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cornerThe Wellspring of Hope

Study and the Annunciation of the Good News

Santa Sabina, Rome. October 1996

fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.


Timothy Radcliffe, OPWhen St Dominic wandered through the south of France, his life in danger, he used to sing cheerfully. "He always appeared cheerful and happy, except when he was moved by compassion for any trouble which afflicted his neighbour". (1) And this joy of Dominic is inseparable from our vocation to be preachers of the good news. We are called to "give an account of the hope that is within us" [I Peter 3:15]. Today, in a world crucified by suffering, violence and poverty, our vocation is both harder and more necessary than ever. There is a crisis of hope in every part of the world. How are we to live Dominic's joy when we are people of our time, and we share the crises of our peoples and the strengths and weaknesses of our culture? How can we nurture a deep hope, grounded in God's unshakeable promise of life and happiness for his children? The conviction which I explore in this letter to the Order is that a life of study is one of the ways in which we may grow in that love which "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". [ 1 Cor 13 :7]

The time has come to renew the love affair between the Order and study. This is beginning to happen. All over the world I see new centres of study and theological reflection opening, in Kiev, Ibadan, Sao Paolo, Santo Domingo, Warsaw, to name a few. These should offer not just an intellectual formation. Study is a way to holiness, which opens our hearts and minds to each other, builds community and forms us as those who confidently proclaim the coming of the Kingdom.

The Annunciation

To study is itself an act of hope, since it expresses our confidence that there is a meaning to our lives and the sufferings of our people. And this meaning comes to us as a gift, a Word of Hope promising life. There is one moment in the story of our redemption which sums up powerfully what it means to receive that gift of the good news, the Annunciation to Mary. That meeting, that conversation, is a powerful symbol of what is meant by being a student. I will use this to guide our reflection upon how study grounds our hope.

First of all it is a moment of attentiveness. Mary listens to the good news that is announced to her. This is the beginning of all our study, attentiveness to the Word of Hope proclaimed in the Scriptures. "Orally and by letter brother Dominic exhorted the brothers to study incessantly the New and the Old Testament ".(2) We learn to listen to the One who says "Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail. " [Is 54:1 ] Do our studies offer us the hard discipline of learning to hear the good news?

Secondly it is a moment of fertility. There she is, as Fra Angelico portrays her, with the book on her knees, attentive, waiting, listening. And the fruit of her attentiveness is that she bears a child the Word made flesh. Her listening releases all her creativity, her female fertility. And our study, the attentiveness to the Word of God, should release the springs of our fertility, make us bear Christ in our world. In the midst of a world which often seems doomed and sterile, we bring Christ to birth in a miracle of creativity. Whenever the Word of God is heard, it does not just tell of hope, but of a hope that takes flesh and blood in our lives and words. Congar loved to quote the famous words of Péguy "Not the Truth, but the Real ... That is to say, the Truth historically, with its concrete state in the future, in time. " This is the test of our studies: Does it bring Christ to birth again? Are our studies moments of real creativity, of Incarnation? Houses of study should be like maternity wards!

Thirdly, in a moment when God's people seem deserted and without hope, God gives his people a future, a way to the Kingdom. The Annunciation transforms the way in which God's people could understand its history. Instead of leading to servitude and despair, it opens a way to the Kingdom. Do our studies prepare the way for the coming of Christ? Do they transform our perception of human history so that we may come to understand it, not from the point of view of the victor but of the small and crushed whom God has not forgotten and whom He will vindicate?

Learning to Listen

And he came to her and said "Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you. "But she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. [Lukel:29 30J

Mary listens to the words of the angel, the good news of our salvation. That is the beginning of all study. Study is not learning how to be clever but how to listen. Weil wrote to fr Perrin that "the development of the faculty of attentiveness forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. "(3) This receptivity, this opening of the ear which marks all study, ultimately is deeply linked to prayer. They both require of us that we be silent and wait for God's Word to come to us. They both demand of us an emptiness, so that we wait upon the Lord for what He may give us. Think of Fra Angelico's picture of Dominic, sitting at the foot of the cross and reading. Is he studying or praying? Is this even a relevant question? True study makes mendicants of us. We are led to the thrilling discovery that we do not know what this text means, that we have become ignorant and needy, and so we wait, in intelligent receptivity for what will be given.

For Lagrange, the Ecole Biblique was a centre of scriptural studies precisely because it was a house of prayer. The rhythm of the life of the community was a movement between the cell and the choir. He wrote "I love to hear the gospel sung by the deacon at the ambo, in the middle of the clouds of incense: the words penetrate my soul more deeply when I meet them again in an article. "(4) Our monasteries should play an important role in the life of study of the Order, as oases of peace and places of attentive reflection. Study in our monasteries belongs to the asceticism of Dominican monastic life. It cannot just
be left to the brethren. Every nun deserves a good intellectual formation as part of her religious life. As the Constitutions of the Nuns say, "The blessed Dominic recommended some form of study to the first Nuns as an authentic observance of the Order. It not only nourishes contemplation but also removes the impediments which arise through ignorance and forms a practical judgement. " [LMO 100 II]

Mary listened to the promise spoken to her by the angel, and she bore the Word of Life. This seems so simple. What more do we need to do than to open ourselves to the Word of God spoken in scripture? Why are so many years of study necessary to form preachers of the good news? Why do we have to study philosophy, read fat and difficult books of theology when we have God's own Word? Is it not simple to give an "account of the hope that is within us"? God is love and love has conquered death. What more is there to say? Do we not betray this simplicity in our complex discussions? But it was not so simple for Mary. This story begins with her puzzlement. "But she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. " Listening begins when we dare to let ourselves be puzzled, disturbed. And then the story continues with her question to the messenger. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

a) The Confidence to Study

The story is told that St Albert the Great was once sitting in his cell studying. And the Devil appeared to him disguised as one of the brethren, and tried to persuade him that he was wasting his time and energy studying the secular sciences. It was bad for his health. Albert just made the sign of the cross and the apparition disappeared. (5) Alas, the brethren are not always so easy to convince! All the disciplines literature, poetry, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics, etc that try to make sense of our world, are our allies in our search for God. "It must be possible to find God in the complexity of human experience. "(6) This world of ours, for all its pain and suffering, is ultimately the fruit of "that divine love which first moved all beautiful things. "(7) The hope that makes us preachers of good news is not a vague optimism, a hearty cheerfulness, whistling in the dark. It is the belief that in the end we can discover some meaning in our lives, a meaning that is not imposed, which is there, waiting to be discovered.

It follows that study should be above all a pleasure, the pure delight of discovering that things do, despite all the evidence to the contrary, make sense, whether our own lives, human history or the particular bit of scripture with which we have been struggling all morning. Our centres of study are schools of joy because they are founded upon the belief that it is possible to arrive at some understanding of our world and our lives. Human history is not the senseless and endless conflict of "Jurassic Park", the survival of the fittest. This creation in which we live and of which we are part is not the result of chance, but it is the work of Christ: "all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" [Col 1:16f]. Wisdom dances before the throne of God to express her joy in creating this world, and the aim of all study is to share her pleasure. Simone Weil wrote in April 1942 to a French Dominican, fr Perrin, "The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The joy of learning is as indispensable to study as breathing is to running. "(8) The Constitutions talk of our propensio (LCO 77) to the truth, a natural inclination of the human heart. To study should be simply part of the joy of being fully alive. The truth is the air that we are made to breathe.

This is a beautiful idea, but let us admit straightaway that it is very far from the experience of many of us! For some Dominicans, brothers and sisters, the years of study have not been a time of learning to hope but of despair. So often I have seen students struggling with books that seem arid and remote from their experience, longing for it all to be over so that they can get on with preaching, swearing never to open another book of theology after they have escaped from their studies. And even worse than the aridity is, for some, the humiliation, struggling with Hebrew verbs without success, never managing to understand the difference between the Arians and the Apollinarians, and finally defeated by German philosophy!

Why is study so hard for many of us? In part it is because we are marked by a culture which has lost confidence that study is a worthwhile activity and which doubts that debate can bring us to the truth for which we long. If our century has been so marked by violence it is surely partly because it has lost confidence in our ability to attain the truth together. Violence is the only resort in a culture which has no trust in the shared search for truth. Dachau, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Bosnia; these are all symbols of the collapse of a belief in the possibility of building a common human home through dialogue. This lack of confidence may take two forms, a relativism which despairs of ever attaining to the truth, and a fundamentalism which asserts that the truth is already completely possessed.

In the face of that despair which is relativism, we celebrate that the truth may be known and in fact has come to us as a gift. With St Paul we can say: "What I received from the Lord, I also delivered to you. " [ I Cor 11:23 ] Studying is a eucharistic act. We open our hands to receive the gifts of tradition rich with knowledge. West culture is marked by a profound suspicion of all teaching since it is equated with indoctrination and bigotry. The only valid truth is that which one has discovered for oneself or which is grounded in one's feelings. "If it feels right for me, then it is OK. " But teaching should liberate us from the narrow confines of my experience and my prejudices and open up the wide open spaces of a truth which no one can master. I remember, as a student, the dizzy excitement of discovering that the Council of Chalcedon was not the end of our search to understand the mystery of Christ but another beginning, exploding all the tiny coherent little solutions in which we had tried to box him. Doctrine should not indoctrinate but liberate us to continue on the journey.

But there is also the rising tide of fundamentalism which derives from a profound fear of thinking, and which offers "the false hope of a faith without ambiguity. " [Oakland No 109] Within the Church this fundamentalism sometimes takes the form of an unthinking repetition of received words, a refusal to take part in the never ending search for understanding, an intolerance of all for whom tradition is not just a revelation but also an invitation to draw nearer to the mystery. This fundamentalism may appear to be a rocklike fidelity to orthodoxy, but it contradicts a fundamental principle of our faith, which is that when we argue and reason we honour our Creator and Redeemer who gave us minds with which to think and to draw near to him. We can never do theology well unless we have the humility and the courage to listen to the arguments of those with whom we disagree and take them seriously. St Thomas wrote "As nobody can judge a case unless he hears the reasons on both sides, so he who has to listen to philosophy will be in a better position to pass judgement if he listens to all the arguments on both sides. " (9) We have to lose those certainties that banish uncomfortable truths, see both sides of the argument, ask the questions that may frighten us. St Thomas was the man of questions, who learnt to take every question seriously, however foolish it might appear.

Our centres of study are schools of hope. When we gather together to study, our community is a "holy preaching." In a world which has lost confidence in the value of reason, it witnesses to the possibility of a common search for the truth. This may be a university seminar arguing over a case of bio medical ethics, or a group of pastoral agents studying the bible together in Latin America. Here we should learn confidence in each other as partners in the dialogue, companions in the adventure. Humiliation can have no part in study, if we are to give each other the courage for the journey. No one can teach unless they understand from within another's panic upon opening a new book, or struggling with a new idea. So the teacher is not there to fill the pupils' heads with facts, but to strengthen them in their deep human inclination towards the truth, and to accompany them in the search. We must learn to see with our own eyes and stand on our feet. When Lagrange taught at the Ecole Biblique he used to say to his pupils, "Look! You will not say Father Lagrange said this or that, because you will have seen for yourself. " (10) Above all the teacher should give the student the courage to make mistakes, to risk being wrong. Meister Eckart said that "one seldom finds that people attain to anything good unless they have first gone somewhat astray. " No child can ever learn to walk unless they have fallen flat on their faces several times. The child who is frightened remains for ever on its bottom!

The Wellspring of Hope

b) The Breaking of Idols

In the earliest days, the study of the brethren was essentially biblical, in preparation for pastoral work, above all the sacrament of penance. The first theological works of the Order were confessional manuals. But when St Thomas was teaching those beginners in theology at Santa Sabina he realised that our preaching would only be useful for the salvation of souls if the brethren received a profound theological and philosophical formation. This was for two reasons. Firstly, the simplest questions often require the most profound thought: Are we free? How can we ask God for things? Secondly because, according to the Biblical tradition, what stands between us and a true worship of God is not so much atheism as idolatry. Humanity has a tendency to build false gods, and then to worship them. The exodus from this idolatry requires of us a hard journey, in how we live and think. It is not enough just to sit and listen to the Word of God. We need to break the hold of those false images of God which hold us captive and block our ears.

All his life St Thomas was fascinated by the question: What is God? As Herbert McCabe OP says, his sanctity lay in the fact that he let himself be defeated by this question. Central to the teaching of Aquinas is this radical ignorance, for we are joined to God "as to one, as it were, unknown. " (11) We have to be liberated from the image of God as a very powerful and invisible person, manipulating the events of our lives. Such a God would ultimately be a tyrant and a rival to humanity against whom we would be forced to rebel. Instead we have to discover God as the ineffable source of my being, the heart of my freedom. We have to lose God if we are to discover Him, as St Augustine said, "closer to me than I am to myself. "(12)

Teaching theology, then, is not just a matter of communicating information, but of accompanying students as they face the loss of God, the disappearance of a well known and loved person, so as to discover God as the source of all who has given Himself to us in His Son. Then we can indeed say, "Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted. "McCabe writes, "It is one of the special pleasures of teaching in our studium to watch the moment which comes to every student sooner or later, the moment of conversion you might say, when he realises that ... God is not less than the source of all my free acts, and the reason why they are my own. " (13)

The intellectual discipline of our study has this ultimate purpose, to bring us to this moment of conversion when our false images of God are destroyed so that we may draw near to the mystery. But thinking is not enough. Dominican theology began when Dominic got off his horse and became a poor preacher. The intellectual poverty of Thomas before the mystery of God is inseparable from his choice of an Order of poor preachers. The theologian must be a beggar who knows how to receive the free gifts of the Lord.

For us, listening to the Word will demand of us that we free ourselves from the false ideologies of our time. Who are our false gods? Surely they include the idolatry of the State, upon whose altars millions of innocent lives have been shed this century; the worship of the market, and the pursuit of wealth. I have written often enough about he dangers of the myth of consumerism. Our whole world has been seduced by a mythology, that everything can be bought and sold. Everything has been transformed into commodities every thing has a price. The world of nature, the fertility of the earth, the fragile ecology of forests, all this is put on sale. Even we ourselves, the sons and daughters of the Most High, are to be bought and sold on the labour market. The Industrial Revolution saw the uprooting of whole communities, expelled from their land and enslaved in the new cities. This massive migration continues today. The most acute and scandalous example was the enslaving of millions of our brothers and sisters from Africa, transformed into marketable goods for profit and export. As it was written at the Chapter of Caleruega: 'Men and women must not be treated as commodities, nor may their lives and work, their culture and potential for, flourishing in society be counted among negotiable tokens in the game of profit and loss. " [20 5]

Our centres of study should be places in which we are liberated from this reductive view of the world, and where we learn again to wonder in gratitude at the good gifts of God. It is through study, by seeking to understand things and each other, that we recover a sense of astonishment at the miracle of creation. Simon Tugwell OP writes, "When we get to the bottom of things, reaching their very essence with our minds, what we find is the inscrutable mystery of God's creative act ... Really to know something is to find ourselves tipped headlong into a wonder far surpassing mere curiosity. " (14) The truth does indeed set us free. This intellectual liberation goes hand in hand with the real freedom of poverty. Like Dominic and Thomas we have to become beggars who receive God's good gifts. The vow of poverty and a closeness to the poor is the proper Dominican context in which to study.

In our struggle to liberate ourselves from this perception of the world, we are helped by being an Order which is truly worldwide. Many cultures do not have a vision of reality which is based upon domination and mastery. Our brothers and sisters from Africa can help us towards a theology which is based more upon mutuality and harmony. The Asian religious traditions can also help us towards a more contemplative theology. We have to be present in these other cultures not just so that we may inculturate the gospel there, but so that they may help us to understand the mystery of creation, and of God the giver of all good things.

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