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Back to the School of Contemplation

Monday, August 05, 2019

Back to the School of ContemplationLife in the Noviciate Community – Fr Dominic White OP

A few nights after Fr Lawrence asked me to write this article, I dreamed that I'd been sent back to school. Is that what my unconscious thinks about returning to our noviciate community at St Michael's, Cambridge? Certainly it marks a stage for me: it's the first time in my 19 years of Dominican life that I've been assigned to a community where I've already lived previously. Full circle…

So it's a great blessing, after seven ­exciting and extremely busy years as a university and artists' chaplain in Newcastle, to return to a more contemplative life for a while at least, and be able to reflect on those years and what they've given me. Also to mark the passage into middle age (which I can no longer deny, now being 46!): a therapist friend of mine thinks a lot of middle-age crises come from people not having a 'rite of passage' for this stage.

New Roles

Of course, I haven't gone back to being a novice as such. I'm community bursar (administrator), and I celebrate Mass with our lively and diverse congregation (which has also involved learning the old Dominican Rite for our Sunday 9.15 Extraordinary Form Mass). There's quite a demand for confessions, which we take on call, and spiritual accompaniment too; and I’ve been preparing one of our young people for Confirmation. 

As well as involvement in the University Divinity Faculty, I am also a research associate at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology in Cambridge, a ­remarkable Catholic centre which was started 25 years ago by Catholic women for Catholic women, and is now expanding its community and operations. I do some teaching there too, mainly for the Catholic Certificate in Religious Education (CCRS) which provides theological formation for Catholic school teachers, whose work is of course crucial in passing on the Faith to the next generation. This brings in a bit of money for the community, but the Province also provides a subsidy for the noviciate community so that the professed brothers can be at home more and help form our novices.

So I spend a lot more time in the house than I did in Newcastle, and when I'm at home I join the novices and the rest of the community for the full Liturgy of the Hours, and Eucharistic Adoration on Tuesdays and Fridays. And there is more time just to be quiet with God, and for writing down some music that's been in my head for the last couple of years. Our Sisters' arrival up the road is a great change for the better since my noviciate, and Sr Ann Catherine is a poet, so we're doing some words and music collaboration… I'm also enjoying the company of our Lay Dominicans, who are dynamic and growing.

Back to the School of ContemplationI'm sometimes asked to give input to the novices, and I find I learn a lot from them too. Their enthusiasm for prayer has reignited mine, and though the Cambridge noviciate programme, brand new when I joined, hasn't needed much change, the world has changed an extraordinary amount in the 19 years since I joined. So our novices help me not just with tech support, but with their perspectives on the world that help me keep my preaching relevant. For example, they understand much better than I do that we don't live in a Christian country any more: this is a secular country where we have to learn how to be a minority, preaching the Gospel and working for the common good. 

The Fruits of Contemplation

The contemplative context of the noviciate is also helping me write a new book – indeed, writing is a very traditional apostolate of the Cambridge priory. With the working title of How Do I Look? Theology in the Age of the Selfie, it's come out of my immersion in the student world of smartphones and social media, with all its benefits for communication and pitfalls for self-image. Working with Newcastle's artists also taught me the power of the gaze – and how artists can help us see differently. Christians are, I believe, people who look others in the eye, because we see the image and likeness of God. So maybe our gaze can preach the Word of God with no word spoken…

The contemplative life of Cambridge is of course just one way of being a community of Dominican friars. In a country where the majority of people now grow up without religion, I believe we should also found small mission communities in new places, with friars, sisters and lay Dominicans working closely together. But as Dominicans are wandering preachers, we will need moments to go back to houses like Cambridge to resource ourselves, so that we can hand on to others the fruits of our contemplation.

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