What is the significant life of a Dominican House of Studies?
By Br Albert Elias Robertson | What is the significant life of a Dominican House of Studies? This is the question asked by our brother Fr Cornelius Ernst, OP in his inaugural lecture as Regent of Studies in October 1966. He was speaking at a turbulent time, with the Second Vatican Council just ended, the older structures of the life had broken apart.
What is the significant life of a Dominican House of Studies? This is the question asked by our brother Fr Cornelius Ernst, OP in his inaugural lecture as Regent of Studies in October 1966. He was speaking at a turbulent time, with the Second Vatican Council just ended, the older structures of the life had broken apart. In the face of this, Cornelius called for a renewal of engaged contemplation. Engaged both in the sense of being undertaken assiduously and seriously, but also engaged in the concerns of the wider world. In this sense he was calling his contemporaries, and us who continue to read the lecture, to a traditional understanding of Dominican contemplation, whose object is always God, but which is structured by the needs of the world and informed by its concerns, and which ultimately aims to offer, through the fruit of contemplation, the answers to those needs and concerns.
For Cornelius, this contemplation fashions us into what he calls servants of the Word – a phrase which has now been used by the Order as a whole to describe the task of formation. The engaged contemplation of our life makes us the servants of the Word, docile to His promptings. In this we must imitate Christ at the Last Supper washing the feet of the disciples, the perfect symbol of true service. Aquinas, in his Commentary on St John’s Gospel describes the traits of a good servant; namely, one who tries to notice whatever is lacking at the table, so a servant always stands to survey the table; does not wear ornate clothing so as to be unencumbered; and knows the master well, so as to anticipate his need (Ioan., 13, lect.1, §1738). At the Last Supper, Jesus shows all of these traits, rising, removing his garments, and placing a towel around His waist to was the feet. A student in formation for the priesthood must learn to do the same, placing himself in a position where he is able to discern his fellow Christian’s need; remove the encumbrances from his life that get in the way if his service, and come to a deeper knowledge of his divine Master.
But what animates that life of contemplation? Here Cornelius does not give as much of an indication beyond the contours of the classical structure of the regular observance, which are, of course important. The answer is given in today’s feast, for while Cornelius was trying to explain what the significant life of a house of studies is, there is something significant to our Oxford House of Studies which is different from others: the dedication of our church and priory to the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost can make us think of the missionary impulse: the universal Church, gathered around the Mother of God and the Apostles that first Pentecost, was empowered for its missionary work. But it was also empowered for its life of contemplation, for the Holy Spirit animates the life of contemplation, just as much as He animates the work of evangelisation.
Going back to St John’s Gospel we have seen Christ stand to serve, but after the washing of the feet he puts back on his clothes and reclines and teaches them. For Aquinas this is because dcoctrina should always take place in tranquility (Ioan., 13, lect.1, §1770), and this connection between tranquility and learning is defended with a line from Aristotle’s Physics, for it is, Aristotle says, by sitting own and being quietly at rest that the soul becomes wise and prudent (Physics, 7.3). So the environment proper to learning God’s holy teaching, sacra doctrina, is to recline and be at rest with the Lord. Christ teaches us exteriorly, but the Spirit teaches interiorly: ‘The Son, since He is the Word, gives teaching to us; but the Holy Spirit enables us to grasp it’ (Ioan., 14, lect.6, §1958). Unless there is love in our hearts, we will not be able to understand what our teachers are telling us, and that love comes from the Holy Spirit, for as we sing in the Sequence:
Light immortal, Light divine,
Visit Thou these hearts of Thine,
And our inmost being fill.
If Thou take Thy grace away,
Nothing pure in man will stay;
All his good is turned to ill.
The significant life of our Dominican House here is this consecration, for it makes clear to us the working of the Holy Spirit in both parts of our lives, in our active apostolates, be it promoting the theology of St Thomas, teaching the faith to children and students seeking reception into the Church, or helping the poor and homeless. But before this active work has begun and once those apostolates have been done for the day, the Holy Spirit, in our life of engaged contemplation, teaches us all things, and moulds our hearts after the pattern of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.