One month ago, on March 11th, Fr. Bruno Cadoré, the Master of the Order of Preachers, was received by Pope Benedict for a short private audience. The Pope and Fr. Bruno discussed the state of the Order and the main themes addressed by the most recent General Chapter in late August and early September when Fr. Bruno was elected as Master. Going forward, the Pope encouraged the Order to focus on evangelization as a core component of the charism of the Friars Preachers. He specially highlighted the following dimensions:
Careful attention to the life-search and the spiritual quest of our contemporaries
The importance of studying and teaching theology in the line of the solid tradition of reflection initiated by Thomas Aquinas
Theology’s essential spiritual dimension
The vital bond between theology and worship
The particular challenge to theology posited by dialogue with new cultures and sciences – a clear sign of our relation with the world
The role of statistics in evangelization
Appropriate care given to the human, religious and theological dimensions in initial formation
The hope that our evangelizing efforts will give our contemporaries the possibility and the joy of a personal relationship with Jesus.
Many of these points are integral aspects of the historical Dominican charism of preaching. Certainly, the nature of Dominican religious life as a "mixed" life that joins contemplative aspects such as the common prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours with the active apostolate of preaching shows the "vital bond between theology and worship" and "theology's essential spiritual dimension". Similarly, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, as a member of the Graduate Theological Union, reflects the importance of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and also the need to bring his teaching to contemporary discussions of philosophy and theology. The one point that stood out for me in this list is, "The role of statistics in evangelization". Although statistics is certainly not among the list of typical courses offered by a seminary or formation program, effective evangelization demands an intimate knowledge of the situations and circumstances in which evangelization is to take place. This, however, must be more than an experiential familiarity with a culture and based on anecdotal evidence. As crucial as personal relationships are to the endeavor of spreading the gospel, it is just as important to have a quantitative understanding of the factors influencing the way individuals grow into their faith (or lack of faith) beginning from childhood.
If you would like to see this process in action, I recommend Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adultsby Christian Smith and Patricia Snell. Based on a study by the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, this work describes the religious life of young adults using statistics and representative case studies drawn from the lives of 200 young adults. The study began with a diverse group of 200 or so teenagers who participated in in-depth interviews. Through follow-up interviews, the transformation of faith as these people matured into adulthood was tracked and statistically analyzed in depth. This analysis can then provide a basis for designing evangelization programs and approaches that address fundamental needs and problems in the growth of faith that might not be readily apparent or might appear relatively unimportant.
In 1960, the friars of St. Albert Priory produced a short film to give the public a sense of what life in a contemporary monastery was like. As a current student brother, I was fascinated by both the similarities and the differences between my experience of Dominican life and that depicted fifty years ago. Of course, there are small changes that are naturally to be expected, like the arrangement of choir stalls in the chapel and the use of the Dominican Rite in the liturgy, but for the most part the St Albert's of 1960 is the St. Albert's of today. The film opens by showing the brothers chanting the Dominican Rite Solemn Mass, and, despite the difference in rites, I feel very much the continuity of the daily liturgy of our community today with all the Dominicans that have come before us.
Other scenes depict elements of our life that really haven't changed at all: we see brothers studying in their rooms, doing research in the library, and walking contemplatively in the garden. For me one of the most noticeable differences was the description of the priory as almost a self-contained city. Today, much of the day-to-day chores and maintenance - such as cooking, gardening and carpentry - has been outsourced to lay workers. This has allowed the student brothers to focus more directly on study and has freed them and, to a larger extent, the Cooperator Brothers for external ministry.
The film is narrated by our own Fr. Finbarr Hayes, who is currently living at St. Albert's; Fr. Kieran Healy, our current Student Master, sings the Exultet towards the end of the film. Other highlights include a scene of the brothers "showing rather remarkable skill in basketball," a shot of Br. Antoninus operating a manual printing press, and a view Fr. Sharlock tending to his sun-monitoring equipment.
On December 3rd, Pope Benedict addressed members of the International Theological Commission at the close of the commission's plenary assembly. Among other things, he noted that:
"Whoever has discovered in Christ the love of God, infused by the Holy Spirit in our hearts, wishes to know better the one who loves him and whom he loves. Knowledge and love sustain one another in turn. As the Fathers of the Church affirmed, whoever loves God is impelled to become, in a certain sense, a theologian, one who speaks with God, who thinks of God and seeks to think with God." For more, check out this article on Zenit.
Love compels the lover to seek greater knowledge of the object of his love, which in turn, only increases his love. This cycle of love and knowledge is evident in the Advent season of preparation.
Advent is a time of preparation precisely because we as Christians already know and love Christ and seek to know and love him more. One part of this love is expressed in anticipation. We actively look forward to Christ's coming, like a child who watches the clock, waiting for her father to come home from work. Another part of this love is expressed by using the knowledge we already have of Christ from personal experience, the scriptures and through the Church to love him in return. Like the child waiting for her father, we ask ourselves, "How can I show that I love Him?"
The great danger of an analysis of this type is that we file it away in our mental filing cabinet of good theological ideas and trade our child-like anticipation for the jaded ennui of a teenager. How is one to keep the love of God fresh and new? By remembering the big picture. Jesus really is God and really did take on human flesh and really was born of the Virgin Mary. In other words, take the insights of theology and use them as the basis for spiritual reflection. As G. K. Chesterton notes, "Theology is only thought applied to religion."
As a Dominican, I am always on the look out for connections between Thomas’s work and more modern understandings of the questions he addresses. On the face of things, it may seem that much of Thomas’s work should be rejected out of hand based on the faulty basis for his (and Aristotle’s) understanding of the physical world. Concepts like the four fundamental elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water), spontaneous generation, conception by ‘quickening’ and so forth are now laughable; and surely Thomas’s discourses on the soul, which science generally denies the existence of, must be equally suspect.
On the contrary. It turns out that at least one neuroscientist, Walter J Freeman of UC Berkeley, finds that Thomas’s philosophical foundation for explaining the mind-body problem is the most useful for grounding recent studies in nonlinear brain dynamics. Specifically, it is Thomas’s understanding of intentionality that fills the explanatory gap between the complementary observations of lower-level electrophysiological data and higher-level goal-directed behavior. Freeman sees the following correspondence between the terms Thomas uses in describing the process of thought/brain activity with modern neurodynamics terms:
accommodation, Hebbian nerve cell assembly, “raw sense data”
adaptation, knowledge, sensory cortex, AM patterns
Gestalt, multisensory percept, limbic system
global wave packet, neocortex
speech, symbolic cognition, human koniocortex
This is not, of course, a perfect one to one mapping of terms; however, this attempt at translating between the language of Thomas and neuroscience hopefully will generate dialogue between these two communities. Freeman notes that neuroscientists often don’t have a strong grasp of the philosophical questions and issues that relate to their topic of inquiry: how do we think? At the same time, philosophers generally do not have a firm understanding of the contributions modern neuroscience has made to our understanding of the workings of the brain, which certainly should influence any approach to the mind body problem. For more information, see www.mindmatter.de/mmpdf/freemanwww.pdf
I, along with Brother Chris Brannan, made profession of simple vows on Saturday the 4th of September here at St Albert's Priory. That day was a beautify day for many reasons: the beauty of the Mass of profession, the gorgeous weather, the presence of my family members, the beautiful gift of God's grace that brought us to take this step, and more.
In the days after profession, life has been a whirlwind of activity: starting school, getting used to life at St. Albert's, and dealing with all the other small things that life throws at you. The rhythm of the Office throughout the day keeps me anchored amid all the business. As I walk to my choir stall, I pass the spot where I lay prostrate as the Veni Creator was sung during the profession Mass, and I see the step I knelt on as I vowed obedience.
Place has always been an important element of religious worship. God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and tells him to remove his shoes, for he is on sacred ground. Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem, and only the High Priest is permitted to go into the Holy of Holies. Jesus is crucified and buried outside the walls of Jerusalem, and millions throughout the ages have made pilgrimage to walk the Via Crucis and see the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Place is important. Now the sanctuary steps of the chapel of St. Albert's are important to me because there I gave my life to God, and when I look at them, I remember the vows I have made.
My vows to the Lord I will fulfill before all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.