Topic: Dominican Life

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

Contemplative Shock Troops: Dominican Renewal after Vatican II

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Anniversaries are unique phenomena where the past takes priority over the present time, illumining it with a light of meaning that permits a clearer vision of our self-identity, of our goals for the future, and of what truly ought to matter in life. For example, wedding anniversaries remind couples of love and commitment and the gift of their lives to one another. The particular day, be it December 21st or April 27th, is not significant of itself, but because of what happened in the past, i.e., marriage, a couple recalls who they are to one another, where they hope to be in the future, and why they came together as man and wife. Anniversaries, then, if we are attentive and mindful, can be moments of profound change as we are awakened to something greater than the routine now of everyday life.

It is for this reason that Catholics, especially vowed religious, should hold very dear the date of October 28 as the anniversary of Perfectæ Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on this date in 1965. Of particular significance in this document is the call for religious orders and institutes to look back to their founders and bring their inspiration to life in the contemporary world: "The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time." (#2)

This "constant return" to the "original spirit" of each order or institute is significant since, while all sharing a common "pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels" (#1), these communities individually offer to the People of God and to the whole world a unique expression of Christ's love manifested through their distinctive charism. "So it is that in accordance with the Divine Plan a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up, which has made it easier for the Church not only to be equipped for every good work (cf. 2 Tim 3:17) and ready for the work of the ministry--the building up of the Body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:12--but also to appear adorned with the various gifts of her children like a spouse adorned for her husband (cf. Apoc. 21:2) and for the manifold Wisdom of God to be revealed through her (cf. Eph 3:10)." As a body has many members, each of which performs a unique task for the benefit of the whole, so in the Body of Christ, each religious order and institute has been gifted by God with a unique charism, a unique task and role to play.

It is thus by strict and faithful observance to their respective rules, in a loving embrace of these unique charisms, that religious orders may experience a spiritual renewal and rejuvenation in pursuit of perfect charity. Perfectæ Caritatis is quite explicit on the point: "everyone should keep in mind that the hope of renewal lies more in the faithful observance of the rule and constitutions than in multiplying laws." (#4) Pope Paul VI, invoking the spirit of Vatican II, re-echoes this point in his Message to the General Chapters of Religious Orders and Congregations, given on May 23rd, 1964: "With respect to undertaking new projects or activities, you should refrain from taking on those which do not entirely correspond to the principal work of your Institute or to the mind of your Founder. For Religious Institutes will flourish and prosper so long as the integral spirit of their Founder continues to inspire their rule of life and apostolic works, as well as the actions and lives of their members." When religious orders and institutes begin to undertake ministries that are not in accord with the vision of their founder, they then declare such a vision to be irrelevant to the contemporary world.

For Dominicans, though, the commitment to the vision of St. Dominic will never be irrelevant so long as there are men and women who have not heard the Gospel, and so long as those who have already heard the Gospel are not moved to live it with the fire of the Holy Spirit. St. Dominic's radical vision was of an order of contemplative apostles: of religious who, from the silent base of a monastic and canonical environment, are sent out (apostoloi) preaching as contemplative shock-troops of God's love and truth. As itinerant preachers and as advanced teachers of doctrine, Dominican preaching, as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, comes from an abundance of contemplation, "abundantiam contemplationis." (III.40.1 ad 2) This is also articulated in the Fundamental Constitution of the Order: "It [the Dominican vocation] is an apostolic life in the full sense of the word, from which preaching and teaching ought to issue from an abundance of contemplation." (1 §IV) The famous Dominican motto contemplata tradere aliis presupposes that what has been handed on in preaching, has first been contemplated (quid traditaest , contemplata est). For Dominicans to engage in non-contemplative preaching and ministry is to, effectively, ignore the vision of St. Dominic.

Thus it is that any authentic renewal of Dominican life must begin with an intensification and rediscovery of the value of the contemplative life within the monastic and canonical settings of our priories. This is argued for by Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., in his book Renewal in the Spirit of St. Dominic: "Dominican renewal must begin with an all-out attempt to recreate esteem for the contemplative spirit. Any renewal that does not enrich the contemplative element in the Dominican way of life must be rejected." (55) It is also clearly and forcefully explicated by Valentine Walgrave, O.P., in his book Dominican Self-Appraisal in the Light of the Council, " the future of the Preachers depends on a renewal of the contemplative spirit." (73)

As a unique order of contemplative apostles, Dominicans should not do what is proper to Carmelites, Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, or diocesan clergy, nor should any of these, likewise, do what pertains to the Dominican charism; this would be to trivialize the unique gifts belonging to each member of the Body of Christ. Rather, Dominicans must hold fast to the contemplative life and its observances, and to the itinerant preaching and doctrinal teaching that flows from it. Dominicans as contemplative preachers do not set out to find Christ in the world, but they set out to bring Christ into the world; a world which hungers for the contemplative encounter of God. All men and women are born to have contemplative knowledge of God, and it is up to the Dominicans to awaken, stir, and enable this loving knowing.

As we hold dear the anniversary of Perfectæ Caritatis, let us also hold dear to the original vision of St. Dominic, and our unique Dominican charism. Let us always strive towards the ideal, correct what hinders progress, and guard zealously the charism to which we have vowed ourselves.

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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

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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