A view from inside the Dominican Order
(from In Touch with the Mystery: a Spiritual Anthology, ed. By Daphne Dwyer,
Bradshaw Books, Cork, 1999)
I once met a Cistercian monk who admitted that he entered the monastery because he loved jam. When he was a child his mother always used jams that were made in the local monastery, and every jam-pot had the picture of a cowled monk on it. So from earliest days he associated jam with monastic life, and loving one he was sure he would love the other.
When he told me that, I found the courage to admit (after about thirty years) that my subconscious reason for joining the Dominicans was that they were robed in white, unlike the black-robed priests I had known and disliked in school. At some level or other I thought they must be as different from those black ones as day from night.
I suppose God can use any bait in the bag, and they all work, in different waters. What we call our rationality is probably a very thin crust on the surface of something strange and immense...and yet human, because it is ours, it is us.
Would you put up with a minute’s word-chasing? Words are like people. Like us they have an ancestry, and it is a pleasure to discover something interesting there from time to time. Ballein, in Greek, means ‘to throw’, syn means ‘together’; so syn-ballein is ‘to throw together’, and that is where we get the word ‘symbol’. Then dia means ‘apart’, dia-ballein is ‘to throw apart’, and that's where diabolos, ‘the devil’, comes from. The devil is the force of disintegration, disconnection, alienation.... And he is the enemy of symbolism. Why bring this up here? Because I think that being a Dominican has something to do with making connections rather than disconnections - and not only logical connections, but connections between everything.
It is a story that goes back to the 13th century. Dominic Guzman, a Spaniard, got a close look at what Albigensianism was doing to people's minds and spirits in northern Spain and southern France (in fact, throughout Europe in different concentrations). It was a sect claiming to be Christian, but it held for two Principles: the good God, from whom souls emanated “just as rays emanate from the sun,” and the Evil Principle, creator of the physical world: the world of change and suffering, of degradation and death. The Albigensians (who were named after the city of Albi) could not believe that one God created both the Kingdom, where there is no place for evil, and this transient world where evil abounds. They had a profound sense of the suffering and evil of the world, and it drove them to this ultimate dualism or disconnection. Like them Dominic went out on the roads, preaching, unlike them, the goodness of the material world, and of the body, and marriage... all the things they disowned. To exclude something is to leave it unredeemed, and Jesus came to redeem the whole creation: “From the beginning till now,” wrote St Paul (whose letters Dominic knew almost by heart), “the entire creation, as we know it, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Rom 8:22f). It is not a write-off, it is the substance of the resurrection.
None of Dominic's sermons has survived - which is a good thing, I always think. With the passing of the years, a founder’s every word is given a permanent importance that the founder probably never intended. But we know what he must have been saying to the Albigensians: that matter is not the enemy of spirit, that time is not the enemy of eternity, that the physical world is not the enemy of the Kingdom. In modern language, we would say he was preaching a holistic spirituality. And this emphasis is the deepest instinct in Dominican spirituality; it is somehow in the bones of every Dominican (but well hidden in some!).
I knew nothing of it when I presented myself thirty-eight years ago at the Popes Quay priory in Cork. All I sensed was that the colour-code was somehow right. Nearly everything in my suitcase too was white; the list specified it: socks, shirts, jumpers.... I was entering a white world. Or rather a cream-coloured one - which is even more archetypal. On the outside I would look like mother’s milk, but on the inside I was a radiant green!
There was a distance of less than twenty miles between this new world and the world I had left, but they might as well have been on different planets. The new world was full of cream-coloured friendly beings who uttered mostly Latin. And so they continued to do for some years, until “The Changes” (the Second Vatican Council). The leap from The Changes to the present makes the other leap look so limited and local, so endearingly naive, that our early days look like a strange place to us now, or some remote age. The past has become a foreign country. Some older people continue to talk like exiles. I knew an elderly community where the topics of conversation at lunch were always the same three: The Troubles (the Irish war of Independence and the subsequent civil war), The Emergency (that unruffled word in Ireland for the Second World War), and The Changes. They had lived through all three wars, but only in the third had they been out at the front.
Five years after entering the Order I was sent to Switzerland to continue studies, and to Italy for the same purpose three years later. The Dominicans are a world-wide family of about seven thousand priests and brothers, about thirty thousand nuns and sisters (nuns are cloistered), and many times that number of lay people. It is always pleasant to meet members of the Order from other countries, people unknown to me before; it is something I have always enjoyed. This person is entirely unknown to me, and yet there is a tangible bond; it is a very satisfying combination of the known and the unknown. Even now, when there is much more diversity than before, this warm bond is always there. It is hard to put words on it. ‘Family spirit’ would do, but you would have to think of a huge family, a very uncontrolling and friendly one.
My first job was teaching philosophy in a seminary for diocesan priests in England. I was the only Dominican on the staff at that time, but there was one the previous year, and another two years before. By my time they were beginning to compare us. During the course of the year several people - staff and students - remarked to me how alike we were. This surprised me greatly, because I was more conscious of the differences between us; and I had heard it said that while Jesuit formation produced character, Dominican formation produced characters! When I asked why they thought us alike, the answers boiled down to two things: “You have the same kind of God!” they said, “and you have the same attitude when things go wrong.” One could hardly imagine two more basic headings: God and providence. In fact these probably simplify in the end to just one heading: God. Sometimes outsiders can see the spirit of a family - or an Order - better than insiders can. Insiders feel it in their bones, or mostly they don't feel it at all, because it has become completely ordinary for them.
We don't ‘package’ our spirituality in the way that many other groups do. It is extremely difficult to put experience into words; this is why there are so few poets in the world: it is a real translation. It is easy, on the other hand, to put theoretical positions on paper: in fact nothing is easier, because they already exist principally on paper. I think St Dominic would be very surprised at the expression, ‘Dominican spirituality’. His passion was to preach the Gospel and to establish a gospel way of life for preachers. Very much later, in the 19th century - the age of nationalism - with the restoration of religious Orders in France, each religious Order seems to have become obsessed with having its own spirituality; it was a kind of nationalism on a small scale. This self-conscious slant continues in our own time, and is even accentuated in ways that remind one of nothing so much as the ‘branding’ of products in the commercial world. There are books in which each chapter is a study of a particular brand; and the brand-names (until recently at any rate) were still those of religious Orders: Benedictine, Franciscan, Carmelite, Jesuit.... That must leave diocesan clergy and lay people wondering if they have missed the last bus. But there was often a special one put on at the end for their benefit: ‘the Spirituality of the Secular Priest,’ or ‘the Spirituality of the Laity.’ And there always have to be newer brands (that's the nature of branding), so we have ‘Celtic spirituality’, ‘Creation-centred spirituality,’ and so on. Whatever helps, helps of course! And one ‘brand’ may open a door for someone that other brands keep firmly closed or make invisible. But in my own opinion it would be wiser not to pay a lot of attention to the brand, and to concentrate simply on unfolding the Gospel in our own experience and in our own context. “Today we speak the language of experience,” wrote St Bernard in the 12th century. They are wise words in any age, and they are in fact being taken greatly to heart in our own.
After I had been teaching philosophy for six years in England and Ireland it began to undermine me (which is what philosophy does best). Also at that time (the 70s) numerous confrères were abandoning the priesthood and religious life. The Changes were not just changes within a game, so to speak; for many they became changes to a different game. Somehow I survived, thanks to a large-minded superior who allowed me to train as a potter! Pottery, I see in retrospect, was a means of reaching back to something lost: the connection with the earth and the body. It saved my life, in many ways. I threw myself into the restoration of some old buildings in Ennismore (a retreat house in Cork) and set up a pottery and meditation centre there. All that physical labour was a great relief after years of academic life; it was an attempt, in its way, to “speak the language of experience.”
If we don't speak the language of experience we speak as spectators, by-standers, commentators... in other words, outsiders. The commentator’s voice, the voice from the outside, is given extraordinary authority in our age. One paragraph from a journalist, a psychologist, a theorist of any kind, is thought to debunk any amount of first-hand experience. I found clay to be a wonderful medium for exploring in the other direction. It activates your own resources and helps you to learn a greater sensitivity through the body. It can do this because it registers every touch with mirror-like fidelity. I found that it opens a new door to meditation. Every summer for twenty years I have been giving these ‘Potter retreat-workshops’, and at each one I am amazed again at what it can bring to the surface for people. Clay is a wonderful substance for simplifying us. We are too clever by half, too rational and too evasive. Try to express in clay your fears, your love, your pain, your hopes.... You will find it impossible to put in any evasions, any qualifications, any ‘subordinate clauses’. Clay is just a main clause. To say something in clay is to make a direct statement and leave it there. In its simplicity it is like the cry of an animal. In John's gospel a desperate man said to Jesus, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” (Jn 4:49). It must be one of the most basic prayers of any time or place. There isn't a human being in the world who could fail to understand it. Even the animals and birds would pray like this if they could talk. Sometimes our religious sensibility becomes so polite and tame that we can't even believe in it ourselves. Prayer or meditation has been called “an hour of truth”, but it can become the place where we tell the most barefaced lies.
If we had space I could tell many stories of connections that clay has helped people make in different parts of their being. I feel that this work is in continuity with the healing of the Albigensian disconnection that Dominic was attempting for the people of his time.
Almost any medium can be used to help heal the disconnections in ourselves and in our world. At present I do a lot of writing…. It is like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. Sometimes you get a reply, and it comes as a surprise, because you generally forget what you did before. I remember a letter from a Venezuelan sailor who said one of my books was a companion to him for many months when he was on the high seas in every sense. It touches you deeply, not because you think you did something useful, but for nearly the opposite reason: something useful happened of itself, without any reference to you, some moment of grace happened for someone unknown to you. Our best moments are when the ego is set aside and we are drawn beyond ourselves into some unknown region….
With everyone in the world we await the millennium in silence. Is there a long view? At the turn of a century, people usually like to paint mental pictures of the future; but this time (have you noticed?) almost no one feels confident enough to make any serious predictions at all, even in small matters. If this is strange at the turn of a century it is ten times more strange at the turn of a millennium. This time the future is a bigger mystery than ever: it is not only unknown, it is unthinkable.
We may not be able to think the future, but with other sentient beings we are able to feel the present. In stark contrast to thirty years ago, the western Church today is wearing a sad grey face. There have been great scandals, and a consequent loss of morale. But many (even most) of those crimes were committed decades ago when everything looked fairly good on the outside. Consequently there is a feeling abroad that clergy and religious cannot be trusted any more. This is a very deep wound, and it is being borne by every priest and religious. Years ago, when I was a student in Switzerland, Charles Davis left the Church, saying it had been “losing its soul to save its face.” His was a famous case, because it was one of the first, and it occasioned a great deal of soul-searching at the time. What can we say now, thirty years later? Now that the Church has lost a lot of face, there is hope that it can save its soul. There are some among the clergy (and the laity) who harden their face instead, taking up rigid unfeeling positions, with a kind of ‘take it or leave it’, ‘in yer face’, attitude. “Good riddance!” wrote a priest in the Irish Times in reference to some Catholics who had left the Church. A lay person wrote in reply, asking pointedly what that priest made of the parable of the Prodigal Son, or the parable of the Lost Sheep, or the parable of the Good Samaritan. Could the Good Shepherd have said “good riddance!” to the lost sheep? Shepherds, according to Jesus's use of the metaphor, typically go after “the weak, the sick, the wounded, the strayed and the lost” (see Ezek 34). There is still the urge to save face. It is a measure of our distance from redemption.
When we emerge from this crucible we will be a deeply humble, even humiliated, Church. We may know more then about compassion, about powerlessness, about seeking the lost rather than defending the secure: in a word, we may know more about spirituality than about ideology. From being itself more deeply immersed in the mystery of dying and rising, the Church will be better able to mediate to us the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising with Christ. The laity will have come into their own, and they will bring a new vitality and practicality to the Church. But these are prayers, not predictions. Ultimately we are at the mercy of God, and that is the right place to be.
I travel to many countries, in every continent, giving courses and retreats. It has something to do with belonging to an international Order. It is usually hard work. There are climates that are pure pain when you are not used to them, and there are strange diets and strange diseases; there is always some degree of culture shock. And when they bring you from so far away they have high expectations of what you can do: that is the severest pain of all, when you know nothing but your own limitations. All the same, it is a great adventure to travel far from home. It is full of interest, and it gives a wide perspective on the Church. And that is useful thing in our present state. In many countries, especially in Asia and Africa, the Church seems younger, somehow, and simpler: full of hope and joy (and young people). There are problems everywhere of course. But it is not problems that deaden us; it is we ourselves in the problems, as Johann Tauler, a Dominican mystic of the 14th century, put it.
If making connections is so important for spiritual health, then at present we need to make as many as we can. There are always connections and reconnections to be made:
- within our own being: with all the sources of our energy (Albigensianism is not dead yet);
- with our past, so as not to disown it and be left floating adrift in a world without direction;
- with the earth itself and the creatures we share it with. The Albigensians despised the world in a theoretical way, but we actually destroy it: we poison the earth and call it progress; and anyone who kills animals for fun we call a sportsman.
- with one another in ever deeper and more human ways, to beg God to heal in us “the sore that no one can cure: a lack of heart.”
- and above all with God, the source, the centre. Without God everything and everyone is lost property.
It has been a wonderful life, so far. I have nothing to lament but my sins.