A Dominican Vocation

A Dominican Vocation

‘Can I have your neckties…?’ This was my reaction when my father told me that he was to train for the Permanent Diaconate. 1997: I was 19, finishing a degree in Music at Durham; looking forward to Postgraduate work at the Royal Northern College of Music and no thought of becoming a priest or religious. No thought of a vocation of my own.

No thought…? Aye, there’s the rub. There is the tremor of God’s plan that shakes you to the core. There is the manifestation of free cooperation with grace: God’s will, becoming my will. You see, at the time my father spoke to me there was already the unsettled sensation, the unfulfilled desire in the course of my life, something thrown into sharp focus against the oppressive freedom of undergraduate opinion.

This is what discernment is – the realisation of something that has always been there, but only grasped, manifested, revealed when it becomes your choice. In 1997 I was struggling in my lifelong faith, not with its truth but with its defence. I couldn’t explain why: why I believed; why it was true. Knowledge without understanding is just information. And this uncertainty of direction was not solved by career advancement. Despite my benefit from its education, the conservatoire didn’t have an answer to the nagging thought: what do I want to do?

A vocation is grounded in this simple question. Vocation is a choice, a desire that can only be known in retrospect by stepping into it – the grace of God in our will. But this all unfolds only following the decisive first step and everyone’s story is different.

The coincidence of my restlessness and my father’s vocation proved the catalyst. In 2000, while at the RNCM, I read but one page of a book, The Catholic Faith by Richard Conrad OP, a Dominican friar. Its clarity, its reasonableness, its understanding exposed a tradition of thinking about truth and fell into a groove for me. ‘Who are these Dominicans?’ I thought. ‘This is what needs to be done, this study, this cultivation of understanding, this preaching. More people should do this work’. And I turned back to music. But it was too late… The seed of desire had begun to grow and the sense of duty, responsibility and calling gradually unveiled. The Catholic Church needs Preachers and if you can’t get a job done…

So what is the next step? Meeting the brethren: and yet, despite this, I joined the Order(!) But really, the choice of approaching a Conventual Religious Order involves relationship, something I had to experience as part of my discernment. I went to meet the vocations director; attended community, vocation events; lived with the brothers. As one Dominican always advises aspirants – you need to want to do two things in the Order: preach the Gospel; love the brethren. Both need to be learnt.

This is why the route of formation in the Order is so important. The unveiling process – that is, the gradual realisation once the decision is made that it has always been part of you – this process continues in the early years of Dominican life: the novitiate, the years of Simple Profession. Timothy Radcliffe’s experience I have found to be true: you join for some reasons, you stay for others. Both are necessary.

There is another aspect to a vocation: they have to want you too! I was called to preach by the Church and the Order who responded to my aspiration. Inasmuch as God calls you, by making it your wish, He calls you within His Church, and the Church confirms your vocation. Both aspects fulfil the desire.

So, I completed my work as a composer at the RNCM and applied to join the English Province of the Order of Preachers. I began the novitiate in 2002. And the Dominicans encourage your gifts: I still write music and we sing the Office every day. I am Cantor for the Priory of Oxford. So from the time as a novice, to today, Solemnly Professed and progressing towards ordination this year, I have passed nearly five years as an obedient friar, doing what I want to do. I didn’t need those neckties after all.

This article, by Bruno Clifton OP, is published in this week’s Catholic Herald

fr Bruno is Vice-Regent of Blackfriars Hall and Studium, Oxford, where he teaches Biblical Studies.