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Dominicans of Canada

cornerLetter to our brothers and sisters in initial formation (1)

Feast of Blessed Jordan of Saxony 1999

fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.



Timothy Radcliffe, OPDear brothers and sisters in St Dominic,

You are a gift of God to the Order, and we honour the creator in welcoming his gifts. This we must do by giving you the best possible formation. The future of the Order depends upon it, which is why every General Chapter of the Order spends so much time discussing formation. Over the last few years the Order has produced excellent documents about formation, and so rather than write a long letter on formation and repeat all that has been said, I have thought it better to collect these documents together so that you and your formators can easily study them. But I do wish to share just a word addressed directly to you, my brothers and sisters who are at the beginning of your Dominican life, knowing that some of your formators may be looking over your shoulder. I shall talk in terms of the formation of the brothers, since that is what I know about more. I hope that it will also be relevant to the experience of our sisters.

One of my greatest pleasures during my visits to the Order has been the meetings with you. I have been moved by your enthusiasm for the Order, your desire to study and to preach, your true Dominican joy. But formation will also entail moments of pain, disorientation, discouragement, and a loss of meaning. Sometimes you will wonder why you are here, and whether you should remain. Such moments are a necessary and painful part of formation, as you grow as a Dominican. If they did not happen, then your formation would not be touching you deeply.

Formation in our tradition is not the moulding of passive matter, so as to produce a standard product, “A Dominican”. It is our accompaniment of you as you freely respond to the threefold call that you receive: from the Risen Lord who invites you to follow him, from the brethren and sisters who invite you become one of them, and to the demands of the mission. If you respond fully and generously to these demands, then you will be changed. It will ask of you death trusting in the Lord who gives resurrection. This will be both painful and liberating, exciting and frightening. It will form you as the person whom God calls you to be. This is a process that will continue throughout your Dominican life. The years of initial formation are just the beginning. I write this letter to you to offer some encouragement on the journey. Do not give up when it is hard!

I shall take as my text to explore this theme the meeting of Mary Magdalene, the patroness of the Order, with Jesus in the garden (John 20: 11 – 18)

"Whom do you seek?"

When Jesus meets Mary Magdalene, he asks her: "Whom do you seek?". Our life in the Order begins with a similar question, as we lay stretched out on the floor: "What do you seek?" It is the question that Jesus put to the disciples at the beginning of the gospel.

You have to come to the Order with a hunger in your heart, but for what? Is it because you have discovered the gospel recently and wish to share it with everyone? Is it because you met a Dominican whom you admired and wish to imitate? Is it to run away from the world with all its complications, from the pain of forming human relationships? Is it because you have always wished to be a priest, and yet feel that you need a community? Is it because you wonder about the meaning of your life, and wish to discover it with us? Whom do you seek? What do you seek? We cannot answer that question for you, but we can be with you as you face it yourself and help you to arrive at an honest answer.

During our Dominican life, we may answer that question differently at different moments. The reasons that brought us to the Order may not be the reasons why we stay. When I joined the Order I was drawn above all by the hunger to understand my faith. The motto of the Order, "Veritas", attracted me. I doubted whether I would ever have the courage to preach a sermon. Later I stayed because this desire caught hold of me. Sometimes we may not be at all clear why we are still here and for what we long. We may cling to no more than a vague feeling that this is where we are called to be. Most of us stay in the end because, like Mary Magdalene in the garden, we are looking for the Lord. A vocation is the story of a desire, a hunger. We stay because we are hooked by love, and not by the promise of personal fulfilment or a career. Eckhart says, "For love resembles the angler's hook. The angler cannot get the fish till it is caught on the hook. ….. He who hangs on to this hook is caught so fast that foot and hand, mouth, eyes and heart, and all that is this person's belongs only to God. Just watch for this hook, so as to be blessedly caught, for the more you are caught, the more you are free."

Perhaps you will discover that you are indeed searching for the risen Lord, but that you are called to find him in another form of life, perhaps as a married disciple. Perhaps God called you to the Order for a while, to prepare you to be a preacher in another way.

The joy of this Easter meeting is at the heart of our Dominican life. This is a happiness which we share in our preaching. But we grow in this happiness only by passing through moments of loss. The one whom Mary Magdalene loves has disappeared. "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away". She grieves for the loss of the person she loves. Sometimes entry into the Order may be marked by that same experience of desolation. Perhaps you joined full of enthusiasm. You were going to give yourself to God, have hours of ecstatic prayer. But God appears to have slipped away. Praying becomes the tedious repetition of long psalms at the wrong times, with brethren who sing badly. We may even think that it is the brethren who are to blame for God's disappearance, with their lack of devotion. Why do they not even turn up to office? Their teaching may seem to undermine the faith that brought me here. The Word of God is dissected in their lectures, and we are told that it is not literally true. Where have they buried my Lord?

"Jesus said to her, 'Mary'. She turned and said to him in Hebrew 'Rabboni' (which means Teacher)"

We have to lose Christ if we are to find him again, astonishingly alive and unexpectedly close. We have to let him go, be desolate, grieve for his absence, so that we may discover God closer to us than we could ever have imagined. If we do not go through that experience, then we will be stuck in a childish and infantile relationship with God. It belongs to our formation that we may become disorientated, like Mary confused in the garden, not knowing what is happening. Otherwise we can never be surprised by a new intimacy with the Risen Lord. And it must happen again and again as the angler reels us in. The lost Lord appears and speaks to her, and then tells her to let him go again: “Do not cling to me”.

When they seem to have taken away the body of the Lord, do not give up and go away. When Jesus disappeared, then Peter, like a typical man, went back to work. That may be a temptation, to go back to take up again our old lives. Mary did not give up but went on looking, even if only for a dead body. If we endure then, like her, we shall be surprised. I remember a long period of desolation, during the years of simple profession. I did not doubt the existence of God, but God seemed unimaginably distant, and nothing much to do with me. It was years later, after solemn profession, in the garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem one summer, that that the void was filled. I may have to endure that absence again one day, and then maybe it will be you, my brothers and sisters, who will help me carry on until the next surprise encounter.

Jesus says to her just one word, her name: "Mary". God always calls us by name. "Samuel", God called three times in the night. Who we are, our deepest identity, we discover in responding to the call of our name. "The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name" (Isaiah 49:1). So our Dominican vocation is not a matter of finding a job, or even a useful service of Church and society. It is my "Yes" to the God who summons me to be, "Yes" to the brethren with whom I live, and "Yes" to the mission upon which I am sent. I am summoned into life, like one who was called out of the tomb by a voice shouting "Lazarus, come forth".

So we can say that the fundamental goal of formation is to help us become Christians, to say "Yes" to Christ. If it does not do that, then we are playing games. But does that mean that becoming a Dominican is unimportant, a mere incidental? No, because it is Dominic's way of following Christ. Perhaps the earliest name for Christianity was "The Way" (Acts 9:2). When Dominic took to the roads in the south of France, he discovered a way to the Kingdom. The Order offers us a way of life, with its common prayer, its form of government, its way of doing theology and being a brother. When we make profession, then we trust that this strange way of life can lead us to the Kingdom.

So I do not wait to be a good Christian before I become a preacher. Sharing the word of God with others is part of my search for the Lord in the garden. When I struggle to find a word to preach then I am like Mary Magdalene begging the gardener to tell me where they have put the body of my Lord. If I can share my wrestling with the word, then I can share also that moment of revelation when the Lord speaks my name. I must dare to look into the tomb and see the absence of the body if I am also to share the subsequent encounter. To be a preacher is to share all the moments in that drama in the Easter garden: desolation, interrogation, revelation. But if I speak as someone who knows it all, untroubled by doubt, then people may be very impressed by my knowledge, but they may feel it has little to do with them.

"Go to my brethren"

Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, and sends her to his brethren. We respond to God’s call by becoming one of the brethren.

Becoming a brother is more than joining a community and putting on a habit. It implies a profound transformation of my being. Being the blood brother of someone is more than having the same parents; it implies relationships which have slowly formed me to be the person that I am. In a similar way becoming one of Dominic's brothers will ask of me a patient and, sometimes painful, transformation of whom I am. There will be times, perhaps prolonged, of death and resurrection.

It is true that most Dominican brethren are priests, and that we belong to "a clerical institute", but ordination does not make us any the less brethren. During my years of formation I came to love being one of the brethren. I wished for no more. I accepted ordination because my brothers asked it of me, and for the sake of the mission. I came to value being a priest, because the communion and mercy that are at the heart of our fraternal life found sacramental expression for the wider Church. But I was just as much a brother as before. There is no higher title in the Order. This is one reason why I believe that the promotion of the vocation of the co-operator brethren - a term that I have never liked - is so important for the future of the Order. They remind us of who we all are, Dominic's brothers. There can be no second class brethren in the Order.

When I was a student, I remember the visit of a priest from another Province to our community in Oxford. When he arrived, there was a Dominican sweeping the hall. The visitor asked him, "Are you a brother?". "Yes" he replied. "Brother, go and get me a cup of coffee". After his coffee, he told the brother to take his bags to his room. And finally the visitor said, "Now, brother, I wish to meet the Father Prior". He replied, "I am the Prior".

Different visions of being a brother

To be a brother is to find that you belong with us. You are at home with the brethren. But we Dominicans may have many different conceptions as to what it means to be a brother.

One of the shocks of joining the noviciate may be to discover that my fellow novices may have come with very different visions of the Dominican life than my own. When I joined I was powerfully attracted not only by the search for Veritas, but also by Dominic’s poverty. I imagined myself in the streets begging for my bread. I soon discovered that most of my fellow novices considered that to be foolish romanticism. Some of you will be drawn because of a love of study; others because of a desire to struggle for a more just world. You may be scandalised to see other novices unpacking enormous quantities of books or a CD player. Some of you may wish to wear the habit for twenty four hours a day and others will remove it as soon as possible. We easily trample on each other’s dreams.

Often there is such a tension between generations of brethren. Some young people who come to the Order these days value highly the tradition and the visible signs of Dominican identity: studying St. Thomas, the traditional songs or anthems of the Order, wearing the habit, celebrating our saints. Often brethren of a previous generation are puzzled by this desire for a clear and visible Dominican identity. For them the adventure had been to leave behind old forms that seemed to stand between us and preaching the gospel. We had to be on the road, with the people, seeing things through their eyes, anonymous if we were to be close. Occasionally this can lead to a certain misunderstanding, even a mutual suspicion. The Provinces which are thriving today are often those which have succeeded in getting beyond such ideological conflicts. How can we build a fraternity which is deeper than these differences?

First of all, we may come to recognise the same deep evangelical impulse in each other. In the habit or out of the habit, we preach the same Risen Lord. I have always found myself at home with the brethren, whether sitting with a few brethren by a river in the Amazon reciting the psalms in our shirtsleeves, or celebrating an elaborate polyphonic liturgy in Toulouse. Besides the objective demands of the vows and the Constitutions, one recognises certain family resemblances: a quality of joy; a sense of the equality of all the brethren; a passion for theology, even of quite contradictory tendencies; a trust in our democratic tradition, a lack of pretension. All these hint at a way of life we share, however great the superficial differences.

Secondly, our different visions of the Dominican life may be formed by different moments in the history of the Church and the Order. Many of us who became Dominicans at the time of the Second Vatican Council, grew up in a confident Catholicism, sure of its identity. Our adventure was to reach out to those far from Christ by overthrowing the barriers. What drives brothers and sisters of that generation is sometimes the desire to be close to the invisible Christ who was present in every factory, in every barrio, every University. Visible identity was suppressed for the sake of the preaching. Our worker-priests, for example, were a sign of the God who is close even to those who appear to have forgotten his name.

Many who come to the Order today, especially in the West, have made a different pilgrimage, growing up far from Christianity. Perhaps now you wish to celebrate and affirm the faith you have embraced and come to love. You wish to be seen as Dominicans, for that too belongs to the preaching. It can be just the same evangelical impulse which leads some brethren to put on the habit and others to take it off.

This tension is ultimately fruitful and necessary for the vitality of the Order. Accepting the young into the Order challenges us. Just as the birth of a child changes the life of the whole family, so each generation of young who come to us change the brotherhood. You come with your questions to which we have not always got the answers, with your ideals, which may reveal our inadequacies, your dreams which we may not share. You come with your friends and your families, your cultures and your tribes. You come to disturb us, and that is why we need you. Often you come demanding what is indeed central to our Dominican life, but which we may have forgotten or belittled: a more profound and beautiful common prayer; a deeper fraternity in which we care more for each other, the courage to leave behind our old commitments and take to the road again. Often the Order is renewed because the young come to us and insist on trying to build the Dominican life that they have read about in books! Go on insisting!

It is easy for us who came before you to say, with some irritation: “You are joining us; we are not joining you.” This is indeed true, but only half so. For when we joined the Order, we gave ourselves into the hands of the brethren who were still to come. We pledged obedience to those who were not born. It is true that we do not have to reinvent the Order in each generation, but part of Dominic’s genius was to found an Order that has adaptation and flexibility as part of its being. We need to be renewed by those who have been caught by enthusiasm for Dominic’s vision. We must not recruit you to fight our old battles. We have to resist the temptation to box you into the categories of our youth, and label you as “conservatives” or “progressives”, just as you have to refrain from dismissing us as relics of “the seventies”.

You too will be challenged by those who came before you, or at least I hope so. Accepting that there are different ways of being a Dominican does not mean that anyone can just invent his own interpretation. I cannot, for example, decide that for me the vows are compatible with keeping a mistress and a sports car. Our way of life includes certain inescapable and objective demands, that ultimately must invite me to undergo a profound transformation of my being. If I avoid that, then I will never become one of the brethren.

Above all different conceptions of being a Dominican should never really divide us because the unity of the Order does not lie in a common ideological line, even a single spirituality. If it had then we would have splintered long ago. What holds us together is a way of life which allows for great diversity and flexibility, a common mission, and a form of government that gives a voice to each person. The Dominican lion and the Dominican lamb can live together and enjoy each other’s company.

At the beginning of the life of the Order, “The Lives of the brethren” was written to record the memory of the first generation of our brothers. We are bound together as a community by the stories of the past as well as by the dreams of the future. Visible signs of Dominican identity do have their value and say something important of who we are, but they should not become the battle standards of different parties. The Dominicans whose memory we rightly treasure were often those who were so caught up in the passion for preaching that they did not have time to reflect too much about their identity as Dominicans. As Simon Tugwell wrote, "throughout the whole story, when the Order has been most true to itself, it has been least concerned with being Dominican." .

Formation should indeed give us a strong Dominican identity, and teach us about our history and our tradition. This is not so that we can contemplate the glory of the Order, and how important we are, or were, but so that we can take to the road and walk together after the poor and itinerant Christ. A strong sense of identity frees us from thinking about ourselves too much, otherwise we will be too self-preoccupied to hear the voice which asks us: "Whom do you seek?".

So brotherhood is based on more than a single vision. It is built patiently, by learning to listen to each other, to be strong and to be fragile, learning fidelity to each other and love of the brethren.

Talking and listening

We know that we are at home when we can talk easily with each other, confident that our brothers will at least try to understand us. This is probably our expectation when we join the Order. Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, "Go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my God and your God, to my Father and your Father" She is commissioned to share her faith in the risen Lord, even though her brothers may regard her as deluded. So we build a common home in the Order by daring to share what brought us here. Sometimes it will be hard. We probably came expecting to find like-minded people, with the same dreams and the same way of thinking. But we may discover that others have come to the Order by such different paths that we cannot recognise ourselves in what they say. We may hesitate to expose what is most precious, our fragile faith, to criticism and examination. Sharing our faith demands of us great vulnerability. Sometimes it may be easier to do so with people with whom we do not have to live.

One of the main challenges for the formators is to build up trust so that you may dare to talk freely. Martin Buber wrote that, "The decisive thing is whether the young people are ready to talk. If someone treats them with trust, shows them that he believes in them, they will talk to him. The first necessity is that the teacher must arouse in his pupils that most valuable thing of all – genuine trust" . Just as important is that you trust each other. You may even at times have the courage to share your doubts.

Contemporary western culture systematically cultivates suspicion. We are taught to probe beneath what others say to what is not acknowledged, concealed and even unconscious. In the Church this can sometimes take the form of hunting for error, scanning statements for heresies. Is this brother a true disciple of St Thomas Aquinas or of liberation theology? Is he one of us? It is easier to discover how a brother is wrong and has denied a dogma of the Church, or some ideology of my own, than to hear the little grain of truth that he may be struggling to share with us. But such suspicion is subversive of fraternity. It comes from fear and only love casts out fear.

Learning to listen to each other charitably is a discipline of the mind. Benedict Ashley wrote, "There has to be a new asceticism of the mind, for nothing is more painful than to maintain charity alive in the midst of genuine argument about serious issues." Loving my brother is not just a pleasant warm emotion, but an intellectual discipline. I have to restrain myself from dismissing what my brother has said as nonsense before I have heard what he is saying. It is the mental asceticism of opening one's mind to an unexpected insight. It will involve learning to be silent, not just while I wait for him to stop speaking, but so that I may hear him. I must still the defensive objections, the urge to stop him before he says another word. I must be quiet and listen.

Conversation builds a community of equals, and that is why we must build the community of the Dominican Family by taking the time to talk with our sisters and lay Dominicans, and discover the pleasure of it. Conversation builds the larger home of Dominic and Catherine. It "demands equality between participants. Indeed, it is one of the most important ways of establishing equality. Its enemies are rhetoric, disputation, jargon, and private language, or despair at not being listened to and not being understood. To flourish, it needs the help of midwives of either sex…..Only when people learn to converse will they begin to be equal." One of the challenges for us brethren is to let the sisters form us as preachers. The most profound formation is always mutual.

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