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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

A Good Habit to Have

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Over the course on my summer ministry the occasion to reflect on the meaning of the religious habit has dawned; after three years of religious life I must, once again, ask myself what the wearing of the habit means to me. Why do I like the symbol? Why do I feel compelled to wear it? Am I morally obligated to wear it as a sign of my religious consecration?

The common denominator between all these questions is that the habit is, before anything else, a “sign.” Like any sacramental, it is a visible material symbol that points to a reality beyond it and, in a mysterious way, makes that reality present. Yet the sign value of the habit is interpreted differently by different people. Many people, certainly most religious people, place great emphasis on this sign value, accenting the fact that the habit is a constant reminder of the consecrated life, that it speaks loudly to a world drowning in secularism. Yet many others, usually those of a secular bent, stress the fact that the sign value, as strong as it might be for some, is a subjective value: the symbol is only meaningful to one who understands it, that it only speaks to those prepared to hear it and only possesses value if one is already familiar with what it is supposed to “mean.” These are valid concerns and they all color how I approach these questions.

Amidst all of these factors, variables, philosophical reflections, and personal musings, recent events have pushed me beyond these abstractions into the realm of personal conviction. Why do I, Br. Brad Elliot, wear the Dominican habit? Do I feel morally obligated to wear it? What does the habit mean for me? After some prayer and reflection, there was only one word that came to my mind: Integrity. For me, the wearing of the habit is about integrity. But why this particular word?

The word is used often in modern English and, as is customary for oft-used words, has acquired multiple and vague meanings, most of which are contextual – in one context it means something different than in another. Most people are probably familiar with its use in a strictly moral context: we often speak of “moral integrity” and describe virtuous people as “acting with integrity”. Indeed, this does help in fleshing out why the Dominican habit is important for me, but it only helps to a degree and falls short of a real answer. In truth, I do not explicitly feel “morally obligated” to wear the habit, at least not entirely; framing this personal question in a moral frame seems to miss the mark of my experience. For me, wearing the habit is much more than merely a moral act. After all, even in common English the word integrity itself is never used to describe a moral act but is used to express a quality of a moral person. It is not actions that have integrity, it is people who have integrity; integrity describes people. Before a person carries out a moral act, before he ever sets his mind to a particular path, he is first a person who either has the quality of integrity or not. It is only after a man sets his mind to committing a moral action and carries it out that he is said to act with integrity.

The noun integrity is related to the verb to integrate and the adjective integrated. This helps. A thing is integrated if it has many parts that are harmoniously working together, many parts that each act towards the thing’s one common end, and together express a unified whole. A human person is integrated if all of his “parts” - the features, characteristics, and qualities that make up his whole being if all these work together in the expression of his one person. Judging from this perspective, a man can be said to have integrity if what he is, what he claims to be, how he acts, how he speaks, how he treats others, and what he wears, all work together and express one and the same person. If a man were to claim to be one thing yet act like another, he would not be acting with integrity. If what a man speaks, how he acts, and what he wears does not express who he fundamentally is as a person, he can not be said to have integrity. Such a man is not an integrated person; he becomes, rather, alienated from himself; the many parts of his personality are not coherently ordered into a harmonious synthesis: in the place of unity there is disunity, in the place of integration, disintegration. Again, integrity itself is not a moral act; it is more like a pre-moral quality, a prerequisite condition of the soul from which true moral acts can flow.

All this in mind, it becomes clear why the wearing of the habit is more than a mere requirement of the constitutions of the Dominican Order. It is a matter of integrity: it is a matter of my words, actions, gestures, and dress all expressing the same thing. Indeed, the habit is merely a sign, and the value of that sign means quite different things to different people. But for me as a Dominican friar, the habit is not important merely for its external sign value, nor only for what it means to others: it is important for what it means to me. Wearing the Dominican habit is important as a feature of an integrated life, a life of honesty, a life of wholeness, a life where my actions, gestures, words, and appearance all speak in unison with what I have already claimed and vowed myself to be.

There can be occasions where wearing the habit is neither practical nor appropriate: say, playing basketball, swimming, or walking about in downtown Cairo about this time (on the other hand, there is such a thing as a willingness to be martyred!).  In any case, as I have reflected on the meaning of my vows, and how some of the common observances embedded in the nature of our life are lived out, I have come to love the habit, both in its sign value to others, and in the way it expresses a certain unity and integrity of Dominican identity for myself, in union with my brothers, living and deceased.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

To Love God

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This was a reflection given during Vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is a meditation on the love of God.

As Christians we are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. But what does it mean to love God? Can we ever love God the way we ought, the way He deserves to be loved? How can we, as finite human beings ever love the infinite and invisible God who the ancient israelites dared never even look upon lest they die? 

Following our Lord's words in the Gospel that "whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me," should we not conclude that the heart inflamed with true love of God will desire nothing more than to express that love through service and kindness towards neighbor?

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Penance and Hope

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This is a reflection given at vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is for the second week of Lent, a time when our practices of penance begin to wane. Although the virtue that is typically associated with lenten penances is temperance, this is a meditation on the connection between our acts of penance and the virtue of hope. When we practice penance for the sake of the kingdom of God, we do not merely grow in the virtue of temperance, which orders our desires for bodily pleasures according to right reason. We also practice the virtue of hope, hope for a world to come, and hope for the life of glory that surpasses what we could ever enjoy in this life through our bodily senses. The hidden secret to this season of mortification is the hope that springs from the promise of Jesus Christ.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

First Profession

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Brothers Andrew Opsahl, OP, Cody Jorgensen, OP, Andrew Dominic Yang, OP, and Thomas Aquinas Pickett, OP (left to right)

On September 1, four brothers of the Western Dominican Province finished their novitiate and professed simple vows, thus beginning their years of formation as student brothers at St. Albert's Priory. During the Mass, Fr. Mark Padrez, OP, Prior Provinical of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, focused his remarks on the Parable of the Talents, found in the Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30). His homily is included here...

Brothers Thomas, Cody, Andy and Andrew:

Last year before you received the habit I asked you if you were afraid. Some of you nodded yes. In return I said "good." I want to go back to that theme of fear as you prepare to make profession, because it is good to be fearful, but perhaps not as you or others may think.

We must begin today with the parable of the talents in the Gospel. At the time of Jesus a talent was a very valuable unit of money. Today’s equivalent in value would be somewhere around $100,000. You see now that in today’s Gospel Christ was talking about considerable investments. The third servant, out of fear, was unwilling to invest what his master had put into his charge.

Fear is a significant force in our lives. Many of us make decisions on the basis of fear, most of which turn out to be bad decisions, bringing bad results; but we must realize that there are different kinds of fear. In the Church we speak of “fear of the Lord” and in the Old Testament we find that, "The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord" (Proverbs 9:10).

So what is the difference between the fear found in the third servant, and “the fear of the Lord” found in the Book of Proverbs? The difference, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, is that fear of the Lord is reverential. The phrase “fear of the Lord” speaks of the awe and reverence that we should have when we think of ourselves in relationship to God the Father. Awe and reverence lead us to make decisions that are courageous, filled with goodness, and that are life enhancing. Awe and reverence of God encourages us to be risk takers, to make risk investments by sharing what we have with others.

God gives us talents and has invested Himself in us, in order that we, along with Him, can build up and enhance the lives of those around us. This is a major theme that runs throughout the Old Testament, which over and over again calls on God’s people to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien, the oppressed, the poor, and to tell the good news of God's holy presence among and with His people.

Christ repeatedly brings that call from God to us, putting His very own life on the line, calling on us to be likewise: self-sacrificing, self-giving, and to employ our gifts and talents to benefit others; even to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others. God our Father, He reminds us, has given us what we have, not just for our own sakes but also for the sake of other.

The phrase “fear of the Lord” brings us to the realization that God has expectations of us, and to acknowledge and respect those expectations. That is healthy fear, and this fear is essential as you begin your professed life with us.

Doesn’t it strike you that the parables of Jesus, which center on farming, fishing and business activities, all involve risk–taking? Remember the man who found the pearl of great price and then risked all of his net worth to acquire it? Remember the fishing episodes when Jesus asked Peter to throw out his nets yet again, even though he had gone through the whole night without catching a single fish?

The problem we face is that our hearts and souls are too often filled with an emotional fear, a negative fear that causes us not to act, that leads us into a selfish gathering of things that we keep only for ourselves. It is a paralyzing fear that leads us to be like turtles hiding inside a thick outer shell that prevents us from loving others, that keeps others at a distance, and that isolates in a self-imposed hell of loneliness. 

Do we want to find love in our lives? Then we must take risks and make risk capital investments in others. As Dominicans we do this by preaching. Do we want to find happiness in our lives? Then we must take risks and make risk capital investments in others. As Dominicans we do this by teaching. Do we want to find meaning in our lives? Then we must take risks and make risk capital investments in others. As Dominicans we do this by living out the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in community.

The profession you make today is to be made with “fear of the Lord." Through your profession you are placing yourselves in the hands of the Lord, and He will use your talents to make known not only His love for you, but also His love for others through your preaching and teaching. Thus you are taking a risk today, but not a risk in which you measure the probability of gain, something that becomes an end in itself. No, by your profession you are taking a risk in allowing the Lord to lead and guide you to a place you do not know, where you will use your gifts to bring His love, His Mercy, His wisdom, and His compassion to those most in need.

Through Jesus Christ, God our Father has given you enormous treasures and talents.

Brother Thomas, the good Lord has blessed you with an intellectual curiosity. Take the risk and bring the truth of God’s love to those who desire to learn of His love, but do not know where to begin.

Brother Cody, you have the gift in which you easily engage others. Use that gift and welcome into the Church those who may feel unwelcomed. Show them God’s mercy.

Brother Andy, you have been blessed with an artistic eye. Take a risk by sharing the presence and beauty of the Father’s love reflected in the visual arts, music, and yes, even in the dramatic arts.

Brother Andrew, you have the gift of practical wisdom. Take the risk to lead in building up the Kingdom of God, with those who despair and wonder if God is present in our world.

All four of you have powerful currency, the powers that God has given you. We need to understand that Christ is interested in your productivity, in doing God’s will and risking what He has given you, to love as He loves. He isn’t looking for passive, dependent persons to follow Him as His stewards here on earth. He wants, rather, risk-takers who are willing to be His followers, people of courage and daring -- who will enliven His Church.

Christianity without courage is Christianity without blood and spirit. God encourages us to jump into life and to run the risk of growing, by relating to and caring for others. It doesn't take courage to hide out in fear, but it does take courage to risk something new, and today you embark on taking that risk.

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Painting the Things of Christ

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"To paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ” -Fra Angelico

Several years ago, a young man who had come on a “Come and See” weekend to look at our province asked me, “Where does holiness arise from in your Order?”  It is a natural question to ask when one thinks of the distinct charisms and spiritualities which animate the beatiful array of religious orders and congregations within the Church.  The Jesuits have the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; Carmelites ascend Mt. Carmel through different stages of the interior life; Benedictine spirituality centers around the rhythm of prayer and work, ora et labora, where through personal lectio divina, communal liturgical prayer, and following the Rule of St. Benedict, the monks are led to sanctify every thought, word, and action as they seek total union with God.  Defining “Dominican Spirituality” as such, however, has always posed somewhat of a problem.<--break->  Dominicans do not really have “methods” of prayer that each friar follows in the same way, or specific tracks or plans to follow regarding our spiritual growth.  Moreover, we are both contemplative and active friars; we perpetually stand on a threshold between the monastic-like structure of our common life which sets the conditions for our contemplation, and the outward-looking urgent demands of preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls.

 

My first thought, then, in response to the young man’s question, “Where does holiness arise from in your Order?” was “Well...from the Holy Spirit, where else?”  This simple answer, of course, should not obscure the fact that the Holy Spirit is about His work in all the charisms of the Church’s congregations and orders.  But it does say something unique about Dominican life.     

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“Dominican Spirituality” is, in one sense, hard to define precisely because it is so broad.  It gives a great deal of freedom for individuals to grow in whatever direction the Holy Spirit leads, developing their unique gifts and putting them at the service of the Church and the gospel.  We have the “four pillars” of our life which give an idea of our central ideals: prayer, study, preaching, common life.  Our central mission is to “preach for the salvation of souls.”  The grace, intellectual training, and zeal for this mission arise out of the conditions of our common life, structured as it is by common prayer, personal prayer, theological study, and the fraternity and charity developed in community.  But if we had to choose one simple way of describing Dominican Spirituality, I believe we could do no better than begin with a phrase of Blessed Fra Angelico, the celebrated 14th century Dominican artist: “to paint the things of Christ one must live with Christ.”

 

St. Dominic’s life, Fra Angelico’s life, and the lives of the whole bright panoply of Dominican saints through the centuries, each shine forth with the Holy Spirit’s presence arising from that individual’s life with Christ.  For Fra Angelico, this came through what John Paul II called “translating the eloquence of the word of God into color,” as in him “art became prayer.”  For St. Martin de Porres, it was through taking on the humblest of tasks in his community, and constant attendance to the poor and sick.  For Thomas Aquinas, it came through issuing forth the vast and wondrously articulated theology of the Summa Theologica (among many other works).  And at the font of this Dominican family is St. Dominic himself, known for never speaking a word unless “to God or about God.”

St. Dominic himself, perhaps, is the best example of the way the Holy Spirit comes to life within the Dominican charism and spirituality. This “athlete of Christ,” as Dante called him, was well-read and intellectually trained, devoted to his brethren, and exceedingly devoted to the mission of preaching; but above all, his whole life emerged from a passionate, intimate, continual immersion in prayer to and with Jesus Christ.  The “Nine Ways of Prayer” give an intimate portrait of our Holy Father using a variety of bodily postures, vocal and mental prayer, meditation on the scriptures, penitential practices, and books that incite contemplation, to maintain this deep and affectionate initmacy with his Savior.  The “Nine Ways” are an example of how St. Dominic himself was led in prayer, but they were not adopted in a kind of rigorous or absolutely prescribed way for all Dominicans to follow: as the Holy Spirit led, so Dominic followed, and this alone would he fundamentally desire each of the brethren to do.

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Fra Angelico, in fact, has a well-known fresco that depicts St. Dominic in prayer, which is also a good image for pinpointing Dominican spirituality: Dominic is seated in a calm posture with a book in his lap, one hand ready to turn the page of the book, the other positioned pensively below his chin, signifying a certain meditative but absorbed and thoughtful silence.  This image, though often presented alone, is part of a larger fresco called “The Mocking of Christ,” where Our Lord is seated in a chair behind and above St. Dominic, blindfolded, receiving blows, spitting, and slaps from mysteriously placed hands, heads, and sticks.  The Blessed Virgin weeps for her Son on the left side of the scene.  Through the Sacred Scriptures, St. Dominic is encountering the Lord in this image, the Blessed Virgin mysteriously present with him; he is “living with Christ” in a most intimate way, a way that allows the Holy Spirit to shape his most interior thoughts and affections, which then forms the foundation of his whole spiritual life.

  “Where does holiness arise within the Dominican Order?”  From living with Christ, as our Holy Father Dominic did.  And from this intimate, affectionate, deep, and constant union with Jesus, structured by common life, prayer, study, and the mission of preaching; from this foundation the Lord of the Harvest raises up souls after his own heart to save their own souls and bear much fruit for the Gospel.  Each Dominican’s life, then, whether serving the poor, preaching missions, painting frescoes, or crafting mystical theology, becomes a kind of brushstroke of the Divine Artist, so that He may set forth the Beauty of His Son in the clearest, most marvelous light possible to the people of every age.  St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. Fra Angelico, and all Dominican Saints, Pray for us!