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).