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Dominican Life: Study

Monday, May 27, 2019
 "So, I guess you study a lot…” is one of the more common responses when people find out I’m a Dominican. It has the advantage of being one of the more accurate ideas that people have of the life of a Dominican; I study for my formation as a priest, but also as part of the spiritual discipline of the life I’ve undertaken. The Constitutions of the Order tell us that we should be zealous in our study (LCO, 77, §1), but this shouldn’t be to get top marks in an essay, as nice as it is when this happens, nor should it just be to make us effective for the doctrinal service of the Church, but should be directed to enabling us to ponder in our hearts the manifold wisdom of God (LCO, 77, §2). 

Our life of study, then, is not directed to making us interesting and well-rounded people (although that should be part of the aim of our formation), nor is it just ensuring that we can answer theological questions with authenticity and faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church, but so that Christ is placed at the centre of our lives. Just as the vows help us to free ourselves from worldly attachment to money, autonomy, and sexual intimacy, so study is part of that offering of our whole selves because it requires strict discipline and the application of all of our abilities (LCO, 77, §3; 83).

So study is, at heart, about the purification of our lives. Br Dominic of Caserta, sacristan of the Naples priory, concealed himself in a chapel to observe St Thomas Aquinas at prayer. Thomas, kneeling before the crucifix, was crying. Suddenly the voice of Christ came from the crucifix and cried out, “Bene scripsisti de me Thomma,” “You have written well of me, Thomas” and went on to ask him what he wanted as a reward. Thomas’ reply was characteristically concise, “Non nisi te, Domine,” “Only you, Lord.” A Dominican should want nothing but God, and study helps us in two ways. First of all it leads us to God, in that study of the Word of God contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition has its source in the person of Jesus Christ, so all study leads back to Him. But, perhaps more importantly, study helps us to love God more deeply, and it does this by purifying our understanding of God. Sometimes as students this means that we have to give up on favourite analogies or metaphors for our understanding of God for ones which more accurately correspond to revelation, and this should draw us into a closer relationship to God, for knowledge and love share a common source and ultimate end in God.

But while people do not always understand that study is properly at the centre of our life because it is intimately united to our spiritual life, it is also true that our study is put to use for the doctrinal service of the Church. Here one of the mottos of the Order, Contemplata aliis tradere, to hand down to others the fruits of contemplation, takes on its fullest meaning. This saying is derived from the Summa where Aquinas says that the life of one who contemplates and hands on the fruits of his contemplation, is more perfect than a life which stops at contemplation (ST, III, 40, 1, ad 2). The life of Aquinas is obvious here, for his work promoted by the Church as its perennial philosophical and theological system. But also in the life of St Antoninus of Florence, who set himself to providing a system of moral theology to aid the clergy in hearing confessions; St Albert the Great, whose fascination with the natural world came from a love of God in His creation, but also in a desire to help others understand that creation better. But even if a Dominican does not have the intellectual stature of these great saints, at its heart, the life of study of every Dominican should have this generosity at its core. For a Dominican, as soon as our study becomes selfish, as soon as it turns in on itself, it ceases to be real study. 

Br Albert Robertson O.P.


Anonymous commented on 27-May-2019 09:27 AM
Inspiring! Makes me want to go and learn more
(Fr Martin J Clayton) commented on 02-Jun-2019 01:18 PM
Many years ago, I was speaking about study with the late Fr Cornelius Ernst OP, whom I greatly admired. His recommendation was to focus always on what really matters: to know Christ Jesus. "Non nisi te, Domine"

Thank you for a fine article in the same tradition!

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