DOMINICAN SPIRITUALITY: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE
William A. Hinnebusch, O.P.
The end of the Order of Friars Preachers is contemplation fructifying in the apostolate. Among the means to achieve the end are the three vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty and the regular life with its monastic observances. The words "regular life" refer to the religious life lived in community.
The heart of Dominican life is brotherly love. In community life this fraternal love is given full opportunity to manifest itself. There can be no religious Order, no fraternal love among brethren, without life in common. All the members of the Order are called to live a life together, sharing the same food, the same furniture, the same facilities, the same kind of clothing. St. Augustine writes in his Rule:Call not anything your own, but let all things be held in common. Food and clothing shall be distributed to each one of you by your superior, not in equal measure to all, because all are not equally strong, but rather to each one according to his need. For thus we read in the Acts of the Apostles: "they held all things in common and distribution was made to each according as anyone had need" (Acts, 2:45).
Value of the Common Life
The common life makes many contributions to the temporal and spiritual well-being of the member of a religious Order. It brings him the fellowship of confreres, instruction, formation, and direction in the religious life, a congenial atmosphere for living virtuously, economic security, the example of others, collaboration in the apostolate, the assurance that his work will continue once he is incapable of further effort, and above all fraternal love and support.
Even the onerous aspects of community life -- submission to authority, sacrifice of personal will, bearing with the defects of others -- bring with them opportunities for mortification and sacrifice. We shall pass over most of these benefits and speak chiefly of the function of the community life in promoting contemplation and the apostolate, the two great ends of the Order. The sacrificial side of common life and monastic observances we shall examine especially in the next chapter.
Community life is not now as rigorous as it was in earlier centuries. Religious today have many things, their religious habits and books, for example, allocated for their personal use. They receive sufficient food, necessary furniture, and adequate medical care when needed. Most religious, coming from middle class families, are not accustomed to luxuries and do not find these aspects of the common life very trying. They did not have luxuries before they came to religion and are now content with very little. But though they find their material needs so well taken care of, they should not underestimate the importance of the community life, which helps them to advance spiritually. Even though life in common gives opportunity to commit faults, it offers much more room for love and sacrifice.
Community life goes much deeper than holding material things in common. More important is the sharing of the spiritual riches of soul and mind: the sharing of obedience and chastity, of virtues and talents, of all that the religious has and is. The common life both protects these things and places them at the service of the Order. What other people get paid for, the religious does for nothing. He does it for the love of God and for his community, making his time and talents available to the Church. This is not a little thing. Educational associations recognize the contributed services of the religious teacher as a living endowment. For example, it is estimated that the priests at Providence College contribute to Catholic education by their teaching the equivalent of a million-dollar endowment. Our schools do not have extensive financial endowments but such consecrated services are far superior.
Community Life and Vows
Community life protects the chastity of religious through the vow, the habit, the enclosure, and silence. It gives the safeguards of law, obedience, mortification, and sacrifice. It relieves the friar of the burdens of a family so that he might give himself more constantly to prayer and works for neighbor. Priests and sisters may not be as free to spend time in prayer as they would like, but, nevertheless, they have much more leisure for spiritual concerns than the mothers and fathers of families who can seldom attend daily Mass and receive Communion. Even though the Dominican spends so many hours in apostolic works or in the classroom, his vows give him much freedom and leisure to devote himself to God.
Obedience, the most important vow, protects the religious from the misuse of his talents, brings him the guidance of superiors, ensures him constancy of purpose and steady progress toward perfection. Obedience causes a great holocaust of consecrated lives to send up the smoke of sacrifice from the thousands of Dominican priories, monasteries, motherhouses, and convents that cover the map of the world. Obedience is also the key to the apostolic use of talents. It provides sustained direction and united action in pursuing the works of the community. Religious of ordinary talent, banded together under obedience, gain great effectiveness and accomplish works that could never have been done alone. Supported by the strength and ability of fellow religious, they work more effectively and with greater endurance. Furthermore, no individual is the best judge of his own powers and abilities. When looking at himself, he finds it hard to be impartial; he either overrates or underrates his ability, and is in danger of misusing talents through personal whim, selfishness, or vainglory. Along this path lies frustration. The religious avoids this danger by laying his talents at the feet of his superior who will direct him in their use.
Even the most talented religious places his abilities at the disposal of the community. The prior may be mediocre in comparison with this superior person. Yet despite his surrender, the talented religious does not stifle his personality when he obeys. Though his prior may be inferior to him in talent, he is superior in rank because he is God's representative. He interprets God's will for his subject. This does not mean that a superior never makes a mistake, that everything he does is wise and prudent. Experience shows that this is far from true. Every human being, however gifted, makes mistakes; some make more than others. But the religious never makes a mistake in obeying. God does not want the prior to make mistakes in guiding the community, but he tolerates them. He does not work miracles to prevent them, just as he did not work a miracle to stop the betrayal by Judas. But once the act had been done, it was the heavenly Father's will that Christ allow himself to he taken by the soldiers sent with Judas to arrest him. Christ used the betrayal to bring to mankind the infinite fruit of the Redemption. When the prior makes a mistake, God does not approve it, but he does permit it. Obedience to the erroneous command is God's will for the subject. The obedient religious takes the order, uses it, and brings spiritual good from it, perhaps the fruit of patience and suffering, but fruit for himself and souls.
It is God's will that the subject obey in everything except sin. No superior, not even the Pope, may oblige religious to do something that is sinful. Even though the vow of obedience binds only to commands which are in accordance with the Rule and the Constitutions, there is also the filial obedience which arises from the common life. In his community the superior is father and has a dominative power which calls for obedience over a field far wider than that covered by the vow alone. A perfect religious not only values the vow but prizes, and much more highly, the virtue of obedience.
Obedience has always been a strong virtue in the Order of Preachers. It is the only vow that Dominicans mention explicitly in their profession formula. Unlike some religious, they do not take the vow to obey the rule, but a person, a person representing God. Dominican obedience has a personal quality that it does not have in every Order. It is the keystone of Dominican existence. It is not negative but positive. It is the fulfillment of personality because it makes the religious like the Only-Begotten Son of God who was obedient unto death. Imitation is one of the finest tributes we can render to Christ. He was obedient, not only to his heavenly Father, but also to Mary and Joseph. He obeyed Pilate, Herod, the High Priest, and his executioners.
Community Life -- A School of Contemplation
Community life, built on the three vows, enables Dominicans to work for the purposes of the Order. The common life of the priory, monastery, or convent is a school of contemplation. If the friar is on a lower level of prayer, living in a community prepares him for higher prayer, because it demands the practice of virtue, especially fraternal charity.
It is impossible to live day by day, year after year, in community, standing beside the same person in choir, sitting beside him in the refectory, without being tried in many ways. Then there are the bells that keep ringing, summoning the religious to stop one thing and take up another. Said one sister: "One day I counted thirty-four bells from 5 A.M. to 9 P.M. There is nothing but bells, bells, and more bells." Such regularity is one of the greatest mortifications of religious life.
St. John of the Cross writes that the common life not only consoles and supports the religious but also tries and tests him. St. Therese of Lisieux tells of the annoyance she suffered from the nun who constantly rattled her rosary. That does not bother most of us, but it bothered her. Another nun, washing handkerchiefs, splashed the laundry water into her face. It is not necessary to describe more of the well-known vexations of the community life. To bear them for a lifetime demands the exercise of many virtues.
By restraining the impetuosity of emotions and passions, the moral virtues prepare for contemplation. Passions fix the mind on material and sensual things, keeping it from rising to spiritual things. The virtues establish calm in the soul and peace in the religious house.
The virtue of justice also leads to contemplation by giving every person his due, thus removing the causes of strife and discord. A religious appreciates this when he remembers that sins against justice include slander, detraction, tale-bearing, gossip, and other mean manifestations of the human spirit. When most people hear "justice", they absolve themselves from blame because they think of robbery and stealing, but they forget the much wider range of this virtue, especially the area of controlling the tongue. The silence of the cloister prevents many a sin.
Community life prepares for contemplation more directly because it exercises the religious in love for God and love for neighbor. The Order was founded on Charity:Before all things, dear brethren, love God and after him your neighbor, because these are the principal commands which have been given to us. These, then, are the things which we command you who live in the monastery to observe: first, that you dwell together in unity in the monastery and have one mind and one heart in the Lord, for this is the reason why you have come together.The profound wisdom of this passage is brought out graphically by God the Father, who speaks to St. Catherine in her Dialogue:I require that you should love me with the same love with which I love you .... To me in person, you cannot repay the love which I require of you. I have placed you in the midst of your fellows that you may do to them that which you cannot do to me, that is to say, that you may love your neighbor of free grace without expecting any return from him. What you do to him I count as done to me. This my Truth showed forth when he said to Paul, my persecutor, -- "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me" This he said, judging that Paul persecuted him in his faithful. This love must be sincere, because it is with the same love with which you love me that you must love your neighbor.Such love is a prerequisite for contemplation, which begins in love, continues in love, and ends in love. Loving God, the soul seeks to find him; when it does so and gazes upon his beauty in contemplation, it becomes more deeply rooted in love and wants to love Him all the more. The contemplative loves all that God loves, especially his fellow men.
Jordan of Saxony, in a letter sent to the friars of Paris, Easter, 1233, stressed this close relationship between loving neighbor and seeing God. Commenting on the failure of "doubting" Thomas to see Christ when the Master appeared to the Apostles on the first Easter day, Jordan wrote:Dear brethren, have a constant mutual charity among yourselves, for it cannot be that Jesus will appear to those who have cut themselves off from the community: Thomas, for not being with the others when Jesus came, did not merit to see him. Do you think that you are better than Thomas?Blessed Jordan has put his finger on the heart of community life. Yet he is but echoing the Scriptures. We read in St. Paul: "Strive for peace with all men and for that holiness without which no man will see God" (Heb. 12:14). St. John the Evangelist is even stronger:Let us, therefore, love, because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For how can he who does not love his brother, whom he sees, love God, whom he does not see. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also (I John 4:19-21).Life in the community also leads the Dominican to contemplation because fraternal charity manifests the Holy Trinity. This truth prompted St. Augustine to say: "Where you see charity, there you see the Trinity:" The life of the Holy Trinity is a common life. The Three Divine Persons share the Divine Nature and all the Divine Attributes. They have everything in common except their Personality. Each has his own Personality. This common life of the Holy Trinity is a life of love. The love of the Heavenly Father for the Only-Begotten Son is so great, and the love the Son for the Father is so great, that from their living, subsistent, unique, and mutual love proceeds a Third Person, Substantial Love, the Holy Spirit. The most sublime example of community life is the marvelous interchange of love of the Three Divine Persons. In living the common life, the religious, day by day, witnesses to his belief in the Holy Trinity.
Preparation for the Apostolate
The consecrated life of the Dominican lived in community prepares him to become an apostle, for it engenders in him a love of neighbor founded on solid virtue. In his soul rises love for the brother who stands next to him in choir, who sits next to him at meals, who shares with him the joys and sorrows of the cloister. But love is expansive. It bursts through cloister walls and becomes apostolic; it goes out to the neighbor who lives down the street, who sits beneath his pulpit, who comes to his classroom, who is in far off lands. Willingly the Dominican shoulders the burdens and sacrifices of community life so that through them he might offer prayer and make reparation for souls. When obedience calls on him to go into the pulpit or into the classroom, to surrender temporarily the joys of the cloister and the quiet of the priory, he makes the sacrifice generously, not fearing that these works for others will interrupt his life with God. What he gives to his fellow men, he gives to Jesus. In them he sees Christ.
The profound truth of his neighbor's identity with Christ is brought out in a striking incident in the life of St. Catherine of Siena. Raymond of Capua, who had an intimate knowledge of all the wonders God had worked in the soul of this humble Dominican, shared the episode and described it for us. We repeat it in the dramatic version of Fr. Dominic Rover, in his play: Catherine, My Mother.I remember once in the convent at Montepulciano. She was sick with a great fever and had asked me to come. Even with the fever on her she wanted to talk; so many things had happened to her -- new visions, heavenly favors so great she could scarcely find tongue to tell them. Then the flood of words about God's Blood and the Bridegroom and the need for a holy hatred of self, so strong this time that it stung me. It was, perhaps, the fear and guilt in my soul or else the devil himself got into my heart, but I began to wonder whether it was truly the Spirit of God who moved her or only the fever, and whether some mad fever of the soul had not always possessed her, from the beginning. What was it -- fear, resentment, a trick of the devil? All those things, no doubt, and all at once. She lay there in front of me, flushed and babbling (so I thought) and it struck me that these holy words were all lies, lies of a wretched woman possessed of demons or simply mad! Then I looked again at the virgin and suddenly, it was not Catherine! It was the face . . the face of a man . . . looking up at me, with strong eyes and a short fair beard. Majestic -- like the Byzantine Christ in the church of Monreale. It was terror held me there, a great terror, but I had to speak. "Who art thou? Who?" And the voice answered: "He Who is." At that very moment the face vanished and it was Catherine who lay there, cooled of her fever now, sleeping like a babe, or caught up in that prayer which for her was like a long sleep and the end of pain ....The soul in the state of grace is the image of Christ. The Dominican, by profession a contemplative, is driven by necessity to love his fellow man. If he has no love for others, then long hours of prayer, painful hours of study, meticulous fidelity to the rule will be sterile; they will never lead him to contemplation. This is the teaching of St. Paul:If I should speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have charity, I have become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And if I have prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, yet do not have charity, I am nothing (I Cor. 13:1-2).St. Dominic deeply loved his neighbor. As a student at Palencia he sold his personally annotated books to buy food for people suffering from famine. Love for souls kept him up all hours of the night praying and doing penance for them; it awakened his ardent desire to preach and to have the friars preach.
Jordan of Saxony reveals the hidden source of Dominic's love for others:His frequent and special prayer to God was for the gift of true charity capable of laboring for and winning the salvation of men, since he deemed that he would be a true member of Christ only when be could devote himself entirely to gaining souls, like the Lord Jesus, the Savior of all, who offered himself completely for our salvation.Jordan himself was ruled by ardent love for his fellow men. Even as a young deacon at the University of Paris, before he became a Dominican, he burned with love for God and neighbor. It was his custom to rise for midnight matins in a nearby church. One night he met a beggar along the way. Since he had no money with him Jordan took off his belt and gave it to the man. After he reached the church, being early for matins, he went to pray beneath the Crucifix. Kneeling there, he looked up and saw his belt fastened around the waist of Christ, Jordan's reward for his love of neighbor.
To point out these sublime aspects of the common life is not to claim that it is easy to live. There are many obstacles to fraternal charity in the modern environment. To maintain his spirit, the Dominican constantly needs to renew and deepen his motivation, to orientate his life decisively toward love of God and of his fellow men. He can best do this at the foot of the Crucifix. Fra Angelico in his paintings always shows Dominican Saints -- Dominic, Peter Martyr, Thomas (the only ones canonized at that date) -- absorbed in contemplation of the Crucified Christ. Catherine of Siena perpetually speaks of the Blood of Christ. It is she who writes in one of her letters: "He who contemplates Christ on the cross with his heart opened by the lance, becomes another Christ, himself loving souls just as he loved them."
Everything about Dominican community life, when it is lived with fidelity and sincerity, enkindles love for God and neighbor. It was designed to do this; Dominic chose the common life as one of the principal means of achieving the ends of the Order: the sanctification of his children, and the salvation of souls through preaching. Community life prepares for contemplation and for the apostolate. The sacrifices accepted and the difficulties overcome in living together form the Dominican religious in the charity which is the very heart of the Order's spirit and apostolate. The charity which rises in the contemplation of the cloister overflows on neighbor in the apostolate. This is the doctrine of St. Augustine: "Before all things dear brethren, love God and after him your neighbor:" This precept was repeated by Jordan of Saxony, the successor of St. Dominic: "Always have charity for one another. It is impossible for Jesus to appear to those who separate themselves from the community:" Michael Cardinal Browne (then Master General) paraphrased for American Dominicans this precept of the second master general:No one, not even our Holy Father, the Pope, can dispense us from love of our conventual life; it is something intrinsic to our state, implanted there by God himself. The touchstone by which we may judge if we, in our apostolate, are following the spirit of our holy Order, will be whether as apostles we retain the love of our holy conventual life.