Provincial Chapter 2004

Provincial Chapter 2004

Fr Denis Minns preaches at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at the opening of the English Dominican Provincial Chapter of 2004.

I was once in conversation with a Jesuit acquaintance when we discovered we had both recently spent some time at the same Cistercian abbey, and that we had both come away strengthened in our respective vocations. My Jesuit friend had always nursed a secret longing for the choral office; but if a week’s exposure to the holiness of the monks had left him spiritually enriched, a week’s exposure to their chanting had left him profoundly grateful that God had made him, after all, a Jesuit.

My own visit to the abbey had been very much shorter: I used to go there only for the Easter Vigil. Being a Dominican, I was, of course, already completely inured to whatever choral cacophony any monks might throw at me, and my moment of epiphany came at the end of the Abbot’s homily, when he urged his monks to apply the gloriously uplifting message of Easter to the unrelentingly humdrum purpose of their lives: the conversion of their morals.

I hope I had not previously been entirely indifferent to the conversion of my morals, but to be suddenly confronted with the notion that this might be the primary purpose of my life cast me into a deep gloom.

But not for very long.

For I soon remembered Simon Tugwell’s account of the rejection by early Dominicans of the model of the vessel which had to be filled before it could overflow to the benefit of others, in favour of the model of the funnel. Whereas a monk might see any spiritual good he could do for others as overflowing from his own holiness, a Preacher could not afford to wait until he had achieved a superabundance of holiness, but must be content to be a conduit through which the divine Mercy might be poured to the advantage of others. As the Primitive Constitutions put it:

Our Order is known to have been founded in the beginning precisely for the sake of preaching and the salvation of souls, and all our concern should be primarily and passionately directed to this all-important goal, that we should be able to be useful to the souls of our neighbours.

Thank God, I thought, that I was a Dominican. My primary task was not the conversion of my morals, but the conversion of other peoples’.

Well, perhaps, and perhaps not.

One feature of the structure of our lives as Dominicans which we do share with the monastic tradition is regular exposure to the Scriptures in the liturgy, and paradoxically, it sometimes happens that we hear better when the Scriptures are read to us than when we read them privately, precisely because we are listening with only half an ear. Precisely because we are preoccupied with something else, or perhaps just day-dreaming, even quite familiar texts can steal a march on us, and take us by surprise: illuminating our preoccupations, or even our day-dreams, and becoming luminous in themselves.

One of my more consistent duties is to sit staring for long periods at the first letter of St John, waiting for some Beginner in New Testament Greek to throw caution to the wind and essay a translation of it. Yet, a little while ago, I heard at Middle Hour a verse from 1 John which left me amazed.

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement: because as he is, so are we in this world (1 Jn 4:17).

‘Even as he is, so are we in this world’ — surely that couldn’t be right, I thought, and rushed upstairs to check it. I was reassured to find that the scribe of Codex Sinaiticus agreed with me: for he had written:

even as he is, so shall we be in this world.

That is a much less alarming reading, and we need only to turn over a few pages, to the Revelation of John, to find an eschatological framework in which it makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, after a little more rummaging in the apparatus criticus, I had to conclude that the scribe of Sinaiticus was as much engaged in wishful thinking as I had been, and that the rest of the manuscript tradition accurately recorded what the author really wrote:

Even as he is, so are we in this world.

It is not the book of Revelation that will explain this for us, but the first letter of John itself. For it is of a piece with the extraordinary confidence and audacity which that author thinks ought to be ours because we know that God loves us; an audacity that even awareness of our sinfulness cannot shake:

And by this we know that we are from the truth, and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us: For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God, and we receive from him whatever we ask. (1 Jn 3:19-20)

What purpose can our preaching have if it is not to bring others to share this exhilarating, audacious sense of being able to face God with boldness, because ‘we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit'(1 Jn 3:13). And how can we do that if we cannot hope to have ourselves the audacity to say that ‘even as he is, so are we in this world’? It is not our own perfection that gives us confidence before God; but the being made perfect of God’s love within us.

The important difference, then, between a vessel and a funnel is that while a vessel might still be useful, at least to itself, should it cease to overflow, a funnel can only be useful to others if it is itself constantly in receipt of what it is its purpose to dispense. Precisely because all our concern is to be primarily and passionately directed to this, that we should be able to be useful to the souls of our neighbours, we must hold ourselves open to the transforming power of God’s gift to us of himself. If we can, despite the knowledge of our own sinfulness, share that extraordinary boldness before God that St John says is ours because we have received of the Spirit — if we too can have the temerity to say that even as he is, so are we in this world — then we should not lack the confidence to invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit during our deliberations to-day and in the days ahead. If God’s love has been made perfect in us because we have received of his Spirit, then we should have the courage before God to ask also for those other gifts of the Spirit — gifts of wonder and awe in the presence of God, gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and right judgement — those gifts by which, as Herbert [McCabe O.P.] wrote, our lives become a witness to God’s love.

Fr Denis Minns is a son of the Province of Australia, but formerly served as Prior of Blackfriars, Oxford, and was a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford.