Topic: Dominican Charism

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. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

A Summer of Dispersion: On Wandering and Resting

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St. Dominic's dispersion of the brethren.It is often reported how St. Dominic, in the early days of the Order, dispersed his small group of newly-formed friars from the house in Prouille, France, sending them to university centers throughout Europe, in view of the missionary and universal vision which he had for the Order. This summer, all of the student brothers of our province have experienced something analogous, with the student master having sent us all out of St. Albert's to live in various Dominican communities throughout our province. This “summer of dispersion,” if we can call it that, is providing each of us with a chance to live for a few months in one of our smaller communities and experience life away from St. Albert's in a more ministerial setting.

Some of the brothers, in fact, are spending the summer enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education – a hospital chaplaincy training program. Hopefully some of them will share a bit about their experience of this on the blog soon. And there are four brothers – Br. Richard, Br. Christopher, myself (Br. Chris), and Br. Tuan (with the Canadian Vietnamese vicariate) – who have begun or will soon begin a year-long “residency year” in which we live in one of our smaller communities for an entire year to gain more ministerial experience and to aid in our formation and discernment with the Province.

For my part, I have recently moved into Holy Rosary Priory in Portland, OR, for my residency year. Last Monday, after having completely moved out of my room at St. Albert's and shipping a number of my books to Portland, I drove straight from Oakland to Portland (which took about ten hours). I spent a bit of the week's remainder unpacking and settling in to my new, temporary home. Fr. Gregory Tatum, who is staying here at Holy Rosary for the month of July, was kind enough to give me a brief tour of a few parts of the city later that week – but as this is only the second time I have ever been to Portland, I'm still a bit unfamiliar with it and need to explore it a bit more.

In any case, this whole experience of moving out of one place and traveling to a new location is one that can feel both jarring and exhilarating – and is something Dominican friars must learn to accept; our Order began, after all, as a group of itinerant preachers. Thus this life requires a sort of detachment from any particular location, a willingness to uproot oneself and travel for sake of the Order's mission, for the sake of the Gospel.

I am reminded by this of a short conversation between a scribe and Jesus in the gospels: “And one scribe, approaching, said to him, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you will go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to rest his head'” (Matt 8:19-20). There is a sense, indeed, in which every Christian, like Jesus himself, is “homeless” on this side of heaven, and must not remain too attached to particular possessions or places. This may seem, at first, a bit too “unearthly”, or aloof from a genuine human existence. After all, who does not long for a stable home, a safe place in which one can consistently retire each day, a haven and refuge from the busyness and stress of the outside world? Who does not value a home to which one is attached? What can it mean to be constantly “detached” from such genuine goods of this world, if not simply to be perpetually disoriented and unstable? How is such a life, in any meaningful sense, “healthy”?

To make sense of this, we should keep in mind a general truth which is essential to the Christian life: we are all pilgrimspilgrims who have not yet arrived at our true and final home. While this world was created good, it is but a foretaste and preparation of that for which we were created and redeemed – dwelling in glorious communion with the Triune God. Thus any attachment to the things of earth which hinders our approach to the Heavenly Jerusalem will not do us any good; we must be willing to “let go,” to “move on” as God draws us onward and upward toward our celestial home. It is not that we should not have any affection or love for the good things of this earth; quite the contrary: to despise what is good, in so far as it is good, is to despise Goodness himself. But our love, much like our homes, must be “in order,” and properly arranged: we must love most only what is best, and love the lesser in view of the greater. Our love for God must be first; our love for the lesser things for country; for home, family, and friends; for career and leisure; for food and for sex – must all be subordinate to divine charity, the love of God which has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).

And this is what this “summer of dispersion” causes me to remember: God's love for us is greater than any other good or pleasure we can experience or imagine on earth, and we must, therefore, let our love for Him – itself a divine gift – transcend all other loves that move our hearts. The alternative is the restlessness which we all fear. So the choices are simply these: abiding in divine love, or drifting in perpetual restlessness. And, paradoxically, unless we see ourselves as wanderers on earth, we will not be able to rest in the bosom of the Father. For that is the only place the Son rests his head (cf. Jn 1:18), and the only place in which we, his Body, can find our true home.