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The Heart of Dominican Life

Extract from ‘The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality’ by fr Paul Murray OP:

That capacity somehow to recover or re-discover the original spirit of the Order, at a time when all seemed lost, is one of the remarkable aspects of Dominican history. And no less remarkable is the fact that, unlike the great Franciscan and Carmelite Orders which, in the course of their history, split into different branches and congregations, the Dominican Order has always managed to preserve its institutional unity. What has kept the brethren together, over the centuries, is no doubt the combination of many factors. One, for example, is the great system of democracy, bestowed on the Order by St Dominic at the beginning; also the spirit of freedom and fraternity he enshrined in the Order’s Primitive Constitutions, the traits of beauty and austerity inherited from the Canons Regular, and the desire to defend truth and the love of learning. These things define the spirit of the Order. They are tangible and clear, and as long as the Order survives, they will be recognised as forming a necessary part of its identity.
But there are other factors, less tangible though no less important... Because it is a preacher’s vocation, the Dominican vocation is, in its essence, a dynamic vocation. It is shaped, therefore, not only by its own pre-established laws and constitutions, but by the demands of history and the needs of the hour. And thus, in contrast to a life of monastic enclosure, it has the right and even the duty not to be always consistent or predictable in its activity... It is, in short, in the thoughtful and revelatory phrase of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, an apostolic observance.

Joy and Hope

This life of apostolic observance, and indeed all forms of Christian life, is characterised by at least two qualities which have often been associated with the Order of Preachers. The first of these is joy. In the writings of the early Dominicans we find many instances in which the Gospel is likened to wine “which gladdens the hearts of men” (Ps 104:15). And so, St Catherine of Siena wrote: “Let us behave like the drunkard who doesn’t think of himself but only of the wine he has drunk and the wine that remains to be drunk!” The new wine of the Gospel is something which we are exhorted to taste, to savour and enjoy. Drunk on the love of God and the wisdom of the Gospel, we are then compelled to share this ‘new wine’ with others through a certain ‘intoxicated’ joy, like that of the disciples on Pentecost day (see Acts 2).

St Dominic is often depicted as a joyful person, completely drunk on the love of God. One of his earliest biographers, Blessed Cecilia said that “he always appeared cheerful and happy”, and stories abound of laughter and celebratory joy in the legends concerning St Dominic and his successor, Blessed Jordan. There are tales of Blessed Jordan encouraging the novices to laugh, even during Compline, and another of the brethren begging for bread for their breakfast. The story from the 13th-century Vitas Fratrum (‘Lives of the Brethren’) continues: “When they met again, they found they had scarcely enough for half their number. Then the Master [Bl Jordan], breaking forth into joyful strains of the praises of God, exhorted the others by word and by example to do the same, and presently they were filled with such spiritual gladness and holy joy that a woman standing by took scandal at the sight, and rebuked them - ‘Are you not all religious men? Whence comes it that you are merry-making at this early hour? But when she learnt the real cause of their mirth, and saw them rejoicing over their want of food, she was deeply touched, and hurrying home brought them bread and wine and cheese.”

This kind of spiritual joy comes from God; it is the profound happiness that one gets from being given the grace of a Dominican vocation, which is to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience and preach the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. 

From such joy springs a second characteristic of our life: hope. fr Timothy Radcliffe OP has written about our hope as being rooted in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and ultimately, in the transforming love of God. It is the knowledge of this love and faith in the resurrection that gives Dominicans and all Christians their hope. fr Timothy says: “To hope is not just to bet on goodness being stronger than evil. It is not just our confidence that God will have the last word... By this sign [of the Cross] Jesus embraces this supremely dark act, the murder of God’s own Son, and makes it fruitful. So there is nothing in human history that cannot somehow, in ways we cannot anticipate, be embraced and bear its fruit... As Christians we hope for eternity. But eternity is not what happens at the end of time, when we are dead. It begins now, whenever we share God’s life. It breaks in whenever we overcome hatred with love... To be hopeful is to live in this very present moment in which something can happen. As Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century Dominican, wrote, ‘What is today? Today is eternity.’ So the celebration of the Eucharist is a sacrament of our hope of the Kingdom. But the Kingdom is glimpsed now. We can taste its future joy now. We need signs that speak of the future”.

A Dominican is a sign of such hope, a joy-filled preacher, drunk on the love of God, who brings the creative and transforming Word of God into the darkness and despair of human lives. As Blessed Jordan once wrote to his dear friend Blessed Diana d’Andalo (a Dominican nun): “If now we must be for a little time made sorrowful, if going we must weep as we scatter the seed, yet, in the harvest time coming, we shall come with joyfulness carrying our sheaves, and in Christ Jesus we shall rejoice with joy unspeakable and all our sorrow shall be turned into joy and our joy no man shall take from us”.

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