“A city set on a hilltop cannot be hidden.” A Contemplative Life (1)
Given at S Sabina on the Feast of St Catherine of Siena, 2001
fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.
THIS LETTER IS ADDRESSED in the first place to the nuns, because it is about your life. I wish to give thanks to God for your presence at the centre of the Order. Often during hectic visitations, my visits to the monasteries have been times of joy, laughter and refreshment. I am not a nun and so what have I to say about your life? I too, like you, am a Dominican called to contemplation. You have openly shared with me your hopes for the renewal of this contemplative life at the heart of the Order, and the challenges that you face. So in this letter I wish to share with all the nuns the fruit of our conversations. If ever I appear not to have understood your vocation, then forgive me. The Order will only flourish if we dare to speak what is in our hearts, confident in that forgiveness.
I also wish to share this with the whole Dominican Family. Before he died St Dominic “entrusted the nuns as part of the same Order to the fraternal concern of his sons” (LCM 1 § I). The first Dominican community that he founded was for the nuns at Prouilhe, and one of his last concerns was the building of the monastery at Bologna: “It is absolutely necessary, brethren, that a house of nuns should be built, even if it means leaving off for a time the work on our own house.” So the monasteries are entrusted to us all. And we are entrusted to the prayer and the care of the nuns. This mutuality is at the heart of the Order. So even though I address myself directly to the nuns, I hope that all Dominicans will eavesdrop.
1. A contemplative life
The monasteries are not the contemplative branch of the Order. We cannot leave contemplation to the nuns. We are all called to be contemplatives, and the renewal of the contemplative life is one of the greatest challenges the Order faces. I hesitate to give a definition of “contemplation”, but let’s be bold! By contemplation I mean our search for God, which leads to our encounter with God who is searching for us. We look for God in silence and in prayer, in study and in debate, in solitude and in love. With every gift of the heart and the mind, we seek the traces of God. But God finds us when we least expect it. Mary Magdalene, the first Patron of the Order, is the true contemplative, searching for the body of Jesus, only to be astonished to hear her name called by the Risen Lord. Our prayer springs from this deep desire. As Catherine said, “Desire itself is prayer”.
fr Vincent de Couesnongle talked of “the contemplation of the street.” The Word has become flesh and dwells among us, in the least of our brothers and sisters (Mt 25), in our families, in the places we work, in our friends and our enemies, in the times of delight and of desolation. The Word is there, if we can but open our eyes to see. Eric Borgman, a Dutch lay Dominican, wrote, “Dominicans are convinced that the world in which we live, turbulent and restless, often violent and terrifying, is at the same time the place where the holy comes to light, the place where we encounter and listen to – ‘contemplate’ – God.” So every Dominican is called to contemplation, whether we are lay Dominicans, sisters, friars or nuns. Our greatest contemplative, St Catherine of Siena, was a lay woman.
Preaching is a contemplative act. Don Goergen wrote, “In preaching the seeker and the sought come together, the lost and the found. God finds us in the midst of our very own words attempting to bespeak him. God never lets go of us.” Preaching is not just opening one’s mouth and speaking. It begins in silent attention to the gospel, the struggle to understand, the prayer for illumination, and concludes in the reactions of those who hear. As a young friar, I remember a visiting Bishop, who was due to preach, saying to one of the brethren one minute before Mass, “If you are a good Dominican, you should be able to preach now without preparation”. The brother replied “It is precisely because I am a Dominican that I do not believe that preaching is just saying the first thing that comes into my head.”
If all Dominicans are called to be contemplatives, what then is special about your life? Your life is entirely shaped by the search for God. The vocation of the nun “is a reminder to all Christian people of the fundamental vocation of everyone to come to God” (Verbi Sponsa 4). As fr. Marie-Dominque Chenu wrote, “the mystical life is not basically other than the Christian life” . You do not escape from the dramas and the crises of ordinary human life. You live them more nakedly, intensely, knowing the joy and despair of every human life, without the shelter of many of the things that give meaning to most human lives: marriage, children, a career. The monastery is the place where there is nowhere to hide from the ultimate question of every human life. One nun wrote, “I entered the monastery not to flee from the world, to forget it or ignore its existence even, but in order to be present to it in some more profound way, to live at the heart of the world, in a hidden way, but that I believe to be more real. I came here not looking for a quiet life or security, but to share, to take on board the suffering, the pain, the hopes of all mankind.”
Your lives make sense only if the search for God does lead to the meeting in the garden and the hearing of one’s name. Your lives have no intermediate purpose to get you through the days and the years. The monastery is like the queue at the bus stop, a sign of hope that the bus will come. This is true of all those who live the monastic enclosed life. In a conference to the Congress of Benedictine Abbots , I maintained that God often shows Himself in absence, in the void: the empty space between the wings of the cherubim in the Temple, and ultimately in the empty tomb in the garden. The life of the nun and the monk is hollowed out by emptiness. Your lives are empty of purpose, other than to be there for God. You do not do anything especially useful. But that emptiness is a hollow space in which God dwells and where we glimpse his glory.
You do this as nuns of the Order of Preachers. The Church calls on the contemplatives of different religious families to live from the richness of their own traditions and charisms – Benedictine, Carmelite, Franciscan or Dominican – which “constitute a splendid array of variety” . What does it mean for a monastery to be Dominican? I will share what I have learned from you, by looking at how your lives are marked by the Mission of the Order, by Dominican community life, by the search for Truth, and by belonging to the whole Order. There are many other aspects of your life that I will not touch, just these that are central to your Dominican identity.
What does it mean to be a nun in a missionary Order? How is it possible to be an enclosed contemplative and a missionary?
To be a missionary is literally to be sent. The brethren and the sisters can be sent on mission to the ends of the earth, as Jesus sent the disciples. You may be sent to found a new monastery or to reinforce a monastery that is weak, but usually you stay where you are. In what sense are you sent? For Jesus to be sent by the Father was not for him to move from one place to another. He did not set out on a journey. His very existence was from the Father. You are missionaries just as much as the brethren, not by going anywhere but by living your lives from God and for God. As Jordan said to Diana, “you remaining in the quietness of your convent and my many wanderings in the world are equally done for the love of him” . You are a preached Word in your being.
The seventh way in which Dominic prayed was by stretching “his whole body up towards heaven in prayer, like a choice arrow straight up from the bow” You point to God like an arrow, just by being there, for no other purpose. You are a word to your brethren, sisters and lay Dominicans in your life, and a word for the place where your monastery is. I have seen this most clearly in places of suffering, like Angola, Nicaragua, in the slums of great cities like Karachi, or in the Bronx in New York or the suburbs of Paris. In such places a monastery is a Word that becomes flesh and blood, “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1.18).
Mary Magdalene goes to the apostles and says to them, “I have seen the Lord”. Some of you may be called to preach through writing. Many of the greatest theologians have been monks and nuns, and this would be especially appropriate for a Dominican nun. LCM 106 § II is explicit that the work of the nuns may also be intellectual.
You may also be sent to make new foundations. Olmedo is an inspiration, with its eight foundations in four continents. The Order is growing in many parts of the world, especially in Asia, and we are incomplete without you. Sometimes you have gone before us. It may take great courage to send nuns to found a new monastery, especially because it is the ones who give most to their communities who will be capable of such an adventure. Remember the courage of Dominic, who dispersed the brethren as soon as the Order was founded, so that the seed would bear fruit.
Compassion is part of your mission, sharing Dominic’s gift “of bearing sinners, the down-trodden, and the afflicted in the inmost sanctuary of his compassion” (LCM 35. § I,). Dominic’s God is a God of mercy. Compassion means unlearning that hardness of heart which sits in judgement on other people, shedding the armour that holds others at bay, learning vulnerability to another’s pain and confusion, hearing their cry for help. We learn this first of all in our communities. Do we dare to be touched by the suffering of the sister next door? Do we dare to take the risk of hearing her half-expressed requests for help? If not, then how can we embody Dominic’s compassion for the world?
Compassion is more than feeling, but opening one’s eyes to see Christ among us suffering still, as Las Casas saw the crucified Christ in the Indians of Hispaniola. It is an education of the heart and the eye, which makes us attentive to the Lord who is with us in the crushed and wounded. Compassion is thus truly contemplative, clear-sightedness. As Borgman says, “To be moved and shocked at what happens to people and what this does to them is a way of perceiving God’s presence. Compassion is contemplation in the Dominican sense” . Contemplative compassion is learning to look selflessly at others. As such it is deeply linked to the hunger for a just world. The Order’s commitment to justice easily becomes ideological if it is not born of contemplative compassion. “A society that doesn’t understand contemplation won’t understand justice, because it will have forgotten how to look selflessly at what is other. It will take refuge in generalities, prejudices, self-serving clichés.”
Compassion draws us beyond our own divisions. The monastery at Rweza in Burundi is surrounded by war. The sisters themselves come from the different ethnic groups that are fighting, and all have lost members of their family. When they were asked what kept them together, they said that unity was a gift from God for which they could never give enough thanks. They also said that they listen to the news on the radio together, even though this was painful. The sharing of that pain makes them one.
Compassion therefore implies a knowledge of the needs of the Order and of the world. I have seen that in flourishing monasteries there is often a desire to know about the Order and its needs, just as Diana pestered Jordan for news of his missions. “For what do you want us to pray?” There is a thirst to understand what is happening in places of war, such as Algeria and Rwanda. So the monastery needs to have access to information and real analysis, rather than news that just entertains, so that you may bring the needs of the world to God.
Compassion overflows into prayer. The early brethren were always asking the nuns to pray for them because they had little time themselves. Raymond of Peñafort complained to the Prioress of Bologna that he was so caught up with the business of the papal court, that “I am hardly ever able to reach or, to be quite honest, even to see from afar the tranquillity of contemplation…..So it is a great joy and an enormous comfort to me to know that I am helped by your prayers.” Jordan writes to Diana, “Pray for me often and earnestly in the Lord; I am much in need of prayer because of my faults, and I pray but seldom myself” .
This may give the impression that the brethren and the nuns are involved in two quite different activities, the brethren preaching and the nuns praying, just as in a home the wife may do the cooking and then leave the husband to do the washing up, if she is lucky! But in preaching we share the word that is given to us. And so praying for that word is part of the event of preaching. It does not just precede preaching, as cooking precedes washing up the dishes. It is part of the coming of the Word, and so the nuns are most intimately involved in the act of our preaching. “The nuns are to seek, ponder and call upon him in solitude so that the word proceeding from the mouth of God may not return to him empty, but may accomplish those things for which it was sent” (LCM Fund. I §2). For Jordan, it is the prayers of Diana and her community that make his preaching powerful and that bring the flood of vocations.
most typical form of prayer for St Thomas Aquinas is
intercession and thanksgiving. We ask God for what we
need and we give thanks when it is given. This may suggest
an infantile way of being in the world, as if we were
incapable of doing anything for ourselves. In fact it
is the maturity of those who realise that everything
is a gift. In the world of consumerism, where everything
can be bought for a price, then to ask is seen as a
failure. But if we live in the real world, made by God,
then asking for what we need is being truthful, the
recognition that God “is the source of all that
is good for us” . But more than this, it is through
answering our prayers that God sometimes acts in the
world. God wishes us to pray, so that he may give in
response. Prayer is not twisting God’s arm, so
that he may change his mind. It is part of friendship
that God gives to us what we ask. So your prayers are
a participation in God’s action in the world.
The Celebration of the liturgy
Another way you preach is through the public and beautiful celebration of the liturgy, as urged by Venite Seorsum. In our society there is hunger for God, but often a suspicion of teaching. As I know from experience, the moment that one begins to preach, some faces will turn off. But beauty can touch the deepest springs of our longing for God. Beauty summons us without bullying. It has its own authority, which is more profound than argument.
Dominican liturgy should be joyful . Dominic sang with joy. Jordan tells a story about a gloomy Waldensian called Peter, who did not think much of the Dominicans because “the friars were too cheerful and showy” He believed that religious should be serious and sad. And then he had a dream of a meadow. “In it he saw a crowd of Friars Preachers in a ring, with joyful faces raised towards heaven. One of them was holding the Body of Christ in his upraised hands.” He woke up “his heart filled with joy” and joined the Order. The joy of the liturgy is a part of our preaching the Good News. I shall never forget the joy of the nuns in Nairobi, dancing to the altar with the gospel. The joy of the good news was visible in their movement. I could not resist dancing myself!