Still Seeking

Still Seeking

Ordinations, Installations & Professions. Fr Allan White preaches in Cambridge at the Simple Profession of frs. Leo Edgar, Dominic White and Dominic Black. 

A few moments ago I asked, “What do you seek?” A year ago today I asked you the same question. You gave the same answer: are you like the Bourbons, have you learned nothing and forgotten nothing? The Lord assures us that if we seek we shall find, yet a year later you are still seeking the same thing: God’s mercy and the mercy of the brethren.

I suppose that both are given, but that it takes time for us to penetrate the depths of that mercy, to make it our own in such a way that we too become merciful, compassionate. We also commit ourselves to the search for ways to bring that mercy to others. Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy in return.

It is very rare to ask publicly for mercy, for forgiveness, particularly when you are not terribly conscious of having done something wrong, or of having failed in a very obvious way. When we ask for it, we make a public profession not only that we need mercy, but also that we desire it with all our hearts. We hope to be surrounded with mercy as if it is the air that we breathe.

In asking for God’s mercy we are also confessing that it will be brought to us in a particular way of life. Through being members of the Order of Preachers we believe we will come to know the mercy of God. The experience and certainty of God’s mercy will be in the context of a particular tradition within the Church, the Dominican way. God’s mercy, which is ever faithful, ever sure, will be communicated through a group of people whose mercy is not always so sure and who, because of human sin, are not always as merciful as they might or should be.

But then that is true of every religious group, all are to a greater or lesser extent marked by human failure, by pettiness, by selfishness, by spite, by lack of imagination, by lack of hope and vision.

When the Order was founded, the work of preaching was laid upon it in remission of sins. It was to be an instrument of divine forgiveness. The friars were also to have their own sins forgiven by the work of preaching. We do not preach because we are holy, we preach to become holy, we are to be converted by the Word we preach.

The Order is the space of conversion. When we make our vow to stay in it, we lay our hearts open to be ploughed by the loving ruthlessness of God’s grace, and so they are harrowed and planted, in them does he sow and from them does he reap.

Every day the preacher is confronted by the word he preaches, that Word, which in all its truth and beauty, cuts more finely than any double-edged sword, probing, exposing, all those areas of our life which, in our anxiety and shame, we keep hidden from each other, but which cannot hide from the glorious scrutiny of God’s truth.

In a way the question I asked is a bit of a trick question, although it appears simple: “What do you seek?” We often imagine that it is we ourselves who make all the running with God, that we are the intrepid spiritual explorers who bravely go in search of the hidden God. This is to get things the wrong way round. Why do we seek God? Is it because he is lost? God, in his mystery, is eternal, never changing, always present, always new. If God is not lost, it must be we who are lost.

Any kind of Christian vocation, but especially a religious vocation, is the experience of being found and placed by God. When we get older, we find that we often lose things, sometimes quite important things, and always at the wrong time, like the car keys when we are just about to start out on an important journey, or our passports. We sometimes talk about these things as disappearing, as if they had miraculously dematerialized. In reality we know that things do not disappear, sometimes they are right under our noses, they are obvious, but we cannot see them because they are in the wrong place, they are in the wrong context.

In the same sort of way we can walk right past people that we know quite well without recognizing them, because they are not in their usual surroundings. It can be the same with lost things and lost people, they are still there, but they are in the wrong place. In order to make sense, in order to flourish, they have to be put in the right place. It is not we who seek God but God who seeks us and finds us and places us correctly.

St Catherine of Siena talks about the Order as the garden. It is, in a sense, a kind of foretaste of the paradise garden. That is why we live a vowed life or try to live a vowed life. It is not that these vows are our passport to paradise, we are not Pelagians thinking that if we concentrate on keeping them to the exclusion of all else then we shall be found worthy of glory.

Our religious lives are not our own works of art, to have any value they have to be God’s creation. The vows are meant to be a kind of clearing of the decks, a making space for God’s grace to work in the individuality of our own particular and personal biographies, transforming them from within, opening them out to a greater potentiality than would otherwise have been possible.

When we live them to the full we dedicate ourselves to living a fairly uncluttered life, a spacious life. Our lives need to be spacious because they are also points of encounter, of meeting. If we are to be instruments of the Lord’s mercy, then others will meet him through us.

It is the Lord who welcomes the traveller, it is the Lord who gives them rest, and it is in the inn of our own lives, like the inn of the Good Samaritan, that he offers that rest and nursing back to health which is the experience of mercy. Our vows do not cut us off from the people of God, they draw us closer to them, they are the charter of welcome to all of those who genuinely seek God and who are brought to him through us.

It is God who finds us. I asked you today, “What do you seek?” You answered in a round about way, “God.” You would not be seeking him unless you had already found him, or rather if he had not found you and placed you in this Dominican garden where you can join all of the other rich and exotic blooms. Conversion, which you began a year ago, is that experience of allowing ourselves to be found by God.

St Catherine says St Dominic’s garden is broad, generous and sweet. It is a spacious garden. The paradise garden was the place where Adam and Eve in their innocence walked and talked with God. It was also the place where they first tried to hide from God, because they knew that they were naked, vulnerable, defenceless. They tried to hide and to cover themselves up.

To make a vow is to uncover, to make yourself vulnerable, it is to offer what is most precious, one’s own protection and security, one’s own life, to him who gave it and who nourishes it and cherishes it. The vows are our offering of our lives to him who is the author of all life, that he may bring that life to others through that offering.

A garden is supposed to give delight. It is to be a place of pleasure and a place of meeting, a shared delight. I am always struck when reading the lives of the brethren, and through having lived this life for twenty-eight years now, by the particular quality of Dominican joy. St Catherine says that St Dominic’s garden is marked by its diversity. God could well have made us in such a way that we all had everything, but he preferred to give different gifts to different people, so that they would all need each other.

You are not joining a uniform, monochrome institution, but a garden filled with rich and exotic blooms, home to many rare birds of paradise. Catherine shares the Lord’s delight in the diversity of what he has made. God saw all that he had made and saw that it was good. The divine simplicity issues in the complexity of diversity. God delights in human complexity, in difference. So, we should delight in it too.

The only reason for staying in this life is if it makes you happy. When fr Bede Jarrett was asked why he joined the Order he always answered because I wanted to, and when asked why he remained in it he said that it brought him happiness. Our lives should be marked by joy.

A week ago I was at a Solemn Profession in Toulouse. The prior had been at a conference in Dubrovnik on St Thomas Aquinas at which some of our brethren and some from the Irish province also attended. This group was of all ages and stages, a mixed bag. He said something that gave me great cause for satisfaction. The Anglo-Irish group was the liveliest group at the conference, they seemed to take pleasure in all of it, especially the Croatian wine.

He said that one scene remains with him. At the end of the conference, the friars who attended all went out on a boat trip around Dubrovnik harbour and its islands. The sea was a little choppy, and whilst all of the European Dominicans were trying to control their queasiness or lying below decks, our brethren were up on deck laughing, talking and singing. He thought that was rare.

A story is told about Blessed Jordan of Saxony that when he was going with a crowd of friars to a General Chapter in Paris, he sent out the brethren to beg for their food, telling them to reassemble at a certain spring nearby. They brought back a small quantity of coarse bread, which would hardly be enough for four people. Jordan broke out into a song of joy and praise and encouraged the brethren by his word and his example to do the same.

A woman in the neighbourhood saw them and was scandalized. She said to them, “If you are religious, why are you making merry like this so early in the day ?” But when she learned that it was because they were short of bread that they were exulting in the Lord, for whose sake they had chosen to be poor, she ran home and fetched them bread and wine and cheese in abundance, recommending herself to their prayers.

The vows are meant to clear the space for joy to possess us. The Lord wants joyful apostles not surly bondservants. If he has found you and placed you in St Dominic’s garden, that is cause for joy. For that which was lost is found.

Readings: Daniel 7:9-10,13 | Rev 12:7-12 | John 1:47-51

Fr Allan White was formerly Prior Provincial of the English Province of the Order of Preachers. He is currently Principal of St Mary’s School, El Centro, California and priest in residence at St Mary’s Parish, El Centro.