Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.
Vision and Revision
Why I Entered the Dominican Order
My life has been above all motivated by a longing for beauty in its totality. Physical beauty in a woman or a man overpowers me with wonder. The beauty of light, water, trees, animals in motion and repose both disturbs and calms me. Intellectual order in which a harmony appears in the interplay of all the verities of beings in process is for me like music, and music seems very close to what is ultimate, whole, and indubitably real. One unforgettable moment was an afternoon in library of the public highschool in Blackwell, Oklahoma when I first read Plato and suddenly realize that beauty is ultimate, total beauty is God.
Blackwell, Oklahoma was a clean, bleak little prairie town in the 20's and 30's when I was growing up, and my basic remembrance of boyhood was the conviction that I needed to be raised somewhere else where life was richer and deeper. How I knew this is hard to say, except that my mother and father, of limited education themselves, nevertheless were intelligent people who read aloud to us in the evening, and encouraged us to read, to look at reproductions of good paintings and to listen to recorded music. I read constantly, did not know how to hold my own with other boys, suffered from being called a "sissy", because I was always timid about games.
My parents were non-practicing Protestants who sent my older brother and me to Protestant Sunday schools, but did not baptize us. We were to chose our own religion when we grew up. To me Protestantism was esthetically repellent, and intellectually indefensible. By the time I reached high school age my reading had made me an agnostic or rather a humanistic atheist. Evolution explained it all, and only half-literate people could believe in a God.
My growing desire through high school was to be a poet. Poetry was the only way to make sense out of the world, and Keats was my favorite just because his way of seeing and feeling and smelling and tasting was so sensually, richly concrete. Confidence that I could succeed as a poet was largely the result of rivalry with a classmate, a girl who wrote poetry. I first proved to her that I could write better poetry. Then she became my willing and only audience to whom I read my many, and longer and longer poems, and with whom I discussed them endlessly. I wanted to fall in love with her, but unfortunately she was as ugly as she was intelligent and sympathetic. Yet she made it possible for me to write more and more and to begin to live outside the library. Our one great disagreement was that Ruth had the social prejudices of our small town. She was anti-negro, a patriotic militarist, and anti-Catholic. Because I felt misunderstood and physically inadequate, I had a great sympathy for oppressed minorities and argued for pacifism and socialism.
By luck I won a competitive scholarship to the University of Chicago, of which I knew nothing, but it was a great opportunity in those depression years. My trip there was the first time I had ever been away from home more than a night or two, my first visit to a city bigger than Wichita, Kansas. What I had read about now surrounded me. The first month in school I lost much weight because I was from heaven too excited to eat. Chicago is not the new Jerusalem descending from heaven as a bride adorned, but from lake to ghetto, from loop to suburb, she provided the concrete richness of experience I had been waiting for. The very immensity of drabness was the violent esthetic shock I needed. My first friend was a very awkward Jewish boy, the only other Oklahoman in our residence hall, and one of my first experiences was attending a Yom Kippur service with Him in a Hyde Park temple. Not long afterwards I attended my first Mass at the neighboring Shrine of she Little Flower, in the Carmelite parish. Another close friend was a strange lad, son of a Unitarian minister from Boston, the product of "progressive education", and a fanatic pacifist who was soon to get me interested in politics. I loved to wander the streets, scenes of James Farrell's novels, or to brood on the shores of the lake.
The University of Chicago at that time enjoyed the atmosphere of controversy created by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler between positivistic and pragmatic scientists with their faith in "progress" and the humanistic, classicist philosophers with their concern for the "great books" and the "great ideas." I quickly committed Myself to the camp of the "Ideas" in opposition to the camp of the "Facts." To me the positivists seemed to be defending that drab, thin, and pragmatic view of life which I found repellent in Blackwell, in Protestantism, in Americanism. I shared the anti-Dewyite reaction at the University which Hutchins and Adler so brilliantly represented, toward an appreciation of the contemplative spirit, and the "perennial wisdom." I soon managed to get into the course which Hutchins and Adler jointly taught on "The Great Books of the Western World." How shocked I was at the very beginning of the course to find that the Bible was a "great book." I was happier to read Plato, and to discover Aristotle and Aquinas (along with Rabelais and Flaubert and Marx). I begin to like Aristotle better than Plato when I saw that although Plato was a poet and Aristotle was not, yet it was Aristotle that appreciated poetry in its own right, while Plato censored it. I loved in Aristotle and Aquinas, as in Plato, the element of debate and dialectic. To me argument was wonderfully invigorating, and the metamorphoses of world-views in a dialectical interchange a new, and deeper kind of music.
At the same time this play of ideas was not entirely satisfying. I needed for all my anti-pragmatism, to feel engaged in concrete reality and action. I was certainly not tired of books, but I felt with Marx (of whom I had just heard) that until now men have thought about the world, the time has come to change it. The Unitarian minister's son from Boston, whom I have already mentioned, invited me to attend some student political rallies. It was in the 30's when the rise of the Nazi's foreshadowed a new world war. At the University of Chicago the student political groups were militantly anti-fascist and anti-militarist, and the leaders were members of the Young Communist League and the Young People Socialist League.
From being a pacifist I was soon a Marxist. The Moscow trials quickly steered me from the Stalinist Communists to the Young People's Socialist League which in Chicago had become a Trotskyite front, favoring world revolution and opposing the nationalistic policies of the Stalinists, their Popular Front reformism, their quiet sabotage of the Spanish revolution, and their pact with Hitler. Eventually I became a "card-carrying" member of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party. From being a member of a fraternity (where two of my closest "brothers" were also Trotskyites) I moved into a student co-op which today would be called a "commune." It was possible at Chicago to take exams without attending classes, and for three years I managed to finish my undergraduate studies and get an M.A. in literature on the strength of my reading, while I gave most of my time and energy to political meetings and agitational activities. I actually intended to become a union organizer (for which I was pre-eminently unfit). I remember vividly the occasion on which the distinguished writer Thornton Wilder, whose kindness and generosity to students was limitless, took the trouble to try to convince me that a poet has his own vocations that cannot be tied to politics. I regarded this with scorn as an immoral temptation, although I was delighted when Wilder introduced me to Gertrude Stein, who was then lecturing at the University. They both read my poetry and a novel in verse and encouraged me to be a writer.
By this time, however, I felt that one could not write without somehow achieving a philosophy of life and a commitment to action. I had begun to feel the tragic aspects of life from Marxism, from the depression and the war which we all felt was imminent, and from the sudden death of a close personal friend, a fraternity brother.
My growing curiosity about the Catholic Church had its roots in my love of beauty, my intellectual fascination with the dialectics of belief, and above all in my Marxist concern for commitment to action and to social change. It began soon after I came to college and met Catholics (there were few in Blackwell, a town that was Ku Klux Klan dominated in the 20's). Several times I attended Mass with friends, and found the liturgy, even in its South-Side Irish mode, everything that Protestant worship lacked. But I regarded the Catholic Church as a socially reactionary institution, with strongly fascist tendencies. Nevertheless I read a good deal of Catholic history and theology, and sympathized with it as an "un-American minority religion, persecuted by the Protestant capitalist establishment. When the study of Aquinas showed me that in Catholicism there was an intellectually profound view of reality, I realized that here was the best competition for Marxism. In fact I gradually was convinced by my own reflections that Aquinas had provided a better case for theism, than Marx or Darwin had provided against it. During a long week in Billings Hospital recovering from an appendectomy, with time to read Dante and to think, I began to try to pray. I had no idea, however, of joining the Church that had blessed the armies of Mussolini.
I will not here relate the stages of my conversion, except to say that intellectually the following position shaped itself in my mind: (1) if Catholicism could accept the social revolutionary ideas of Marxism, leaving aside what now seemed to me Marx's inadequate metaphysics; (2) then I would still have to make a great step of faith, a step which would have to transcend reason but yet must be wholly compatible with it; (3) this step would seem to require some kind of sign or event (probably the conversion of the Catholic Church to the Marxist revolution) which in fact Catholicism with its reactionary stance toward the modern world could never present; (4) hence I had no obligation to be a Catholic.
At this point in my life I did not think more about it. In spite of various struggles, my life was exciting and full. I had began to work for a Ph.D. in political science, I had many good friends and a growing position in the Trotskyite movement, I was full of ideas for my poetry and writing every day.
Then quietly, suddenly and in solitude I was confronted with a new question: What if Christianity is God's truth? What is demanded on your part to be able to honestly reject or accept it? Is it not necessary that you at least ask the Catholic Church to speak its message to you, while you listen and can discover if you can or cannot believe? It came to me as the confrontation with Jesus Himself, the image of the Crucified Man, but in terms of listening to the message of the Roman Catholic Church, that fascist, but very old, very vital, very wise, and very beautiful organization. I saw that I must place myself as a listener. Through a close friend, a Catholic who had become a Trotskyite without being willing to let go his religion, I asked if there was some way I could "take instructions." He put me in touch with a Dominican priest and I began "taking instructions" from another Dominican at their house of studies in River Forest, a Chicago suburb, where I was soon to be spending much of my life.
This was a quiet, peaceful and calm time, like opening of a beautiful vista. I simply found that I believed, in the midst of many intellectual problems and of profound disagreement with many social and political aspects of the Church, but with a fundamental conversion of my whole self and my whole way of life. From the vague bohemianism of the college student subject to an external discipline by my Marxist comrades, I now found myself committed every day to prayer, an examination of conscience, and an effort to keep the commandments of God, understood by me in a rigorist sense. Every day I got up with delight to attend 7:00 Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle parish, a simple reversal of my communist life which had meant rising at 10 or 11 and staying up to daybreak every night.
When I was baptized my comrades and student friends could not understand it or thought it was a passing phase in a poet's life, and I did not try to explain. Soon the Socialist Workers Party expelled me as a scandal, and I was forced to rethink my Marxism and I saw it dissolve in the light of a new understanding of life. I did not reject its social goals, but I concluded that its dogmas and its party commitments were incompatible with the way I had now entered.
The three following years were very happy and on the whole serene as I grew fully into Christian life. During the first year I felt somehow very immature and groping in my faith, and I was very glad to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation from which I hoped to receive the strength of the Spirit. I felt experientially no great change, but about a year after my baptism at Holy Communion in the midnight Christmas Mass I experienced in the Lord's presence a very deep and joyful desire somehow to make the commitment of my Baptism total and complete. To me at the time this meant without any question to become a Dominican priest. It was not anything that I had thought about very much, but it seemed to me that my Marxist activism would somehow be fulfilled in a Christian apostolate that would be even more truly revolutionary. I was convinced that life ought to have the deepest meaning, the deepest vision, beauty and effectiveness possible, and I knew of nothing more total than this vocation seemed to be. I don't mean that I was heroic. In many ways I was a timid, dependent, naive young man, frightened of a good many things I thought that most young men seemed to manage pretty well; yet above all I did not want to be left out of the greatest possible life available in which truth, poetry, action, revolution, generous intimate love might all be achieved.
As for sacrifice I think I was more worried that as a priest I might have to give up a writing career, than I was about celibacy. I had begun reading Freud in high school, and was very conscious that I had not yet psychologically fully achieved the sexual identity and maturity that were desirable. I was still confused and insecure because of a variety of unsatisfactory experiences. However I felt that the stern Catholic moral code (as it was then understood) provided a clear guide-line of conduct and of the options open to a Christian. From the moment of my conversion I had found it possible to live that code if I accepted the discipline involved. I had scrupulous anxieties about it, but I considered it wholly practicable and by no means unendurable. For me the question was simply whether the way of life opening before me was somehow greater and more inclusive than any other, and it appeared to me to be. My later experience confirmed this choice.
The Dominicans, however, advised me to wait until I finished my Ph.D. in political science. Along with the same Catholic friend, Leo Shields, who had introduced me to the Dominicans, and who also had become disillusioned with the Trotskyites, I decided to transfer my studies to the University of Notre Dame. Here I could learn more of Catholic social philosophy under the direction of the gloomily prophetic Waldemar Gurian, and the noted Thomist Yves Simon. The war was beginning. Leo entered the army to die in the Normandy invasion, while in the year of the military draft I completed my degree and entered the Dominican novitiate in River Forest.
As a Dominican novice eight long years of study lay ahead for me, since the Dominicans at that time felt they alone could supply the pure Thomistic tradition I would need. My worry about my writing career was forgotten, since I found in that contemplative life an interior existence in which highly abstract studies fully occupied my intellect, and the life of liturgical prayer my imagination and intuition. I now felt that I had much to write about, but little time to put it on paper.
Disappointments and Disillusions
I will not attempt here to describe the concrete phases of my Dominican life, but only to summarize the main issues that have confronted me; first of my disappointments and disillusions, then of the achievements and satisfactions which have emerged for me as a member of this struggling Christian community. I cane to the Order seeking the ultimate reality which is God. Can reality be found without undergoing disappointment of false hopes, and disillusion of unreal ideas? The pearl is worth the price.
My chief disappointments have been two: First that my community has lacked a clear and realistic view of its apostolic mission; Second that it has concealed from itself a lack of deep contemplative life by a concern for external observances.
Today many younger religious complain chiefly about loneliness and lack of community in the sense of close friendships and warm human communication. No doubt they are right. Nevertheless in all honesty I have never been disappointed in this. My childhood and adolescence were lonely, but my college years were rich in friendship, and my Dominican life has been filled with it, beyond all my expectations. Perhaps there still remains for me much to learn from loneliness. Perhaps God is saving that lesson for my old age.
But I have been disappointed to find that as a community we have not had a clear apostolic goal, but often waste our energies on routine, or a multiplicity of unrelated tasks. When I entered the Order I was deeply interested in social questions raised for me by Marxism. I tended to identify with the progressive social Catholicism of Commonweal, and the Catholic Worker Movement. In Thomism I saw the basis of a social philosophy for the reconstruction of the social order, as Jacques Maritain was teaching. Opposition to Franco and fascism characterized all these tendencies. I discovered that our Dominican priests and students at that time were pro-Franco, mild New Dealers, apathetic to social questions. The students were fresh from parochial schools and two years of some Catholic college. They came from some Catholic ethnic ghetto or a small Midwest town where perspectives were very narrow. Most of them expected to work in parishes, and the superiors encouraged this idea, although it was not at all clear how such work pertained to our Order and its traditions.
For a select few other opportunities were open. Some might go to the foreign missions, but this was remote, and no special preparation was provided. Others, after some parochial experience, might "go on the mission band" to preach parish missions or give retreats. At one time in the American provinces this had been great goal of most Dominicans, but it had already lost its glamor. The older men who had given their lives to it seemed to us worn out, discouraged, and uncreative. Finally, they might become teachers in high schools, or professors of philosophy or theology in college or universities, or even in Newman centers at secular universities.
I felt vaguely uncomfortable that the Order of Preachers seemed to be putting so little of its energy directly into the task of proclaiming the Gospel, but tended to accept the view which seemed to prevail among my professors, that after all the best and most profound way of proclaiming the Gospel was by teaching the theology (and the philosophy) of St. Thomas Aquinas. They pointed out to us that this meant first of all mastering the "solid doctrine" of St. Thomas in the original Latin text, and then learning to present it in attractive modern language. Walter Farrell, author of a Companion to the Summa which in the 40's was a best-selling college text in theology, was for us an example of a successful Dominican apostle. With the exception of Father William Kane, of whom I will say something later, none of them understood that if Thomism was to be of real relevance today it must be thoroughly re-thought in terms of our twentieth-century scientific culture.
I was not at all dismayed that we studied theology in Latin directly from the Summa Theologiae, or that Father Kane encouraged me to do my philosophy directly from Aristotle and the commentaries of St. Thomas. At the University of Chicago, the distinguished philosopher Richard McKeon, and at Notre Dame Ives Simon, had taught me great respect for textual study. St. Thomas had helped me personally to the Faith. Every hour I have spent with his works has been and still is a joy. Nevertheless, I was deeply disappointed to find that so few of our professors knew how to use Thomism to meet current issues presented by the sciences and humanities. For them it was a system of truth which was practically complete, and which was the ready-made remedy for the world's confusion, if only it could be "sold."
My other great disappointment was to find that most members of my community seemed activists rather than contemplatives. I was told that the Dominican apostolate found its source in a life of study, contemplation and liturgical prayer. Before I entered the Order my liturgical experiences were quite rich and vivid, and I had been encouraged to take time every day for meditation. I was conscious that in all this there was perhaps too much estheticism, and I wanted to be guided toward a deep and authentic life of prayer. Yet from the day I entered the novitiate I was rubbed raw by the tension I felt all around me between the elaborate forms of monastic life and the inner impatience of most of my brethren "to get it over with" so that they could get back to activities in which they felt more comfortable and personally engaged. I sensed that for most the liturgy and monastic observances were obligations to be dutifully fulfilled, but that they were neither enjoyed, nor really experienced as effective means to spiritual growth. They were a framework without inner content, since the real content of life was for the students a busy round of activities, classes, sports, movies, TV, too much food and drink, and for the priests their classes, parochial work, and other apostolates away from the monastery.
It was not that the liturgy was skimped. In fact an extraordinary amount of time was given to the Divine Office in choir, solemn high Masses, recitations of the Rosary, Benedictions of the Blessed Sacrament, processions, litanies, devotions, periods of meditation, reading in the refectory, periods of silence, retreats, days of recollection; along with fasts and abstinence, the cloister, the habit, and all the ritualization of life characteristic of the Middle Ages.
The beauty of monasticism is one of the greatest of human creations, and I personally could have given myself over to it entirely. It would have taken the place of poetry in my life, and it is a greater poem than any I could have written. However, it was romantic poetry, and perfectly equivalent to the pseudo-Gothic building designed by a pupils of Bertram Boodhue in which we lived in River Forest. Strangely I was indignant when I heard that Frank Lloyd Wright (whose studio was in the adjoining suburb of Oak Park) had offered to design that building and was refused. I realized how phoney was pseudo-Gothic architecture, but not how phoney was my dream of a revival of Gothic monasticism. I did not really perceive that I was a victim of that school of romantic medievalism in religious life which our Master General Jandel infused into the Dominican Order at the time of its revival in the 1840's in France by his friend (and opponent) Lacordaire. It was the same spirit as the Gothic revival in architecture, and the first phases of the Benedictine liturgical revival. All these movements supposed that the way to Catholic renewal was to revive the "Age of Faith". Thomism of "the strict observance" was the intellectual manifestation of the same idea.
I could have accepted all this by a poetic act of the imagination, at the price of living within a paranoiac dream. Most of my brethren had a simpler solution. They "fulfilled their obligations", but were eager for the day when they could leave the house of studies and get out in the "real world", where these obligations would be reduced to the minimum. In the typical parish the busy schedules of the priests reduced the choral Office to a hurried, and perfunctory recital, or eliminated it altogether; while the other "observances" became mere vestiges. The evil of the system was that it failed to provide really effective means of spiritual growth that fitted in with the temperament and work of the men, and on the other it left them with a certain feeling of guilt and compulsion because they were not and could not really "live the Dominican life", conceived as the "strict observance" of the seminary days. The theory was, of course, that the seminary days would so habituate a man to prayer, that he would retain this habit throughout his life, even in the unfavorable situations of his work. I do not say that this theory was altogether false. I have known Dominicans who in the most unlikely circumstances managed year after year to maintain on their own something of the whole pattern of seminary life, but the conflict was great.
The result of this inner contradiction between a medieval conception of Dominican life and the reality of the way American Dominicans actually live and work, was suddenly broken in our Province with the advent of Vatican II. Younger men began to say, "I am done with all that chicken-shit!" The elaborate formalities and vestiges of a form of life which they had never felt was really theirs simply evaporated. More conservative people saw this as evidence of a lack of faith, of the spirit of sacrifice, and respect for authority. They felt that younger men simply wanted to shuffle of the burden of the "obligations to which they are vowed." But the liberals saw it as an effort to be rid of a neurotically --compulsive, phoney way of life, in order to make room for a more genuine faith, real service of people, and fidelity to the Gospel.
These were my disappointments. My disillusions have been also twofold: One has been a change in my conception of the Dominican apostolate. As I have indicated I began by accepting the idea that a Dominican was to proclaim the Gospel primarily by proclaiming the theology of St. Thomas. My own work was to be philosophy rather than theology, but always ordered to theology. I taught for many years in River Forest in the same seminary as I was myself trained, but I had also many opportunities to lecture elsewhere occasionally, or as a visiting professor. For ten years I was deeply involved with the faculty of St. Xavier College in Chicago in developing a program of liberal arts education for Catholic schools, a unified system from first grade through college, based on a Thomistic theory of education. Central to all my efforts was participation in the Albertus Magnus Lyceum, a team of Dominicans which included the philosophers Father William Kane, Bertrand Mahoney, Raymond Nogar (who became a well-known writer and lecturer on the philosophy of evolution), James Weisheipl the medievalist, and three Dominicans with doctorates in scientific fields, Albert Moraczewski, Denis Zusy, and John Walsh. Our idea, rooted in the teaching of Father Kane, was to reconstruct Thomism in the light of modern science.
Our illusion (which had its most dramatic result in the early death of Raymond Nogar, worn out by inner struggles over the matter) was that a group of men could work closely together on an intellectual task without learning frankly to share their inner doubts and difficulties about the task itself and their role in it. Each of us had different conceptions of what we were trying to do, and as we progressed we began to see that our original view of the problem had shifted. Yet we did not really feel free or have the courage to work this out among ourselves. Some of us came to see, as Father Kane had not, that for all its immense merits, the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas has little to say about that dimension of reality which so much concerns modern man, namely the historical, individual, subjective, evolving, dialectical, relativistic aspect. St. Thomas in view of his own purposes and problematic which was to seek out what is universal, certain, objective, and trans-historical about man and the universe, leaves questions of this sort to one side. By no means does this indicate that our Dominican Thomistic tradition has nothing to contribute to the modern problematic. Vatican II said little of Thomas, but many of its leading thinkers, like Rahner, Lonergan, Congar and Schillebeeckx, used Thomism as the point of departure of their theologies. It does mean, however, that the task we had purposed, which still is of immense importance for the future, cannot be successfully carried out without a far more profound exploration than our team had the courage to face. Like Moses, William Kane led us to the threshold of a new land, but was unable to pass over into it, and died on his mountain of vision.
My other disillusionment is more recent. Just before Vatican II was I was appointed Regent of Studies, that is, head of the seminary for our Province. While engaged in the St. Xavier project I had become acutely aware that our young men teaching in colleges and universities were inadequately prepared for this task by their seminary training! By this time almost a third of our men were engaged in this apostolate, and even before Vatican II a number of them had mental breakdowns, depression, or serious moral problems with sex or alcohol, as a result of their sense of failure in a task for which they felt unsuited and unprepared. As Regent my efforts were to broaden the education our men received, and to adapt it more closely to individual talents. Above all I wanted to break down the old dichotomy between the select few who could understand metaphysics, and the many who were to be consigned to parishes and high school teaching. I was convinced that most of our students had great individual gifts that needed development. Vatican II brought with it changes in all the seminaries. I was able to be fully informed of these because I worked as a consultant for the Bishops Committee on Priestly Formation of the U.S. National Catholic Bishops Conference.
The disillusionment in all this has not been in the-reform of American seminary education which I believe is moving in the right direction. Rather it has been in our capacity as Dominicans to meet this very real and inescapable problem in a realistic and flexible manner. On the one hand many young and middle aged priests raised under the old system have not been convinced that religious orders really have the capacity to change, or to change rapidly enough; consequently they have become discouraged and left religious life. I am sure that some of these men will make important contributions to the Church and the world as laymen. I fear, however, that the majority of them will find themselves as unable to integrate their education with their life as laymen, as they did as priests. They have left not in order to become a prophetic vanguard of the Church, out ahead of the rigid institutions, but rather to seek security in some role provided by the secular institutions, where they will be more boxed-in than ever.
On the other hand the students who have entered the new system are not very happy either; many soon leave, and this has led many of our priests to lose interest in Promoting vocations", with the result that the number entering seminaries is everywhere drastically declining. The complaints of the students are of two sorts. Some few complain that they came to live a life of discipline and to study an a definite tradition, and they are troubled by the apparent lack of direction. Most complain that they are still restricted and guided paternalistically under the guise of liberal permissiveness. At the same time students seem more preoccupied with talking about freedom and inter-personal community than they are with using their freedom for self-initiated work or for team-work. This disillusion I share with most of the secular academic community which, even after it has read all the studies of the youth-culture, and spent many hours trying "to listen" to youth, still finds itself puzzled.
My conclusion is that we should be less concerned about "understanding young people," and more concerned with really facing the unfinished work of the generation which are now middle-aged. For Dominicans that work is to free our life of out-moded formalisms, and to replace them with forms of community life and Gospel apostolate that make the values for which our Order was founded living realities in today's world. We have many mature, creative people in our Province who are striving to do this and who, with God's blessing, will succeed. The gloom of the elders attached to a way of life that is gone, and the discontent of young men to whom we cannot yet present a clear model with which to identify, should not blunt our purpose. Old men will be reassured only when they see that religious change can construct as well as destroy. Young men will stabilize only when they see construction in progress.
Achievements and Satisfactions
Out of such disappointments and disillusions emerge my happiness and fulfillment in Dominican life: an expanding, deepening vision of reality centered in Jesus Christ; the wonder and tragic beauty of the world; the humor and pathos of my own existence as a live member of a human community.
I say "vision", because by temperament I seem to live through my eyes, rather than my ears or skin. As I have said, it is beauty that makes me alive. Although poetry and music can move me to tears, even in their harmony I am most enthralled by the architecture, the dramatic structure. As for feeling, I prefer the serene and transparent feelings that do not cloud vision. Although I like food, the physical presence of companions, sleep; yet this is because such comforts quiet anxiety and rest the weary powers of perception. I want to be quiet in order to see. I am not claiming this approach to reality is best. The philosopher Charles De Koninck used to say that vision is the clearest sense, but the least existential, the most subject to illusions.
I found Dominican community life, with all its shortcomings, a wonderful home for the enlargement of vision. First of all it has provided me with a living tradition of serene, critical gazing at reality through the eyes of Thomas Aquinas. At the same time it has demanded of me that as a disciple of Jesus I must somehow see myself in the stream of history moving forward. I cannot close my eyes to the strange drama of the modern world. Arthur Koestler in The Creative Act argues that scientific discovery, poetry, and humor all arise from the "bisociation" of ideas, the clash of two incongruous views of reality. For me it has been this headlong encounter of the classical Christian view of Aquinas and the post-Kantian historicist, positivist view of today that has made life intellectually exciting. Please understand that I am not talking about two disembodied systems of concepts. To live as a Dominican in the twentieth century is not just to think, but to live in two colliding worlds. The excitement has been a daily effort not just in the class room but at meals, in the people I meet, the clothes I wear, the hours I spend in chapel and before a TV set, in the cloister or a jet-plane -- a daily effort to construct a vision.
This construction has for me undergone two main phases. For many years as a student and a teacher I was occupied in reproducing in my own thought and life a version of St. Thomas' vast Aristotelian yet Biblical universe, a universe pictured in Dante's great poem. It is not geocentric, as people sometimes think, but centered in the Trinity. At the outer limits of reality this Center has its last explicit image in man, an image clouded by sin, yet shining out clearly once again in the New Adam, Jesus Christ. In Him all the manifold aspects of human nature are integrated. All the arts and sciences in His mind form a true wisdom. All human feelings, desires and hopes in His heart form true love. In His wisdom and love He teaches all men the way to the Father, proving the truth of his wisdom and the purity of His love by the foolishness of the Cross. His teaching is not an external imposition, but an inward Spirit by which all men can be called again to life, filled with healing and elevating gifts, united in a wise and loving community, and opened to the Trinitarian life which they were created to image.
The dry scholasticism of the seminary manuals is not at all what I found in St. Thomas' own thought, and I was helped to see this because my daily life in a Dominican community still had much of the same atmosphere as the one in which he wrote. At the same time, from the beginning of my studies, I was constantly concerned to understand how the modern world-view of a wave-particle universe evolving through eons in relativistic space-time, or the Freudian idea of man and the Marxist idea of society, which also have their truth, might be built into this integrated vision.
In my first phase I saw the task mainly as one of filling in the details in a general plan already laid out. This may appear preposterous, but it really is not so difficult. For example, the Freudian idea of the subconscious and its influence on human behavior is nowhere found in Thomas' psychology, but Thomas does emphasize the intimate connections between human knowledge and decision and the emotions and imagination. It seemed to me that Freud's clinical data were all the more significant for being translated from the mechanistic context into which he fitted them into the organismic context of St. Thomas' Aristotelian view of man. Again I felt that modern physics would be less paradoxical and more intuitively reasonable if freed of its positivistic interpretations and given a holistic philosophical basis. Strangely the greatest opposition I found to such speculations were not from scientists, but from Thomistic philosophers whose preoccupation always seemed to be to keep their metaphysics pure from any contact with the modern scientific world-view.
This vision of man had important implications for education. When I was invited to participate in the project of St. Xavier's College in Chicago to work out a plan of liberal arts education from the grades through college, I was able to give some practical implementation to these ideas, and to modify them in view of educational experimentation.
The second phase of this construction of a vision began as I came to realize more and more the short-comings of Thomism not in terms of its own problematic, but in terms of the historical character of reality. First the rising interest among Catholics in Biblical studies, then the flood of new issues opened by the calling of Vatican II. To me post-Kantian philosophy as such had never been very interesting, because idealism seemed to me simply an incredible attitude toward reality. What especially appealed to me in Thomism was that no matter how lofty the cathedrals of speculation it built, it always sunk the footings on bed-rock common sense. It lived by Aristotle's dictum that all knowledge must be rooted in sense experience. I opposed all Platonizing of Thomism, every effort to introduce into it an a priori element.
Now, largely through reflections about the philosophy of art, I came to a new attitude. I remain a critical realist, but I began to see that Thomism in defending the dependence of the mind on its objective reality, had given too little attention to the creative, constructive, novelty-producing aspect of human knowledge. I began to realize that Kant shifted his problematic to this aspect of knowledge. Idealism is an effort to do justice to the activity of the mind, as against the passivity implied by empiricism or realism. Theologically speaking, I began to see God not merely making man to reflect His glory, but also to share in the divine creativity.
This insight was a liberation, because it made it possible for me to see modern thought and modern culture much more sympathetically than before. God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago as the culmination of ancient history, but this was but the inauguration of a process of manifesting the kingdom of God which will be complete only when Jesus is "all in all", the center of a world renewed. Not only the "ages of faith", but the modern age is part of that great drama, which at all times has its ambiguities. Science and technology, and all the concerns of modern philosophy and art are expressions of the work of the Spirit of Jesus. The counter element of evil and error is present now, but it was also present in the ages of faith.
Thus the theology of Vatican II did not shock me (some of its practical consequences have), but seemed to me a marvelous expansion and development of the same vision with which I was struggling. Never has there been any greater time of endless discussions and debates than this time of Vatican II. In the classroom, in long discussions over a glass of beer (or more than one) at night, in anguished committee meetings within my Order, or with other Catholic groups, in painfully tactful ecumenical confabs, in heart-rending sessions with an old friend getting ready to leave the Order and the priesthood, in prayer meetings and Masses where traditional forms suddenly dissolved -- in such a turmoil that we have all experienced the last few years -- I was reconstructing my vision again and testing it in meditation and prayer against deepening faith in the Gospel.
In the first phase of which I have spoken, the specifically Christian element of this vision became real for me largely during the long hours we spent in the chapel in our house of studies. During Office and Mass and in the meditation periods, with a constant sense of the Eucharistic Presence of the Lord, I kept working with this or that question about my view of life, and how my own actions fitted in. Early in my students days an internal struggle started which for several years was a source of acute suffering. First it took the form of great scrupulosity. I went around and around in a circle of doubts and fears as to whether I had lost contact with God by mortal sin. Then this anxiety fixed itself as in panic one the question of the "act of faith," How could I doubt without losing God, yet how could I believe without continually giving a rational demonstration of the reasonableness of believing? Every neurotic element in my nature, going back to a childhood too dependent on an over-anxious mother and an adolescence too isolated from sports and gang experiences, gathered around this compulsive worry about faith, the very thread on which my life swung suspended in the void. I had self-destructive impulses to sever that thread. The hyper-rationalistic, legalistic way in which I tended to understand religion, and which my Thomism both reinforced yet refuted, made this agony the more intense. I wanted to believe, yet was convinced that to believe in God irrationally was to sin against Him blasphemously.
I never got really skilled psychological or spiritual guidance in this struggle, but I did have patient and supportive confessors, friends with whom I indirectly worked out some of my problems, and above all the constant help of meditation and the liturgy. I have known priests whom the liturgy and the effort to pray against the bias of their neuroses drove mad, but for me they were healing. Even when scruples about the rubrics and legal obligations added to my pain, nevertheless I found these times of prayer to be an open space filled with growing peace. I might come to Office almost out of my mind with anxiety, but seldom or never left it without becoming aware of God calming and supporting me, even making me laugh at my own nonsense, giving me the ray of light necessary to keep going another day.
All the time I was very busy indeed, and this also was a blessing. My health was good except for constant indigestion and an occasional ulcer, but I was never really depressed for long, although the anxiety never seemed to leave me. Gradually, however it began to subside, to return now only in an occasional moment of weariness or upset. I have even sometimes felt a little nostalgic to recall how intense an experience those days were. In place of this anxiety has come a more human way of looking at God, a stronger sense of Jesus as a person, a greater feeling of the mystery of the Spirit, and a confidence that God wants me to be myself. This does not mean that I am not aware of guilt, but the guilt that worries me is that I waste my talents on trivia, and that I continue to be stupidly obtuse to other people's feelings and attempts to share themselves with me.
I was helped in this growing-up process by the psychological emphasis in religious life that came in with Vatican II. I had read Freud in high school, and all my life tried to psychoanalyze myself, but I was very insensitive to the affective aspect of my relations with others. I was afraid in a celibate community that too much expression of emotion might verge into homosexuality, or that close relations with women outside the community might "give scandal." I now felt freer to speak about my feelings and to show them. It was a delight that the strong emotions the liturgy had always released in me could now have a fitting expression in the new liturgical forms, and that the excessive formality and distance of clerical life could be replaced by greater warmth and naturalness.
I am sure that this emotional liberation will never mean for me what it means to those who say that they find God chiefly in interpersonal relations. This idea is philosophically appealing to me, but it has not been my personal experience. My experience makes me wonder whether Jean Paul Sartre is not very close to telling the truth about man's existential condition when he emphasizes the ultimate isolation of human beings, the barrier to love and communication which divides us from each other (even from our own deepest self). I find myself disconcertingly mysterious to myself. I do not find that others understand even what I understand about myself. Those who I believe love me the most truly still seem not to love me for those reasons which would mean the most to me. Often in loving them I find I too have ironclad reservations. I observe others deeply in love with one another, yet I also observe how little they really know one another, or apparently care to know. I am ready to admit that this scepticism is my fault, the projection of my suspicious egoism, but if so I wish someone would prove me wrong by loving me as I would like. In short my experience with myself and other human beings shows that when it comes to loving and sharing we have our limits.
With God Himself my experience is not so. When He meets me in prayer I find that He does love me more than I love myself, understand me more than I understand myself, with greater honesty and tenderness. By the quiet power of His Spirit, in the heart of Jesus, he opens my heart so that I can love Him, that I can love myself more wisely, that I can love others more honestly, that I can have faith in their desire to love me. If people experience God in inter-human relations it must be because they sense this same dissolution of human barriers by the action of the Spirit. It is only in His presence that we humans can truly meet one another, as in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were "naked and unafraid" because the Father was with them there.
The outcome of this for me has been that I have lived in a network of friendships which amaze me. No doubt most people in professional life form many such ties, but somehow (perhaps because I began life lonely) I have never ceased to be astonished at the variety and the oddity of the people who come into my life, men and women. How did I get mixed up with all these people? Why do they seem to like me, respect me, even depend on me? Why do they so often laugh at me, but usually with affection? Why, on the other hand, are there some who fascinate me, whom I think I could love, but who attribute to me opinions and feelings (or lack of feelings) I do not have and move away?
Since college my life has always been passed in a small group of close friends who were together a lot. A few of my college friends are still dear today. While in a religious community assignments change, yet I cannot remember any time when I did not have a two or three friends close at hand with whom I could share an intimate sympathy. It is important to me that we can talk naturally together about our relations to God. The only pressing problem which I felt I could not talk about to anyone but my confessor was the scrupulosity struggle of which I have already spoken, and even then my confessor was a friend. The special delight, however, has been that there are always a variety of brothers with whom I feel very much at home, accepting, non-competitive, ready to laugh or argue, with whom I can share in a variety of ways, feeling no weight of dependence on either side. That is a freedom that I thank God for.
To return to my vision. The Vatican II revision of this vision has brought me very close in many respects to the view of Teilhard de Chardin, although I would insist on a more metaphysical analysis. Moreover I am not satisfied with the idealistic optimism of Teilhard, since I would not want a universe too neat. As I have moved toward a more historic view of man, I have also understood better why Aristotle and Aquinas insisted on the element of real contingency and chance in the universe, on the pluralism of realities, and the analogical character of being. An historical cosmos is not an orderly world, but one in which order may emerge, yet it may also disperse into chaos. Man always stands at the brink of decision. He may create, or he may destroy. Eschatology is precisely that God in Jesus Christ calls us forward toward Him, toward the building of the kingdom, the universal human community opening into everlasting life in God; but we may refuse. God's purpose will be accomplished in some form, but it is up to us what form that accomplishment will take, for we can share in it, fight it, or simply default. The world could end in a universal Auschwitz out of which only a remnant would rise to life. Yet the story need not follow that course; if we will, it can be a Divine Comedy.
I see the hour in which we live as dramatic, intensely doubtful. Secular society can destroy itself in a nuclear garbage heap. The Church can wring her hands in indecision until she is dispersed in a long desert trek. My religious order along with the others may fail to see the apocalyptic "door set open." Or we may be entering a great age of world-wide human community in which the Church, assisted by flourishing evangelical communities, will be asked to take the lead. Hope makes the latter prophecy the truer.
This call forward into the future I experience especially in the Eucharist, whose communal and eschatological meaning has been so much deepened for me since Vatican II. Here every day we recall the death of the Lord, yet experience Him in risen glory in our community, and see Him moving ahead of us into the future. I have had only a little acquaintance with the "Pentecostal" prayer groups which are a significant feature of Catholic life today, yet in every Eucharistic gathering and in the Divine Praises awareness of the Spirit of God has become a part of my daily life.
This constructing and reconstructing in faith of my vision of reality has never been for me anything different than my apostolate. My main work has been preparing future priests for their work, but it has also included much preaching, hearing of confessions, spiritual direction, counseling, retreats, lectures, ecumenical activities. For years I helped in parishes on week-ends with Mass, preaching and confessions. Every summer has meant a change of work, and I travel constantly across the country. If any priest is open to possibilities almost any task he undertakes branches out in many directions, so that the problem is always what must I refuse? Not, what can I do? This means that my vision of reality is constantly challenged by the realities I encounter, and sometimes criticized very severely by the people I meet. My share in proclaiming the Good News is that I share with others the vision and meaning which I am trying to find in life, and receive from them new insights to broaden and deepen that vision, or to destroy the illusions that I thought were vision. I have grown somewhat less argumentative with the years, a little more inclined to settle for a collage of truths, rather than a geometrical design. But even a collage must have a design.
I hear young priests saying, as they exchange their clerical collar for a tie, that they want to be accepted for themselves and not because of their status as priests. I don't think priests should be a caste, but I feel my priesthood as the deepest part of myself. The priesthood of every Christian is not an office or a function, but is a relation to Jesus. Certainly a lover is most himself precisely in his relation of love to the beloved. The ordained priest shares in this common priesthood in a special way which relates him not only to Jesus, but to the members of the community for which he has responsibility and who are related to him also in a special way by the fact that he has been called by them to the service of the community.
When I was first ordained I did not even have a clear theory of the priesthood. It has been the experience of responsibility that comes when you see that people need something from you as a priest, and that the Christian community cannot live vitally unless you meet your responsibilities that has made me know what I am personally as a priest. The personal gifts I have seem now to me to have been given to be used for this. I have wondered, as so many do today, just what is a priest supposed to do? I am more and more convinced that his basic responsibility is to discern the gifts of each member of the community and to help them to realize their gifts, their priesthood. His priesthood is for theirs, not the other way around. When I say Mass these days I feel that I am there at the altar to present to the Father the gifts of the people, their lives, their work, on their behalf for the transforming work of the Spirit. I stand in the image of Jesus and recall this words because He forms a community in which each member is renewed in His image and witnesses in His name. In each of us what is deepest, most personal, most truly ourselves is ours relation to Him and to each other in Him My one regret about my priesthood is just that I have so often displayed my own gifts, and so was blind to the gifts of others in which I might have shared.
At present I am a professor of theology in the Institute of Religion and Human Development, a pastoral institute, which is part of the immense Texas Medical Center in Houston Texas. As a member of an ecumenical faculty I teach Protestant ministers and priests who have already finished seminary training and are studying personal family counseling in the clinical settings provided by the Medical Center. We also are developing courses in medical ethics for the medical students, and working with post-doctoral fellows engaged in research projects on the relation between theology and the life sciences. It is an atmosphere where once again there is an exciting "bisociation", an encounter between a Christian world-view and the world-view of modern technological medicine and psychotherapy. My role on the faculty, along with a Protestant theologian and a Catholic scientist is to help ministers and medical students struggle to relate these two worlds so different in their language, their concepts, their attitudes, their hopes and values, yet both seeking to heal human beings.
I am living in a Dominican Community at the Newman Center at Rice University just across the boulevard from the Medical Center. One of my colleagues at the Institute, Albert Moraczewski is a priest of our community. He is a specialist in brain chemistry and the drug problem. The other Dominicans in the community are engaged in the campus ministry at Rice and the University of Houston, or similar work. Such a community has its problems in keeping up an interior life of prayer, an exchange of ideas, and mutual personal support, but I find in it all I need and try to share with others what I am learning and experiencing. I know most of my colleagues and the university people I meet wish that they had this communal element in their lives.
I also am very happy at the moment to be an elected member of the Priests' Senate of the diocese, and to be frequently called as a consultor to the Committee on Priestly Formation of the National Catholic Conference of Bishops which is working to up-date the seminaries. This gives me the feeling that my work is a part of the work of the whole Church, and that is very important to me. When I became a Catholic it was the catholicity of the Church that especially impressed me and I want to make it ever more catholic.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have kept up writing poetry. How I would love now to have the practiced skill to express the rich vision of life that has grown in me in the right images and rhythms! I have said in these post-Vatican II times that I have plenty of material for a marvelous comic novel about religious life. I think, however that a poet must lead a lonely life. He must have time to brood. That is all I ever really gave up in becoming a Dominican -- the time to brood.
At present my Order and province are suffering much as all the religious orders throughout the world. We have lost many, our vocations are low, there is strong polarization between "conservatives" and "liberals", and local communities tend to splinter into smaller and smaller ones. Authorities are confused and are "waiting to see." Some conservatives think religious orders will disappear unless they return to the "good old ways." Some liberals think the established orders have already proved incapable of changing fast enough to meet the needs of younger people. For these bleak predictions both sides have plausible arguments.
I am convinced that today more than ever the world needs Christian evangelical communities living by that intense faith which the Scriptures call "poverty of spirit." World-wide human community is at last technologically possible, but our technology is used not to promote this community but to dehumanize and alienate. Only the Spirit of God can give us the wisdom and love to use the power of technology to humanize and communize our world.
Many believe this will best be done by starting new communities, free of the burden of the past. They can cite the Lord's warning about putting "new wine in old bottles." The old bottles were human traditions, obsolete laws and forms. Yet at the source of each great religious order was the charism of the founder which is not to be identified with "traditions" or laws, but is an inner spiritual law of which Our Lord said, "I have come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it." Vatican II urged the existing orders to return to this living source and to free it from the obsolete forms that had bottled it up. In our General Chapter of 1968 our Dominican Constitutions were freed in this way of the burden of the past. How is this to be put in practice?
I believe that first of all a Dominican community should have a special kind of apostolate, which Dominic simply called "preaching the Gospel." Vatican II, and Paul VI in his recent Exhortation to Religious emphasize that every apostolate is a proclamation of the Goods News, Dominic, however, meant something more specific; the prophetic, teaching office of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. This is a task closely related to other ministries (worship, education, the pastoral office, organization of community, work for social justice, etc.) but distinct from them. Men have many needs, yet in the last analysis none of these can be met in a truly human way, unless men can find a vision unless their lives have meaning. Without meaning every other human good becomes empty and absurd. In the United States today the great majority of men have all they need, except meaning in their lives, and in this they are as poor as the "underprivileged" minority. The Christian knows that it is only the Word of God, Jesus, who can give profound meaning to our existence. Dominic wanted to help men to see and to meet Jesus Christ.
We meet Jesus in the actual circumstances of our life, but we are not aware of his presence unless we question our life, unless we reflect on it, and seek its meaning. Jesus and Dominic proclaimed the prophetic word by which these questions are raised for us. They did this by sermons. Sermonizing still has its value, but today we are all deafened by myriad sermons, both religious and secular. A thousand voices of information, commentary, advertising, propaganda, opinion and seduction pound our ears, dazzle our eyes in printed words and colored images. We need no more clamor, even from the pulpit. What we need is the courage to sit down quietly and ask ourselves the questions about the meaning of our lives, that we know we must ask, and yet we are afraid to ask. We need someone who has a little more of this courage than we have to sit down with us and discuss the questions that even our psychiatrist, with his value-free scientific objectivity, is afraid to face with us. "Proclaiming the Good News" today means helping men have the courage to ask the question to which God's Word is the only answer.
A "preacher" today needs skills in the media of communication, in the various techniques of counseling and promoting discussion, to help people think and feel more honestly. However, his real strength is not in these skills, nor in theological scholarship, but in his faith, courage, patience, prophetic daring. Through this strength in weakness he is able to give people confidence in their search for meaning. He must be a man who keeps asking himself these same ultimate questions. He will not permit himself or others to settle for superficial answers, for the slogans of middle-class conservatism, the slogans of psychiatric adjustmentism, the slogans of mod libertarianism, nor the slogans of pharisaic religiosity. Like Jesus he will cut men to the heart with questions that demand a divinely honest answer. Jesus not only preached sermons, he spent long hours of quiet discussion with individuals and groups, and he engaged in fearless come-one-come-all debate, confronting men where they lived.
This dialogue of the Good News needs to be stirred up in every center and corner of our world: where workers meet, in universities, in professional and business circles, in the homes of cities, suburbs and countryside. Dominicans cannot seek to monopolize this prophetic ministry of the Word which is the work of every bishop, priest, and of every layman for his milieu. The Dominican role is to be everlastingly discontent with the way this ministry is being carried out. As a Benedictine should lay awake at night groaning over all the blasphemously mediocre liturgies in the world, the Franciscan planning to fed the hungry, and the Jesuit to educate the ignorant, so the Dominican should suffer the nightmare of all the platitudes, nonsense, complacent stupidities and lies that echo from our pulpits, our schools, our mass media, religious and secular. He should be ever thinking, experimenting, exemplifying ways in which the Word of meaning can silence the babble of tongues that make our world absurd.
He should never be trapped into thinking there is only one way or a few approved ways to carry out this ministry of the Word. But we must be rigorous with ourselves in pursuing our specific mission, lest we lose our way, fascinated by undertakings which were only supposed to be a preparation for the prime task. A Dominican can be a "real Dominican" as a parish priest, a missionary, a teacher, a philosopher, a theologian, an artist, a musician, a social worker, a political organizer, or what you will. In any of these undertakings there may be a way for the Word, for raising compellingly the ultimate questions that men must face, far more effectively perhaps than in a pulpit. I fear, however, that too frequently we find these tasks more attractive, less dangerous, less crucifying than the terrifying task of asking the evaded questions. The proof of the power of this temptation is found in the fact that laymen are often highly successful in all these tasks, yet find their lives empty, because they use the surface satisfactions of their work to hide from themselves the moment of truth. The preacher becomes a cast-away, as St. Paul said, when he becomes so absorbed in "helping people" in secondary ways, that he forgets the one thing necessary. Like Jonah we are ready for every journey, except the one to Nineveh.
If we who are called to this uncomfortable and unrewarding job are to find our comfort and our excitement in it, we need mutual encouragement. This, I believe, is the root of Dominican community life. We gather together for a common task, but not a task separate from our life together as persons. Our task is to help others become fully themselves as persons facing the basic questions of living. Consequently our life together as brothers and our task of witnessing human brotherhood must somehow fuse.
Our Dominican community must be a special mode of existence, with a special quality of life. (1) It must be truly human. Its first objective must be to help each member discover in God the meaning of his own life and mission, his talents and gifts, his own worth and potential. The moment that a community neglects one of its brothers, treats him as a functionary, ignores the value of his gifts and his need of help to develop them, it "sins against the Holy Spirit," who works through those gifts. (2) It must be "poor in spirit." A religious community is not a family united by ties of flesh and blood, in which male and female, parent and child complete one another biologically and emotionally. It is made up of adults of the same sex but of very different temperaments and backgrounds, united in faith for a common mission. Hence it is a great mistake to expect such a community to substitute as a family, supplying the sort of nurture and fulfillment that a family could give. Nor is a religious community merely a professional team engaged in a finite task, which exists only until that task is achieved. The mission of a religious community is eschatological. Historically the goal of that mission is never attained, since it lies at the end of history, the building of "the kingdom of God." Consequently a religious community lives and works in "poverty of spirit," the darkness of faith, the glimmer of hope.
In the Old Testament we read often of the anawim, "the poor of the Lord." They are the Jews who in the disasters of the Exile, of the Greek, and the Roman occupation of Israel have been stripped of everything, but who await in faith and hope the "day of the Lord." The first chapters of the Gospel According to St. Luke picture Elizabeth, Zachary, and John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna, Joseph and Mary as "poor in spirit". Our Lord himself said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," and exemplified this spiritual poverty for us. It is an attitude of openness to God's word, free of anxiety for lesser values, readiness for any journey, any suffering, for the sake of the kingdom. This is what is expressed by the Dominican religious vow, for Dominic and his friend Francis of Assisi saw the evangelical, apostolic life first of all in terms of such spiritual poverty.
This Dominican vow does not enumerate poverty, chastity, and obedience, but of includes them all in a single commitment of obedience to God, Church, community. This commitment is the obedience by which a man shares the control over his own plans and projects with his community and the community of the Church, in order that the common mission may be carried on, just as Jesus could say to his Father, "not my will but yours be done." This commitment also means plan that a man shares whatever he owns or earns with his community, so that together they can free themselves from the burdens of getting and owning, and put their full energies into their mission.
It means finally a life of celibacy in which a man does not place his security in the possession of family love, but seeks to love rather than to be loved, to share his loneliness with his brethren that all may learn to live with a deeper and more open love than is their native capacity. He trusts the Lord's words: "I say to you solemnly there is no one who has left home, or parents, brothers or sisters, wife or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive a hundredfold." (Matthew 19:29 cf. Luke 14:26)
Obedience today cannot be a child's submission to a superior, but must be a shared commitment and responsibility to the united life and action of the community. This community elects a superior in order that it may meet under his presidency, face its problems, be reminded of responsibility it may be shirking, make its joint decisions, and carry out what it has decided. This does not reduce the superior to a mere chairman of the meeting, for he too should not shirk the responsibilities of his office, which entail the exercise of authority and leadership. Poverty of spirit is found here bath in our willingness to submit our plans, projects and opinions to community criticism and control. Furthermore, it is a part of community responsibility to see that the minority, even the minority of one, is given his rights in justice and charity.
Celibacy must be freed of the excessive fear and of the illusion that man escapes temptation by elaborate protective isolation. Both the individual's psychological needs and the needs of the apostolate can be frustrated by such isolating protection. The celibate, without seeking substitutes for the family relations he has sacrificed, must learn to relate to others, men and women, young and old, in a variety of human roles. In these there can be rich emotional satisfaction, yet this satisfaction cannot be for him the goal or measure, which remains his mission. The community must help him to achieve this prudent balance, and he must not reserve these relations from frank community criticism.
A Dominican community, therefore, exists to help each member achieve true freedom, true poverty of spirit for the sake of the kingdom. But what is to fill a man's life once his house has been swept clean? Common prayer, common study, and a common apostolate. These three are intimately joined, and have a single purpose, to help each brother have the courage to keep up the search for the Word that answers life's questions, and to cooperate with him in sharing his experience of this Word with the community and in widening circles beyond the community horizon.
Study was a feature of monasticism in the form of lectio divine, reading and silent meditation on the Scriptures. In founding his mendicant brotherhood Dominic introduced a new conception of study, it was still study of God's Word, but in view of preaching, rather than personal edification. Under the influence of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas this study remained centered on the Scriptures but widened to include all knowledge, religious and secular, in relation to God's Word. Furthermore this study became not only quiet meditation, but also participation in that lively disputatio of debate and dialogue, that eager search for greater depth and clarity that created the medieval universities.
In my opinion, today the real test of whether our specific Dominican charism is alive in a community, great or small, is if this dialogue, discussion, search for God in our lives is the heart of its common life. To this dialogued every member, whatever his talents or work, should bring not what he has read, but also what he has experienced, felt, seen, done; his insights, gifts of the Spirit, so that all can encouraged, stimulated, and helped to a richer vision.
Dominicans are traditionally known for their "orthodoxy", their "solid doctrine." If this reputation is really deserved it its not because we have memorized the manual, or rigidly adhered to the letter of authoritative pronouncements, but rather because we have subjected our personal impressions, ideas, enthusiasms and prejudices to the perils of fraternal discussion. We should see God, so to speak, from all sides. Heresy is nothing but a one-sided view of God. Furthermore, the flexibility and pluralism demanded by such dialogue is precisely what it is to function ecumenically in a pluralistic world. I do not mean that we should always be arguing and disputing. I mean we should constantly be exchanging ideas and attitudes, rubbing them like flints together until the spark of truth bursts forth.
With this dialogue goes a special kind of prayer. Today there is a revival both of personal prayer and of intimate group prayer that is informal and spontaneous. While this is an absolute condition of the revival of Christian community, it is not enough for those who are to proclaim the Good News. Dominic insisted on a community prayer that was fully liturgical, the liturgical hours, or divine praises along with the Eucharist. Liturgical prayer is something more than simple common prayer in two ways: (1) It is open, something to which all Christians (and today all men) are invited. It is not just for the consolation of a small group, but should retain the element of genuine hospitality. The Word we seek is the Word we proclaim. (2) It is a prayer which, even when in fact said only by one or a few, is commissioned by the whole Church and filled with her mind, her intentions, the richness of her past and the horizon of her future. I am not saying that in fact the liturgical reform has yet fully developed such a prayer, but even the forms we have now have a catholicity usually lacking in simple community prayer.
This means that wherever it is located a Dominican community should become an open center of prayer to which those outside the community can come, and it should exemplify the principles of liturgy which Vatican II has brilliantly clarified. Even if, due to circumstances, this means in practice Morning and Evening Prayer (or even only one of these) and a weekly community Eucharist, yet these should harmonize with our specific mission to study the Word, to experience it, and to help others share in it.
Community life in poverty of spirit, common study, common prayer liturgical prayer naturally become the common apostolate. In our rapidly changing times an apostolate should be conceived as a mission that is eschatological, looking beyond history, yet made up of a series of temporary projects. It is not the building of monumental institutions. A community should plan an apostolic project with a time limit, carry it through as best it can, evaluate the results, and then consider whether to try a new project, or to regroup within the larger community.
Some want each member of a community to have his own apostolate away from the place of residence. Each goes to his work and then returns for community life. This is an extreme reaction to the bad situation where so many religious were tied to large schools. The trouble with such schools, however, was not that they had a team apostolate, but that they did not. Typically each man was pretty much on his own; team planning and exchange of experience was often minimal. I agree that it is best to separate where we live from where we work, in space and in time. but I am also convinced that community life is fragile and loses its full potential if it is not based on a team apostolate. The ideal is that this be the same for all in the house. When there are several, they should be inter-related enough that the study and prayer dialogue of which I have spoken can be carried on without artificial strain. Undoubtedly there will be some individuals with individual apostolates, but they must not be mere boarders, they must be willing to contribute more than money to the common enterprise, and the community must give them understanding and support in their apostolate too.
Teams also should be open. It is a dangerous thing when any apostolate is bottled up by an Order. The people who work in the teams we initiate should also have the opportunity of some share in our prayer and dialogue. It is on this level that more cooperation with women is natural. The problem which this presents for celibates is best met in the open-atmosphere of a team, where the apostolate is the primary concern, and where the self-illusioned can be given a fraternal reality check. The social relations which commonly facilitate professional team-work should be sufficient occasion for more personal acquaintance, while remaining in the context of the apostolate, rather than as an escape from it.
The proposal of some that religious communities should include celibates of both sexes and even married persons, seems to me to complicating for the spiritual poverty that is to be sought. I believe that a community can be open in the sense I have just described so that a celibate community becomes a center around which single and married persons gather and share in some degree without full community responsibility.
How big should a community be? I entirely agree with the attitude of many today (Dominic himself wanted no house of more than one story) that large communities (usually requiring mammoth buildings that burden and fixate the apostolate) tend to become institutional and inhuman. In such communities many members are neglected, others find excuses to escape responsibility and involvement. Prayer becomes mechanical, dialogue is difficult. On the other hand I cannot accept the notion that very small intimate communities of five or three or two (why not one?) living anonymously in an apartment is adequate either for the Dominican mission.
The quality of life can hardly be maimed in such situations, where there is too little variety, too little "creative tension," too little possibility of various human combinations. How can two or three men living in this way give a witness of the reality of that kind of human community which the world seeks? Jesus gathered twelve about him, and something between 5 and 15 seems to me what we should aim at. Today even this produces some living problems, but I believe it would ordinarily be possible to rent, lease or buy for possible resale modest quarters for such a group. There should be a room where open meetings and public liturgy are possible, and a dining room where there is room for guests. Small apartments will not satisfy these conditions, and the expense and time of house-keeping multiplies as communities splinter.
What is the relation of such a moderate-sized local community to its province, the international Order, the Church. Provinces are necessary if a local community is to have the resources on which its own foundation, renewal, and freedom of action depend, especially in our modern world where the forces tending to weaken and disintegrate any community are so massive. The province can no longer be thought of primarily in terms of centralized decision making, which belongs rather in the local community. The role of the province is more concerned with finding new sources of vocations, with search on the needs of the Church and the world, with assisting communities which are in trouble, and on planning for ten years ahead. Its main problems will be, I think, (1) to prevent communities from splintering because of a prolonged evasion of internal problems, which the community fears to tackle in its own meetings; (2) to stimulate a community which has become content with routine to revitalize itself.
The international Order is still important to us because today we need more than ever a global vision that transcends American horizons. What the French Province of Chenu and Congar could have done for us in the United States in the 40's and 50's, if we had not been afraid to learn? Perhaps they also have something to learn from our American experience. It was the international order that trained the best men who inspired the present generation, and it was this order that urged us to take up our African and Bolivian missions. It is true that it has also sometimes imposed on us laws and customs unsuited to our local situation, but this has been because we ourselves lacked the creativity to construct our own way of life within the fundamental values of the Order. We need much more contact with our other brethren, not less. The very fact that so many do not feel a need for this is proof of the narrowness that can be cured only by international dialogue.
Let me say finally that I believe each local Dominican community should see itself as an organ of the diocese in which it exists. It should constantly confer with the Bishop, the Priests Senate, and the Parish Councils to see how it can best serve the local church. Among the possible services that are needed we should select not the most convenient, prestigious, or remunerating, but the ones most fitted to promote the ministry of the Word in that diocese.
My hopes far exceed the guarantees provided by our present impoverished state, but I have found the ideal of the Dominican Order at once so unified and rich, that even when it is very defectively realized in this suffering world, it has splendor. I have found in that splendor a pledge of the beauty of Reality which I seek.