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Dominicans of Canada

cornerThe Promise of Life

"I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly." John (10.10)
25 February, Ash Wednesday 1998

fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.


Timothy Radcliffe, OPWhen St Dominic gave the friars the habit, he promised them "the bread of life and the water of heaven"(1) . If we are to be preachers of a word that gives life, then we must find the "bread of life" in our communities. Do they help us to flourish, or merely to survive?

Shortly after I joined the Order, the Province was visitated by fr. Aniceto Fernandez, then Master. He asked me only one question, the traditional question of all visitators: "Are you happy?" I had expected some deeper question, about preaching the gospel, or the challenges facing the Province. Now I realise that this is the first question we must put to our brethren: "Are you happy?" There is a happiness which is properly that of being alive as a Dominican, and which is the source of our preaching. It is not an endless cheerfulness, a relentless bonhomie. It entails a capacity for sorrow. It may be absent for a time, even a long time. It is some small taste of that abundance of life which we preach, the joy of those who have begun to share God's own life. We should have the capacity for delight because we are children of the Kingdom. "Delight is the intrinsic character of the blessed life and the life which by the gift of the Holy Spirit is on the way to blessedness".(2) When we sing to Dominic we conclude by praying: Nos junge beatis. Join us to the blessed. May we share some glimpse of their happiness there now.

If we are to build communities in which there is an abundance of life, then we must recognise who and what we are and what it means for us to be alive. as men and women brothers and sisters, and as preachers.

We are not angels. We are passionate beings, moved by the animal desires for food and copulation. This is the nature which the Word of life accepted when he embraced human nature. We can do no less. It is from here that the journey to holiness begins.

Yet we are created by God in his image, destined for God's friendship. We are capax Dei, hungry for God To be alive is to embark on that adventure which leads us to the Kingdom.

We need communities that will sustain us on the way. The Lord has promised "I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36.26). We need brothers and sisters who are with us as our hearts are broken and made tender.

Every wise person has always known that there is no way to life that does not take one through the wilderness. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land passes through the desert. If we would be happy and truly alive, then we too must pass that way. We need communities which will accompany us on that journey, and help us to believe that when the Lord leads Israel into the wilderness it is so that he "may speak tenderly to her" (Hosea 2.16). Perhaps so many people have left religious life in the last thirty years not because it is any harder than before, but because we have sometimes lost sight of the fact that these dark nights belong to our rebirth as people who are alive with the joy of the Kingdom. So our communities should not be places in which we merely survive, but places where we find food for the journey.

To use a metaphor which I have developed elsewhere,(3) religious communities are like ecological systems, designed to sustain strange forms of life. A rare frog will need its own ecosystem if it is flourish, and make its hazardous way from spawn to tadpole to frog. If the frog is threatened with extinction, then one must build an environment, with its food and ponds and a climate in which it can thrive. Dominican life also requires its own ecosystem, if we are to live fully, and preach a word of life. It is not enough to talk about it; we must actively plan and build such Dominican ecosystems.

This is, in the first place, the responsibility of each community. It is for the brethren and sisters who live together to create communities in which we may not just survive but flourish, offering to each other "the bread of life and the water of heaven". This is the fundamental purpose of the "community project" proposed by the last three General Chapters. This will only happen if we dare to talk together about what touches us most deeply as human beings and as Dominicans. My hope is that this letter to the Order may open up discussion of some aspects of our Dominican life. I look at the apostolic life, the affective life, and the life of prayer. These are not three parts of each life (Contemplative life, 7am - 7.30am; Apostolic life, 9am - 5pm; Affective life ?.). They belong to the fullness of any life that is truly human and Dominican. Nicodemus asks how one can be reborn. This is our question too: how can we help each other as we face transformation, so as to become apostles of life?

Not every community will be able to renew itself and attain the ideal envisaged by our Constitutions and recent General Chapters. A Province will therefore have to evolve a plan for the gradual renewal of communities in which the brethren may flourish. It is to these communities alone that young brethren should be assigned. They will carry the seeds for the future of Dominican life. Unless a Province plans the building of such communities, then it dies. A Province with three communities where the brethren flourish in the Dominican life has a future, with the grace of God. A Province with twenty communities where we just survive may well have none.


1.1 A life torn open

The Dominican life is in the first place apostolic. This may easily be understood to mean that a good Dominican is always busy, engaged in "apostolates". Yet the apostolic life is not what we do so much as what we are, those who are called to "live the life of the apostles in the form conceived by St Dominic".(4) When Diego met the Cistercian delegates sent to preach to the Albigensians he told them "go humbly, following the example of our loving Master, teaching and acting, travelling on foot without silver and gold, imitating the life of the apostles in everything".(5) To be an apostle is to have a life, not a job.

And the first characteristic of this apostolic life is that it is a sharing of the life of the Lord. The apostles are those who accompanied him "during all the time that Lord Jesus went in and out among us" (Acts 1.21). They were called by him, walked with him, listened to him, rested and prayed with him, argued with him, and were sent out by him. They shared the life of the one who is Emmanuel, "God with us". The culmination of that life was the sharing of the Last Supper, the sacrament of the bread of life. Though one left early because he had too much to do.

The apostolic life is therefore for us more than the various apostolates that we do. It is a way of life. Yves Congar OP wrote of preaching that it is a "vocation that is the substance of my life and being,".(6) If the demands of the apostolate mean that we have no time to pray and eat with our brothers, to share their lives, then how ever busy we may be, we will not be apostles in the full sense of the word. Meister Eckhart wrote: "People should not worry so much about what they should do; rather about what they should be. If we and our ways are good, then what we do will be radiant."(7) Dominic was a preacher with all his being.

But this apostolic life necessarily tears us apart. This is its pain and the source of its fertility. For the Word of God, whose life the apostles share, reaches out to all that is farthest from God and embraces it. According to Eckhart, the Word remains one with the Father while boiling over into the world. Nothing human is alien to him. The life of God is stretched open to find a space for all that we are; he becomes like us in all things but sin. He takes upon himself our doubts and fears; he enters into our experience of absurdity, that wilderness in which all meaning is lost.

So for us to live the apostolic life fully is to find that we too are torn open, stretched out. To be a preacher is not just to tell people about God. It is to bear within our lives that distance between the life of God and that which is furthest away, alienated and hurt We have a word of hope only if we glimpse from within the pain and despair of those to whom we preach. We have no word of compassion unless somehow we know their failures and temptations as our own. We have no word which offers meaning to people's lives, unless we have been touched by their doubts, and glimpsed the abyss. I think of some of my French brethren, who after a day of teaching theology and doing research, take to the pavements at night, to meet the prostitutes, to hear their woes and sufferings, and to offer them a word of hope. No wonder that, from the beginning, we Dominicans have a bad reputation! It is a risk of the vocation. Jordan of Rivalto, in the fourteenth century, tells people not to be too hart on the friars if they are bit "grubby". It is part of our vocation: "being here among the people, seeing the things of the world, it is impossible for them not to get a bit dirty. They are men of flesh and blood like you, and in the freshness of youth; it is a wonder that they are as clean as they are . This is no place for monks!"(8)

So the apostolic life does not offer us a balanced and healthy "lifestyle", with good career prospects. For it unbalances us, tips us into that which is most other. If we share the life of the Word of God in this way, then we are hollowed out, opened up, so that there is the space and the silence for a new word to be born, as if for the first time. We are people of faith who reach out to open our hearts to those who do not believe. Sometimes we ourselves will be unsure of what it all means. We are like the apostles, who were summoned by Christ, and who walked to Jerusalem with him, knowing that he alone had the words of eternal life. And yet they argued as to who was the greatest, and often had no idea where they were going.

So the apostolic life invites us to live a tension. We have promised to build our lives with our Dominican brothers and sisters. "For us henceforth to be human, to be ourselves is to be one of the preaching brethren, we have no other life-story."(9) Here is our home and we can have no other. But the impetus of the apostolic life propels us into different worlds. It has taken many of our brothers into the industrial world, to the world of factories and trade unions. It takes others into universities. It takes us into the cyberworld of Internet. A new project of the French Dominicans, Jubilatio, carries us into the world of the young. A project in Benin takes us into the world of ecological farming. We are present in the worlds of Islam and Judaism. This tension may tear us open, so that the only life we have is not built or planned by us, but received as a daily gift, "bread of life" that Dominic promised.

1.2 Work in contemporary society

In our contemporary society, this tension can easily become a simple division. We can become people with two lives, our lives as Dominicans in our communities and the lives we live in our apostolates. This is because of the way that work is perceived today. If this happens then the beautiful, painful, fertile tension at the heart of the apostolic life is broken, and we may become simply people with jobs who happen to go back to religious hotels at night. Let us see why this is a particular challenge we must face today.

a) The fragmentation of our lives

Contemporary western society fragments life. The weekday is separated from the weekend, work from leisure, the working life from retirement, at least for those lucky enough to have a job. You can be a history teacher in the day and a parent at night and a Christian on Sunday. This fragmentation can make it hard for us to live unified and whole lives. Dominicans preach in an almost infinite variety of ways. We are parish priests and professors, social workers and hospital chaplains, poets and painters. How do we live these apostates as friars, members of our communities, vowed brethren and sisters? I remember being very moved talking to a young Dominican journalist who shared with me the difficulties of living in the world of the media. In the day he lived in one world, with its moral assumptions, its "lifestyle". At night he came back to his religious community. How was he to be one person, friar and journalist? When we come back to the community at night, then like everyone else in society we will want to shut off the burdens of the day. What we do at work is "another life".

b) The professionalisation of work

Increasingly work is professionalised. For the preaching of the gospel we will often become qualified professionals. One can even get a diploma in preaching or a doctorate in pastoral studies. None of those whom Jesus called had graduated in "apostleship"! There is nothing wrong with this professionalisation. We must be as qualified and professional as those with whom we work. Yet we must be aware of the seductions of becoming a "professional". It grants status and position. It locates us in a stratified society. It gives identity and invites us to a way of life. We may bring in a salary to the community. How is this doctor, professor, pastor, to be a mendicant, an itinerant friar or sister? Does our profession confine us to a narrow path, with only the prospect of promotion? Does it leave us free for the unexpected demands of our brethren and of God?

c) The work ethic

Finally, in western society, the work ethic has triumphed. It is what justifies our existence. Salvation not by works but by work. The unemployed arc excluded from the Kingdom. Whatever we may preach, surely the hectic activism one so often encounters in the Order may suggest that sometimes we too believe that we can save ourselves by what we do. We praise Dominic as Praedicator Gratiae, "preacher of grace", but though we may preach that salvation is a gift, is that how we live? Do we live as those for whom life, and the fullness of life, is a gift? Is that how we regard our brethren? Do we compete to show how busy and therefore important we are?

1.3 The wilderness of meaninglessness

So to be a preacher is to have one's life prized open. We have somehow to share in the Exodus of the Word of God, who comes forth from the Father to embrace all that is human. Sometimes this Exodus may carry us into the wilderness, with no apparent way through to the Promised Land. We may be like Job who sits upon the dung heap and proclaims that his Redeemer lives. Only sometimes we merely sit upon the dung heap. If we let ourselves be touched by the doubts and beliefs of our contemporaries, then we may find ourselves in a desert in which the gospel makes no sense anymore. "He has walled up my path "(Job 19.8).

The fundamental crisis of our society is perhaps that of meaning. The violence, corruption and drug addiction are symptoms of a deeper malady, which is the hunger for some meaning to our human existence. To make us preachers God may lead us into that wilderness. There our old certainties will collapse, and the God whom we have known and loved will disappear. Then we may have to share the dark night of Gethsemane, when all seems absurd and senseless, and the Father appears to be absent. And yet it is only if we let ourselves be led there, where nothing makes any sense any more, that we may hear the word of grace which God offers; for our time. "Grace shows itself where we break through despair into the affirmation of praise."(10)

Faced with void, we may be tempted to fill it, with half believed platitudes, with substitutes for the living God. The fundamentalism which we so often see in the Church today is perhaps the frightened reaction of those who stood on the edge of that desert, but did not dare to endure it. The desert is a place of terrifying silence, which we may try to drown by banging out old formulas with a terrible sincerity. But the Lord leads us into the wilderness to show us his glory. Therefore, says Meister Eckhart, "Stand firm, and do not waver from your emptiness".(11)

1.4 Communities of apostolic life

How can our communities sustain us in this apostolic life? How can we support each other when a brother or sister finds themselves in that wilderness, when nothing at all makes any more sense?

a) The apostle is the one who is sent. The apostles did not apply for the job! We give our lives to the Order so that we may be sent out on its mission. In most Dominican communities there is the regular rhythm of going out in the morning and coming back at night. But we are not just going out to work, like a professional leaving his house. It is the community that sends us. And "on their return the apostles told him what they had done" (Luke 9. 10). Do we listen to what our brethren have done in the day when they come home in the evening? Do we give them the chance to share the challenges that they meet in their apostolates? We are out there, in the parish or the classroom, for them, on their behalf, representing them. The community is present here in this brother or sister.

How can the prayers that we share together, morning and evening, be not just the common fulfilment of an obligation but part of the rhythm of the community that send out and receives back its members? Do we pray for and with our brothers in their apostolates? If not, then how can our community be said to be apostolic? It may become just a hostel.

The General Chapter of Caleruega has given excellent and clear suggestions as to how communities may plan and evaluate the common mission of the community, so that the brethren grow in a real sense of collaboration. I strongly urge all communities to fulfil these recommendations (No. 44).

b) In our communities we should be able to share both our faith and our doubts. For most of us, especially many who are joining the Order today, it is not enough just to recite the psalms together. We need to share the faith that brought us to the Order and which sustains us now. This the foundation of our fraternity. Perhaps we can only do this tentatively, shyly, but even so we may offer our brothers and sisters the bread of life and the water of heaven". General Chapters frequently recommend that there be preaching at every public liturgy. This is not only because we are the Order of Preachers, but also that we may share with each other our faith.

We must also be able to share our doubts. It is above all when brother enters that wilderness, when nothing makes sense any more, that we must let him speak. We must respect his struggle and never crush him. If a brother dares to share these moments of darkness and incomprehension, and we dare to listen to him, then it may be the greatest gift that he could ever give. The Lord may lead a brother into the dark night of Gethsemane. Will we go to sleep while he struggles? Nothing binds a community more closely together than a faith that we struggled to attain together. This may be in a theological faculty or a poor barrio of Latin America. In wrestling together to make sense of who we are and to what we are called in the light of the gospel, then we shall surely be astonished by the God who is always new and unexpected. We may even be surprised to encounter and discover each other, as if for the first time.

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