not seek frequent and extended conversations with them, nor with as much satisfaction."4 True; funny; and piercingly on target!
I lament that this short article cannot do justice to the work's richness, wisdom, and innumerable keen insights. What I can point out, however, is how rewarding this work can be alongside other historical Dominican texts dedicated to articulating our life and spirituality5; and this especially if you yourself are a Dominican struggling to find a relatively recent voice to inform your spiritual life, vows, and understanding of the Rule and our Constitutions. One might think of Pope Paul VI's decree Perfectae Caritatis, and how the Dominican Order specifically has adapted and renewed itself since 1965. Cole and Sullivan make the point well:
"Every age in the Church is confronted with the question of what practices from the past should be 'brought out of one's treasure' and what should be left behind. Not all practices should be followed to the letter merely because they are old; but neither should they be neglected solely because they are unpopular at the moment. Often what is most up-to-date is a return to a time-honored tradition."6
The book is much more than the detailing of strict and apparently dated "practices." It contains very worthwhile sections on a variety of topics pertaining to the Christian life in general, as well as specifically to vowed religious. Cole and Sullivan note that this was not an unpopular work at a certain time. The fact that in 1950 the Master General had the book republished,7 attests to its applicability beyond the Toulouse Province where it originated. I would propose it retains its relevance for the Order as a whole and, for those with ears to hear, can yield much spiritual fruit.
I chose the photo for this article purposefully. Of the many portraits of former Masters that we brothers have in our Studentate, this one is in my opinion the most impressive black and white portrait.8 There's something in the look of Cormier's eyes that reminds me of photos of recent Saints; maybe a resemblance to the gaze of Mother Teresa. When I sit down to read this text, I prepare myself to be challenged. I imagine I'm having a conference by this holy and beloved brother of the Order. When something in my life needs renewal (or even if I don't think it does), I often find myself consulting this work first. Last year I was having difficulties in how I was approaching Confession. I was able to greatly deepen my understanding and disposition towards Confession by reading Bl. Cormier's treatment of the matter. I also found beneficial his soberingly simple discourse on what it means to live the vow of celibate chastity. In the post-Vatican II landscape--filled with so many voices, some helpful, some not—this text retains a remarkable significance for any number of issues vital for living, and renewing, religious life today.
I unhesitatingly recommend the work, while at the same time urging a careful read of the introductions for context. Frs. Cole and Sullivan do a great and thorough job of setting the stage in this respect. In the end, Cormier's work is about forming Dominicans to get to Heaven, in other words, to save our souls. Many of the passages are arresting, even upsetting and eliciting cringes, but they all have challenged me to live my vows more intentionally and faithfully. Blessed Hyacinth Cormier, ora pro nobis!
1While we all may be wonderfully caffeine addicted, we don't seem to be born so. I, and I'm assuming you other coffee drinkers can as well, remember when you first started drinking coffee. It's not something you instantly enshrine as an everyday habit in teenage years.
210, emphasis mine
5The concept of a "Dominican Spirituality" is famously controverted. Some actually hold that Dominicans have no unique spirituality; some that it's simply co-extensive with the spirituality of the Church; and again, some that it's a combination of select aspects of the Church's spirituality, in other words, a middle position between the first two. I don't propose Cormier's work as somehow providing the definitive "Dominican Spirituality."
7Interestingly, in his introduction to the 1950 text, Suarez himself notes that this text may seem strange to the brothers. It's interesting that having been published in 1880, it was seen as being historical only seventy years later.
8Bl. Hyacinth died in 1916. I'm guessing this photo was taken sometime during or after his term as Master General (elected 1904).
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorites. Now it may seem strange, at first, that this book would be a "favorite"—or even included in the biblical canon and revered as divinely inspired by Jews and Christians at all—when perhaps more than any other, this book appears so permeated by pessimism about life and its meaning. How can a writing which repeats, thirty-seven times, the exclamation, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" be a "word of God" to us, not only showing forth the mind of an ancient Semitic sage, but also be a "God-breathed" work which is both true, and useful for attaining wisdom (cf. 2 Tim 3:16)?
A partial answer to the question is captured in the witty claim of Dr. Peter Kreeft, who says that Ecclesiastes "is divine revelation precisely by being the absence of divine revelation"1; it shows us the results of the quest for knowledge and wisdom by a human mind to which God has not revealed himself. We see, in the narrator of this book—who calls himself "Qohelet," which might mean "Leader of the assembly," or, even the "Teacher" —the limits and apparent absurdity of life in the absence of God's revelation. Thus, it is as if God is saying to us through Qohelet, "Behold and consider what life would be like were I not to reveal myself to you! All is vanity without me!"
But, I think, this book also shows us a common human encounter with the complexities and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in the God who has revealed Himself. It shows, in its own way, that faith does not always give neat and easy answers to life's deepest problems, and that faith often does not give us exactly the answer we thought we were hoping for.
For instance, Qohelet tells us, speaking across the centuries in a rather melancholy tone, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every human being, and the living should take it to heart" (Eccl. 7:3). "Sorrow," he then tells us, "is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser." These are not the words we may want to hear; but what wisdom, what profound life lessons are hidden in this short proverb, born of a lifetime of experience, forged on the anvil of decades of trial and error! And not only one lifetime, but that of generations, of centuries, of Jewish and then Christian men and women who have read and lived these words, and who testify, from the very grave, to their validity. A wise heart is born of sorrow! How hard this lesson can be to those of us now who suffer or mourn, and how unbelievable to those who have not yet tasted the bitter cup of grief! Why must our hearts taste sorrow in order to grow wiser? Why must we suffer such painful loss in order to grow up? While Qohelet sees wisdom in a willingness to face the harshness of life, he does not seem to have good answers to these underlying questions. Sometimes, even when we have faith in God, we do not—at the moment at least—have good answers in the midst of our confusion.
And yet, to get back to Dr. Kreeft's remark, for the Christian, even though our lived experience can indeed resonate with Qohelet's confusion—and almost anyone who has experienced suffering or loss knows the "feeling" which can express itself in the phrase, "All is Vanity!"—this book of Ecclesiastes is not the final word. It is incomplete. He did lack something that we now have, and which can illuminate the darkness of meaninglessness which threatens to overwhelm us at times, and with which the contemporary world is all too familiar. We have a greater Word which fulfills and encompasses all that was said before, and all that will be said: the Word, the "Logos,"—the Reason and Meaning of Being—which precedes all things and gives them their existence, and which offers to them their restoration, healing, and elevation: Jesus Christ, the Word of God who become Man for our sake.
We, as Christians, can then appreciate a book like Ecclesiastes in a two-fold way. On the one hand, we can value the realism with which it describes the harshness and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in God. On the other, we can see it as a limited perspective—though still true within its own context—which God Himself has filled out, enlightened, and completed by his Incarnate Word. This Word is Wisdom-in-Person Who experienced the bitter cup of suffering, and yet Who by His own passion has opened up new meaning to our otherwise "vain" and apparently meaningless existence; a Word Who puts an end to sin, death, and vanity, by enduring them with humility, faithfulness, and love.
Thus, even in those moments when it seems as though "All is Vanity!", we can resonate with this ancient, divinely inspired sage, and we can also hold out hope that God will not—that God has not—left these cries of desperation unanswered. His answer—His Word—may not always be nice and tidy; it may not always make us "feel good" at first; we may not even like it—we may not even directly hear or see it—but we can know and believe that Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, has spoken and still speaks. It may be true that "all is vanity," empty and void, if we were to be without Him, if God were not to speak. But we need not be without Him, since He has spoken into our emptiness and darkness: "Let there be light." And there was Light. And that Light has shown in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.2