Sermon Notes on Dominican Prayer

Part I

Although God our Father is unchanging, we must constantly resort to the prayer of Petition. There is a mystery here, of which we Dominicans are unafraid. Mystery, because we see two truths which we cannot reconcile. They are not contradictory. They are, rather, two sides of an isosceles triangle whose apex is shrouded. We know that we must pray for God's favors. We also know that God's will for us is immutable. Our prayers do not cause God to change his mind or his will. We must be satisfied with the observation that eternally God has willed that certain favors will be bestowed only as a consequence of the prayer of individuals. Dominican prayers are characteristic when they are for others. And these are especially characteristic when they are for sinners.

Prayer of Reparation. . ."
Founded from the beginning for ... the salvation of souls ..." In the contemporary church, we hear very little about eternal salvation because we hear very little about "sin." This unhappy trend has had a devastating effect on our Order. It has deprived us of our hunger. In place of "the salvation of souls," many are now working for political and economic goals - in themselves worthwhile - such as the end to inequalities in society and in the church; economic justice; an end to the favored position of the rich and politically powerful; the dismantling of the multi-national corporations; civil justice for the homosexuals, the racial minorities women. Others are concerned about restructuring the parish, the diocese, the Vatican. Others still, about the psychological well-being of individuals (which easily breeds an ego-centrist in those very people).

Most of these goals, I say, are worthy in themselves. But too often they stop short; they forget about eternal salvation. I hesitate to suggest the antecedent to that! It is that some of us have forgotten about the reason we entered the Order: to save my own soul. Of course, that is only half of the equation, the other half being, "and to help others to save theirs." It would be wrong to seek only our own good - yes, even our own salvation - through membership in the Order.

But we must seek our own salvation: 1) because that is expected of us by God; and 2) because those who are not desirous of eternity will have little success in arousing that desire in others. Our Dominican prayer, then, must arise from a heart that longs for eternal life and that desires it, in pity and compassion, for sinners! "For them do I sanctify myself." The example of St. Dominic. Compassion. Rudolph of Fuenza: He was praying and making reparation for sinners. "O Lord, have mercy on your people. What is to become of poor sinners." I have already said that the Church exists to redeem sinners - to be the continuation of Jesus' love for sinful men and women. St. Dominic was of the Church. He placed us, his sons and daughters, at the very heart of the Church -- to dedicate our lives to the salvation of souls.

Part II: Prayer of Worship (introduction: Phil Pendis' painting.)

The purpose of Liturgical Prayer is the praise of God. "Forever I shall sing the praises of the Lord." Laudare, benedicere, praedicare. In singing God's praises, we are fulfilling on earth our purpose for being. And we shall continue this work in heaven. Did God create us for a selfish purpose? Obviously not. He is not perfected by anything we do or fail to do. No, he made us for a selfless reason: To share in what He is. But we Christians and we alone - know something about God's inner life. He is Triune, as such, God is essentially outward turning. Our God is not a lonely God. Eternally, the Son proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit from Father and Son. Neither of these processions in the Trinity is before the other. And, the love which the Spirit returns to Father and Son is not subsequent to the two processions. Hence God is a community of three who are ever turned away from themselves. Our liturgical life is supposed to draw us out of ourselves to sing the praises of God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Choral office has other values: a) prepares us for contemplation. cf. Dominic always went apart after the hours to pray in silence; b) fosters a divine instinct in us; c) prepares us for preaching; d) satisfies an emotional need - the need for loneliness; e) disciplines us and fosters the penitential life -- as Humbert of Romans said: "The greater part of our penance consists in the recitation of the Divine Office." (Why? Because it once was more rigorous. Because one must stop what he is doing, especially if he is engrossed, to attend. Because sometimes one is weary, while the choir demands energy. Because of the distracting individuals with whom you must sometimes cope.

Another of the friars at Bologna who testified at the canonization process, Ventura of Verona, tells us about Dominic's devotion to the divine office in choir: "Almost always when outside the priory, on hearing the first stroke of the matins bell (near midnight) from the monasteries, he used to arise and arouse the friars (his traveling companions); with great devotion he celebrated the whole night and day office at the prescribed hours so that he omitted nothing. And after complaining, when traveling, he kept and had his companions keep silence, just as though they were in the priory" (cf. Hinnebusch, Dominican Spirituality, p. 84). Toward the end of July, 1221, only a few days before he died, Dominic returned to Bologna from Lombardy, where he had been preaching and establishing the friars. He was obviously ill, feverish, fatigued. The prior at Bologna begged him not to attend midnight office. So, Ventura reports: "Because of the excessive heat, the prior suggested to Brother Dominic that he go to rest and not rise for matins during the night. The holy man did not acquiesce in this suggestion but entered the church and prayed through the night. Nevertheless, he was present at matins." (Meaning, he left his lonely vigil, in a dark recess of the church no doubt, and went to choir when the bell sounded.) If we are Dominic's sons and daughters, we will ever be valiant in our attendance at, and participation in choir.

Part III: Contemplation

Everyone has an interior life, one that is secret, hidden, known only to the individual and to God - and perhaps to one or two friends partially, through a voluntary sharing. You cannot avoid yourself always. We often seek distractions to hide from those truths about ourselves that are unwelcome. We do not want to "talk" about them, even to ourselves, and so we resort to distractions, pleasurable distractions, which take many forms: a) idle discussion within oneself - that is, about relatively insignificant (if not sinful) matters (fantasy); b) TV and radio; c) movies; d) fiction; e) etc. "What goes on inside of him?" is a common question, asked when a person's conduct finds no easy diagnosis? To ask that question is to ask: "Of what is his interior life composed?"

I live with a priest who loves to read history and biography. When he is reading an interesting book, you can be sure that he will discuss it at recreation. In part, then, his interior life is made up of a historical sense (mind set, attitude); and he discusses such things with himself, as he does with us in the recreation room. Those who truly love God are those who carry on a conversation within themselves about God. They are prompt to read articles and books that will enlarge their knowledge about God and improve their self-conservation about Him. The scriptures, of course, are a key item in their library. Conversations inside oneself about God and the things of God are the first level of contemplation. This level is, I think, the minimum preparation for preaching, i.e., the apostolate (like the history buff in the recreation room).

But we must seek a higher level of the interior life. We must strive for conversation with God. St. Catherine of Siena would recite the office with Jesus: Glory be to the Father, and to You, and to the Holy Spirit. Conversation with God is conversation with a friend. Here, we must focus on Jesus (because imagination is an important part of interior conversation). We have images of Jesus which are real realistic... and satisfying. So, we must bring to him, as to a friend, in conversation, our hopes, fears, temptations, inadequacies, loves, dislikes, and so forth. But our conversation with Jesus is, in large measure listening. Quiet. Patience. Waiting. Our conversations cannot be monologues. Often, we must stop conversing and in peace and tranquility, wait. The great saints reach still a higher kind of contemplation. They are totally silent. All inner conversation is stopped. Self-awareness disappears. They are wrapped - rapt - in an awareness that cannot be detailed, hardly described. They have achieved a full union of the mind and of the emotions with Jesus Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas celebrating Mass at Naples was in a trance, crying. Finally someone had to touch him to bring him back to awareness, so he could finish the Mass. Thomas' contemplative prayer seems to have focus on Jesus Christ: "If anyone would diligently and piously consider the mysteries of the Incarnation, he would find such a profundity of wisdom that it would exceed all human knowledge ... the wonderful meaning of this mystery is manifested more and more to him who piously ponders it (IV Contra Gentes, C.54).

In practice, all of this is most difficult. We try to meditate and our minds zip away to other things. So we become discouraged. But perseverance must characterize our efforts. God never fails to reward perseverance! Little by little, imperceptibly, he will bring our efforts success. We are lured to aid others in their salvation. But we can be of assistance in proportion as we grow in the contemplative spirit.

The true friar lives in a monastic cell of contemplation. He is a cell of contemplation. Matthew of Paris, the great critic of the first friars said of them contemptuously that "the whole earth is their cell and the oceans their enclosure." Those first Dominicans liked this criticism and conceded Matthew's point. We are everywhere to be men at prayer except when required to be apostolically involved. So, too, the Dominican nuns. You are truly enclosed. Yet you have many works to do, especially in caring for one another. At such times, you must put aside the contemplative mode to be of assistance to them. Still, inner life - interior life - can go on even apart from the choir or chapel. Our work, as constitutions make clear, is to carry on important conversations; about God or to God.

Sermons and Lectures by Damian Fandal, O.P.