Topic: Common Life

Br. Pius Youn, O.P.'s picture

Shifting Gears

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A new chapter has begun. What seemed like a chapter of blurry words, with stains of bitter coffee, has come to an end. Yes, the novitiate year. I cannot quite comprehend how I persevered through it. Even a couple of weeks after making simple profession, I catch myself pondering whether I should ask Fr. Anthony, our novice master, for permission to grab a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop. With a few giggles, I walk out of the priory with a sense of relief. One thing is clear: the life as a novice and the life as a simply professed brother are radically different. 

The novitiate was not the most "feel-good" year, subjectively speaking, but it was the most contemplative year. There were moments of bumpy trials, but consoling moments along the way. I cherished these moments of consolations. It surely is edifying to be consoled, yet if our faith and our discernment are solely dependent on consolations, we are only left with what "feels right." People, nowadays, especially in prosperous nations, stubbornly hold on to comfort, and prefer what "feels good." Reason itself is losing its pure meaning as many compulsively give into their passions. I sense a certain fallacy here. Has reason lost its strength to guide emotions? Has faith been stripped down to mere feelings?

As Christians, we believe that God initiates his call to us and we respond with humility. God consoles those who follow him, but what are we to do when God seems to be absent? Of course, if you have been living a life with "feel-good" luxury, following the call of God may be a stepping stone. As a religious and as a Dominican, community life is not always a "feel good" experience, for what "I want" is secondary to the common life--even though many of us have strong opinions about every bit of everything. What is it we must do when we are desolate, when a certain idealism that we were looking for is stripped away?

If we look to the Scriptures--as we should always, for it is the Word of God--those who lose the sight of God look for fulfillment elsewhere. In Exodus 32, while Moses is absent from the Israelites for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, the Israelites, by persuading Aaron, create a false god--the golden calf. This "golden calf" is looked at not as a "false deity" but as the "god" who brought them out of Egypt. Michael D. Coogan, in his book, The Old Testament, states that this act of using an animal to represent the deity is following the Egyptian tradition, whereas elsewhere in the Near East at this time, the custom was to use the human form to represent gods or goddesses. Fashioning the golden calf violated the second commandment for the Israelites: "You shall have no other gods before me." But why were the Israelites looking elsewhere to find other gods?     

The Israelites created the golden calf because they lost sight of God. One reason for this was the absence of a prophet to counter the desire; but more importantly, the Israelites were not patient enough to continue with their journey of faith. They gave into their feelings of inadequacy and ended up worshipping the golden calf. Just as the Israelites were "stiff-necked" and lost sight of God, we may find other ways to fulfill our passions and desires when we feel the absence of God. If feelings are what give credibility of God, then no wonder God seems to be absent when we are not feeling so well.

The life of a student brother is filled with activities. Being a student brother is fun, but busy. As I write, I am thinking of many other activities in my mind: demands for classes, unwanted chores in the house, consistent liturgical duties, and so on. I am constantly out of breath and I have deadlines coming up. In our busy schedules, it is easy to lose sight of God. While living a busy life may bring immediate joys, we must always strive for an authentic contemplative life. If we lose a sense of contemplation, then all that we do is simply "doing for the sake of doing." St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of contemplation as “delightful by reason of its object...insofar as you are contemplating what you love; just as with ordinary physical seeing, which is delightful not only because the act of seeing itself is pleasurable but because you are looking at someone you love.” If this "someone" you love is God, then everything we do starts from contemplation of the Creator. What other mission do we have, other than to "see" the one we love, to be a creature geared towards the Creator? Or better yet, all of our mission and activities per se start from contemplation.

If we are not rooted in contemplation, then managing time will be stressful, because our "study" or "work" is geared towards personal status and ambition, rather than giving the glory to God. It is through contemplation that kairos (God's time) becomes geared towards chronos (human time), and our actions begin to arise from contemplation. In our busy schedules, despite our demands and deadlines, let us first ask ourselves whether what we "do" is flowing from contemplation. Let us be reminded in moments of difficulties to contemplate God: by contemplating, reason will guide emotions. Let us not build a golden calf for ourselves as the Israelites did, but root ourselves in contemplating the Creator before we act like "busy-bodies" (2 Thess. 3:11).  

                   

 

   

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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.

Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

The Kraken

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I’ve always feared deep waters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lake, or an ocean. I don’t like how you can’t see the bottom. Regardless, I’ve ventured out. I’ve fished the rivers and lakes of New Mexico. I’ve swum in backyard ponds in the Midwest. I’ve even treaded water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But no matter how many times I drown my fear of some slimy, creepy, crawly aquatic animal nibbling on my toes or making a lunch of my limbs I remain terrified. Just the thought of tipping one little toe in murky water makes me cringe. My breathing becomes labored. My skin gets clammy. I squint my eyes at the crazy person who’s asking me to put (literally!) my life and limbs in danger. I cautiously dismiss the thought that my friend, family, or fellow religious brother is trying to feed me to the Kraken.

I have a lot of these irrational fears. And, make no mistake, they are irrational (well many of them). But, unlike some people I rarely allow my fears to paralyze me. I’m always willing to try something new. Why? Well, unless my suspicions about being fed to the Kraken are correct, nothing, i.e., nobody, is going to eat me.[1] While this may be true, I still experience fear. I think it’s because there’s always the one rational fear that keeps me shaking. Sometimes, I’m really good at sabotaging myself.

As I get closer to professing Solemn Vows I’ve been thinking more and more about this shortcoming.[2] As I get closer to completing my Master’s studies, as I get closer to the reception of Holy Orders, I fear that I’ll continue to perpetuate this recurring pattern. I’m afraid that I’ll gnaw off my own limbs.

I’ve never experienced fear quite like this. But I know what’s likely at its root. I’m afraid of sabotaging myself because I really care a lot about my life as a Dominican. I don’t want to muck it all up. I want to get this right! I want to call this fear the result of love combined with enough self-knowledge to know how bad I can mess something up. But the reality is: this fear is the unruly child of pride.

I’ve been looking at this whole problem the wrong way. I have the audacity to think that my success in these things is a function of my own genius. On the contrary, success will only be attained when my heart and mind cling firmly and exclusively to God’s will. I need a stronger, more radical trust in God.

It’s become my prayer that God grant me (and each of us) this gift. I desperately need God’s help to trust in him. But, as you know, sometimes it’s hard to believe that he actually cares. My hope is that this little gift of trust will result in nothing less than a stronger love and a deeper capacity to love. I’m confident that as my trust in God increases, and as my love for God increases, my pride and fear will slink away into the depth. They’ll lose their parking space in my heart.

God will it be so! I’m just so tired of being afraid.


  1. Thank’s to Merlin Mann for this turn of phrase.  ↩

  2. As of the writing of this post there is less than one week till I profess my vows usque ad mortem.  ↩

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Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

Ahh ... the Brothers

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Common life is awesome. The other day I felt compelled to address the new policy for Catholic Hospitals in Germany on the use of emergency contraceptives for rape victims who have not yet conceived a child. As is my custom, I had a strong reaction to the German Bishops' policy. I thought it was a great example of poor moral reasoning. So, I started to write a critique of the policy.

When my masterpiece of solo-synchronous scholarship was completed I made a decision. I chose to share my thoughts with some of my Dominican brothers. The conversations I had with them about this topic quickly turned into invigorating intellectual wrestling matches. With each conversation I was able to get a clearer picture of the proper principles that needed to be applied to the argument. Some of my thoughts were confirmed, others weren't. With their help I was able to consider aspects of the issue that I hadn't properly considered. I think they were also enriched by it.

Finally, after a few days of these conversations, I was ready. I opened up nvALT on the Mac I have the use of, found the document, deleted it, and started from scratch. After reworking the argument I passed it on to yet another brother for final editing before I committed it to the web. In this communal process, the brothers were able to show me where my reasoning was erroneous on a few  small but crucial points. If I didn't have them to bounce my thoughts against I would have written a piece that was both rash and inaccurate. Instead you can read a good and accessible work on this issue titled "A Bitter Pill To Swallow" at The Eighth Way in support of the German Bishops' moral reasoning.

This is one of the great things about living in this community. We are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. We study, we think, we contemplate. But, we also share these essential parts of our Dominican intellectual life with one another. We correct and affirm each other. We do all this with our eyes corporately fixed on holiness and fidelity to the truth. This really is a beautiful life.

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Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

Obedience

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Speak to any religious and they will consistently tell you that obedience is the most difficult of all of the vows. I know that every time I've said this the questioner has always been dumbfounded. They always expect me to say that celibacy is the most difficult of all the vows. But, it just isn't true. Don't get me wrong, celibacy is hard. Poverty is hard. They can be a daily struggle. However, obedience is a struggle every moment of the day.
 
Why is this? I think it's because obedience goes against the fundamental "virtue" of the modern era: radical self-autonomy. It's completely understandable that this sort of autonomy is thought of as the most prized virtue of human life. We are the sort of creatures that can freely choose. This freedom is bound up with the very dignity that we posses as human persons. The ability to assert our will is what allows us to love. But, obedience is the free choice to lay aside that autonomy. It is not, however, a choice against love.
From the very moment we profess our first vows, we make a radical choice to place our wills in the hands of another. These others are our superiors, our constitutions, the Church, and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the practice of deferring to the preference of a brother is a sort of obedience. This is no easy task for a group of men who come from a culture that values autonomy above other virtues. Professing the vow of obedience is subversive to our cultural and, to some degree, the American ethos.
 
Obedience isn't simply doing what you're told. That's too legalistic. The truly obedient person seeks to be obedient. He desires to be obedient. Contrary to this is the old saying, "it's easier to ask forgiveness then to ask permission." This is the opposite of obedience. In its place, the obedient person says, "it's good to ask permission so I don't have to ask forgiveness."
What's good is not often the same as what is easy.
 
Why would anyone do this? Why choose obedience? The reality is, everybody has to be obedient to somebody. You might be obedienct to your boss, your wife or husband, the government, whomever. Often times these can be begrudging forms of obedience. Obedience in some of these situations only exists because the other person or institution has great power and authority over you. They can compel your obedience. This isn't the case with Religious Life. Every single one of us has freely chosen to vow obedience. This choice is a great act of love. Likewise, when a superior receives the obedience of the brothers, that reception of obedience is also a great act of love. Both the superior and the subordinate are taking a great risk. Vowing obedience and receiving obedience risk the possibility of setting up a battle of wills.
 
There is nothing in our modern form of Religious Life that compels the individual brother to obey his superior. The brother must want to be obedient. In this way, obedience becomes an act of charity toward the superior. This concept is nothing new. The Rule of St. Augustine says pretty much the same thing. The difference is the contemporary concerns, the contemporary culture. Simply put, we must learn to ask before we act. We must trust our superiors with our hearts.
 
Perhaps coming from a society where there is an over 50% divorce rate contributes to the difficulty of being obedient. The younger generation of Religious is accustomed to those entrusted with our care violating trust. As a result they've built coping methods that are contradictory to the practice of obedience. When you grow up in a society where you can't trust people to be faithful, it's very difficult to build that disposition of trust when you're an adult. You are forced, by circumstance, to become independent and radically self-reliant.
 
Yet the fact remains the same. Those of us who've entered into religious life have freely vowed obedience. We saw something compelling in such a way of life. And it's a beautiful life. To be able to trust another with determining what is good for you is awesome. You discover that there are people who have your greatest good in mind when they make decisions. You wake up each day realizing that you are loved. It empowers you to act with love every moment of every day. The only answer to the lack of fidelity we experience in our culture is obedience. It is both our privilege and pleasure to break the cycle of mistrust and venture forward into a better society where love abounds in real concrete ways.
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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

The Divine Office

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As Dominicans, sanctifying each moment of the day by praying the Divine Office--the official prayer of the Church--is essential to our spirituality and the fulcrum of our common life. This short video, produced by the student brothers of the Western Dominican Province, is an attempt to expound upon the central roll that the Divine Office plays in our lives and express the profound joy of praying with the Chruch, for the Church, and in the heart of the Church. 

Br. Cody Jorgensen, O.P.'s picture

Open to God

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A few weeks ago sixteen men visited our community here at St. Albert’s in Oakland. They were on a "Come & See" weekend, spending a few days with us to see if they might have a vocation to our Dominican way of life. I got the chance to speak with them for a few moments about my own journey of discernment. I didn’t speak with an outline, nor was I very prepared. While I probably rambled on for a good while, I know that the central theme was being open to God, because that single theme has greatly formed me in my own journey.

What does it mean to be open to God? Does God actually have an influence in my life, and do I even try to recognize this influence? Maybe I’m quick to look for God when things approach a crisis, but I know that often God isn’t the first thing on my mind when things are going very well. This, I believe, is the first stage of being open to God: a reprioritizing of our lives to become aware of God’s actions. How can we be open to God if we aren’t struggling to listen to him, or seeking after him at all times? 

These concepts, of listening and being open to God, sound pretty vague to my practical ears. What does this all this mean, on a day-to-day level? Even now, being in vows for a few months, just out of the Novitiate, it’s easier for me to articulate what this means by contrasting where I was to where I am now, with all of the experiences inbetween. 

All things considered (as best they can be) it seems that my vocation is to the Dominican life. This is the place where I can grow in holiness: engaging in the daily struggle to become a more holy individual who seeks after God with my whole heart and loving my neighbors. If I hadn’t been open to follow God where he was calling me, making the plunge to enter this life, I can easily say that my life would be less. Fundamental to this vocational discernment is God calling us to move beyond ourselves. If I wasn’t in religious life now, I would most likely be a bachelor content with working a decent job, spending time with friends, and playing a lot of online games. My heart would be broken, because I would know that for my personal growth in holiness I needed God to be placed as the highest priority in my life, not merely a God that I was conscious of only at Mass once a week; living in that trap of knowing what to do, even yearning to do it, but somehow being unable to make it actually happen.

I can now see how much God has called me to grow beyond myself by looking at where I was, as well as looking at the present moment and recognizing that I am still in the process. You don’t put on the habit and just become holy: it’s a process. While I may live in a religious community now, with a common life and regular observances, those are all helps to urge me on to becoming less self-centered, and more focused and attentive to the people that God has me cross paths with each day.

This then, is the core of being open to God: a willingness to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow him. When we willingly pick up our cross and follow after the Lord, we are truly open to changing and reforming our lives, of growing beyond ourselves and our self-centered desires. Our way of the cross is the path to holiness, and our vocation is that which we can willingly embrace through the grace of God that enables us to become holy as our God is holy. Testing out my emotional states and looking for affective signs from God definitely played a part in my decision to enter into this life. However, those emotions and seeking after affective signs from God have not been the reasons that have kept me here. 

In being open to God, what keeps me here, living this vocation, struggling to deny myself every day and take up my cross, is simply the knowledge that this vocation makes me holy.   

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Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Thanksgiving

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William George Jordan, the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, wrote in 1902, "Ingratitude is a crime more despicable than revenge, which is only returning evil for evil, while ingratitude returns evil for good." St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, writes, "A person who is ungrateful for past benefits does not deserve to receive new ones." But why do these thinkers denigrate a lack of thankfulness? In a time when we are raised to believe that it is our right to have food, clothes, a college education, a car, information, and a well-paying job; that it is our right to express ourselves, to choose what to do, to believe whatever we want, and to seek our own meaning in life; then being thankful does not seem to have any place in our lives. Why should we be grateful for the things that are simply due to us? What place does thankfulness have in life, if any place at all?

If we consider thankfulness, we find that it is essentially recognizing a good thing that has been given to us freely. We are grateful to the friend who goes out of her way to give us a compliment or bake us cookies. We are not grateful, however, to the employer who gives us extra work for the weekend, or to a roommate who gives us a cold. Being thankful simply means seeing something as good, and seeing that good as coming from a person who is not obliged to give it. To give thanks is merely to express this recognition. To be ungrateful, then, is to receive a freely-given good, without recognizing it as such.

Aquinas notes, interestingly, that it is characteristic of a good person to see good more than to see evil (cf. ST II-II.106.3 ad 2). Aquinas therefore equates our moral life with how we see the world. The good person, i.e., the moral person, actually sees the world differently than a wicked person does. The moral person who is a Christian, moreover, sees that all the good things in the world have been created, sustained, and given to us by God. The Christian, therefore, ought to be defined by gratitude! As St. Paul exhorts us, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18, RSV).

To be ungrateful is to lack moral character. When we believe everything is owed to us, then there is something fundamentally wrong with our relationship to God, to our neighbors, and even to ourselves. Ingratitude is the product of the solipsism that is born from materialism and practical atheism. Ingratitude is the characteristic of people who live merely for themselves, and whose hearts, like the Grinch, are closed to the good of another.

As Christians we must strive to see God’s goodness in the world, and we must strive to be thankful for it. We must realize that salvation, grace, the sacraments, and the Church are not things that God owes us; they are gifts given to sinners who do not deserve them, by a God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son (cf. John 3:16). We must also remember that the Eucharist literally means “thanksgiving” -- and so we who share in the Body and Blood of Christ, who have union with God and with our brothers and sisters in the Church, must never fail to recognize that all we have, and all we are, comes to us as a gift from God the Father. And for this, we must always celebrate thanksgiving. 

 

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Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

McKenzie Bridge 2012 Photos

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Here are some photos from our time at St. Benedict's Lodge in  McKenzie Bridge, OR, where the student brothers gather every August for our annual vacation. Some of these photos were taken at St. Benedict's itself, and others are from our various hikes or adventures in the beautiful outdoors in the surrounding area.
 

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Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture

Szczęść Boże!

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Br Brad and I in Krakow’s medieval marketplace, or Rynek GłównySzczęść Boże! Or, “God bless you,” a greeting Br. Brad and I along with our student master Fr. Michael Fones heard many times when we went to Poland this summer. We went for a preaching camp focused on Pope Benedict’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. The camp, now in its third year, was held in English and consisted of 12 Dominicans – 6 student brothers and 6 priests, with representatives from the US, Ireland, and Poland (including one Pole from the Vicariate of Russia and the Ukraine). The camp took place in Korbielów, a ski town near the Slovakian border. We were made up of a mix of friars – some with decades of priestly experience, some more recently ordained, and some of us still in initial studies for the Order. We looked at points from the document such as how we “enable the people of our time once more to encounter God” (paragraph 2). As Dominicans – the Order of Preachers – how do we do that in our existing ministries? What new opportunities can we look for, or start up? What does it mean to “encounter God?” Such discussions were mixed with plenty of time for rest, hikes, or trips to the nearby towns – all of which naturally included further discussions of ministry, liturgy, and theology.

The three of us from the Western Province were blessed to have some time after this camp for some of the more standard “tourist fare” in Poland, mostly around Krakow. We visited sites from the somber and horrific (Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp) to the beautiful and inspiring (Czestochowa – the home of the Black Madonna icon). In between, we saw more churches than I thought could ever fit in an area that size. Fr. Michael described the route he walked one day in Krakow just by mentioning the churches along the way – it seems like there was one on every corner!

God bless, Br Kevin

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