Thursday, November 11, 2010

Contemplata Tradere: A Reflection on Being a Dominican

Contemplari et Contemplata Aliis Tradere
(study and hand on the fruits of one's studies)

On Monday night, my wife and I made our temporary commitments to live according the rule of Saint Dominic as lay members of the Order of Preachers. Having had a fairly busy week, I haven't been given much in the way of an opportunity to think and then write, to record my thoughts about this event. Why did I become a member of the Order of Preachers, so-called Dominicans?  Perhaps a more important question is, "what are my duties and responsibilities as a member of the Catholic Laity?"  The answer to this latter question looms large in my decision to become a lay Dominican.

So, what are my responsibilities as a lay person?  There are the precepts of the Church, but these only go so far as concerns actual daily living. Although being a good Catholic requires weekly attendance of Mass, observation of the appropriate Holy Days, fasts (and periods of abstinence), and reception of the sacraments (that is, of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation), these do not represent the sum total of what is required to be a good Catholic. Nor does supporting the Church financially--there's more to the practice of the faith than writing a check once a week (or month)--though this is again something which all Catholics should do to the best of their abilities. While these things are all very important, none of them really touch upon what it means to live faithfully, that is, on the concept of being a Christian daily (as opposed to weekly). To be sure, that time spent in Mass can give spiritual strength for the week to come, as can the sacraments; but what we do once we leave Mass (or the confessional) is also a part of our Faith. Ours is a Faith which needs to be lived, not merely thought or believed.

How then should we live?  What does it mean to be a Christian?  Obviously, there is quite a bit to the answer to this question:  as with anything else, the theology of the Faith is both simple enough that even a humble child can understand it, and yet paradoxically is deep enough for even the greatest mind to drown.  But as a starting point, I will turn to the words of the LORD Himself, from His Sermon on the Mount:

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its strength, what shall it be salted with? It is no longer of any use but to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men. You are the light of the world….let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to God." (Matthew 5:13-14,16).

These words follow immediately after the Beatitudes in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. What is relevant about them, as opposed to many of the other things which Jesus said, is that He spoke these to His disciples upon seeing the multitudes (Matthew 5:1). They are spoken to every one who follows Him, not merely to a specific group of His followers (e.g. the apostles and their successors the bishops, or by extension to the clergy).  To be "salt of the earth" and "light of the world" is therefore an exhortation not merely to the priests within the Church, but to all followers of Christ, to all the disciples. 

We are, in other words, all called to bear witness to the truth.  This is not a duty only for the clergy, but for all faithful Christians.  There are, of course, many ways of doing this, from the contemplative lives of the monks and hermits who renounce worldly riches to spend their lives in prayer*, to the Franciscans, not to mention such saints as Vincent de Paul, who dedicate their lives to helping the poor; there are those who do so through various apostolates, and those who do so by the important daily task of handing on the Faith to their children.  The way in which I try to bear witness to the Truth is through preaching, both in actions and in words, sometimes (or even often) failing, but always striving to be a light for the world.

But what, exactly, am I doing as a light for the world?  Father James Schall, a Jesuit professor of philosophy at Georgetown university discusses the Dominican formula, which he shortens to contemplata tradere, in The Unseriousness of Human Affairs.   He calls to mind that a light is not so much useful in its own right, but as a means to illumine something else.  Yes, a light is useful in the darkness, but it is only useful if there is something beyond itself to which it points.  I hope in my own case that something is the source of all Truth:  to God.

Of course, I did not need to join the Order of Preachers to do all this.  I could have joined some other order, or none at all.  However, it is the Dominicans whose way of life seems to me to best fit with my desire to be a light illuminating truth.  Indeed, that is another of the mottoes of the order:  veritas, truth.  Our local Promoter, Fr Ralph Ragowski O.P. often jokes that we are the order of talkers, but it is precisely because we are more than that that I was first attracted to the order.  We may be an Order of Talkers, but it is only because there is something worth talking about.  If we are indeed an Order of Talkers, we are at least not an Order of Babblers, talking much while saying little, rambling on about a tale filled with sound and fury which signifies nothing.

Our preaching serves an end, and that end is geared not towards ourselves, but to others.  Here then is the last of our mottoes:  Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare; to praise, to bless, and to preach. The order of this last motto is fitting, since it brings to mind the first things first (praising God) and then then the second things (blessing others) and the last things last (our own preaching).  This ordering of priorities parallels the two greatest commandments:
"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Matthew 22:37-39)
Our preaching serves the end of praising God and blessing others.  We bless others with the charity by which we preach, even when this takes the form of admonishing sinners.  Charity and truth are, in turn, inextricably linked together, for they share a common source (God).  As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in  Caritas in Veritate,

"To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity....Truth needs to be sought, found, and expressed within the 'economy' of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth" (emphasis mine).

If the Order of Preachers is faithful to its principles, as articulated in its three mottoes, then it follows that the Dominicans will continue to bless with their preaching, to work in charity and truth.  This in turn is itself a form of praise to God.

There is one more thing which I would like to address in this reflection, and this is the question about truth.  If my preaching is to serve the Truth, then I must spend time reflecting upon the truth:  hence, the first of the Order's mottoes, cited above.  This is also the meaning of the four pillars of Dominican life:  prayer, study, community, and preaching.  The first three are all necessary for the fourth one to be successful.  The study is important, because to preach the truth we must first know it and be able to articulate it;  a significant part of the task of a preacher is to instruct the ignorant, that is, to catechize.  Prayer is even more important, because without this we lose the purpose of our preaching; perhaps the most important thing to pray for in this regard is humility.  On the other hand, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are among the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, all of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are important to preaching, since we must have fortitude (the courage to speak the truth), prudence (to present the truth tactfully and in an appropriate manner), piety (to serve God confidently and joyfully), and a fear of the Lord (here we've come full circle to both humility and Wisdom).

As for community, this is the final reason for joining with the Order.  Although I have a strong sense of fellowship and community outside the Order, and though much of this community helps support me in the Faith, very little of it is actually dedicated to preaching.  We draw strength through prayer, but support comes through the community.  For me, that vocational community is the Order of Preachers.

*Not that this is the only way in which the monks have born their witness to the Truth.  It was they who preserved the ancients texts of classical learning, but also who kept the faith alive in Europe as it was ransacked by barbarians during the dark ages.  It was the monks, diligently preserving the works of Rome and Greece, who also copied the Bible for Europe prior to the invention of the Printing Press.
Note: this also appears on my Nicene Guys website. However, because there have been some bugs in that site of late, it's been republished in its entirety here.
If you enjoyed this post, here are some other similar posts which I have written:
Saint Thomas Aquinas:  A Reflection (Nicene Guys)
Contemplata Tradere:  A Reflection on Being a Dominican
Saint Thomas Aquinas and a Foretaste of the Beatific Vision
Contemplata Tradere (A Black and White Order)
Reflection on the Spirit and Abba (Nicene Guys)
Preaching to the Preachers: My Reflection Concerning Preaching (Nicene Guys)
Metaphor and Allegory in Saint Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer:  A Reflection (Nicene Guys)

No comments:

Post a Comment