Twenty-Seven Years

Twenty-Seven Years

Ordinations, Installations & Professions. After a successful and forward-looking Chapter, the brothers of the English Province of the Order of Preachers are given encouragement in their work by the newly-elected Prior Provincial, Fr Allan White.

TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS ago I was clothed in the habit in this house. In those days we were clothed in the common room, with that informality bordering on anarchy which characterised Dominican liturgy at that time. I have two abiding memories of that day, as I lay on the floor, with my arms stretched out in the form of a cross hearing the Provincial of the time asking me if I truly sought the mercy of God. I remember being pre-occupied with avoiding sniffing an enormous ball of dust and fluff up my nose. It had probably been there since the days of Father Bede Jarrett. I must go and check if it is still there. The second is of what the Provincial said to us on that day. There were four of us, all the rest have gone, only I survive—if I have.

The Provincial was Father Ian Hislop. He was already a dying man. The words of a dying man have a particular power and intensity. You will remember that Father Ian was not always in good health. When the brethren had doubts about accepting him as a candidate for the Order his doctors were asked for a report on his state of health. They were assured that, since he would undoubtedly be dead before he was forty, medical treatment would not be an expensive drain on the resources of the Province. So, they accepted him. Sometimes, it is a fine line that separates poverty from thrift. It gave Father Ian immense pleasure to recall that, at the age of forty-seven, he was elected and served almost two terms as Provincial. It is God who writes our futures. We are not the sole authors of our own stories.

On my clothing day Father Ian was sitting hunched in the chair on which I now sit at my desk in Fisher House, Cambridge. I rescued it from a skip in the back garden of Blackfriars one day. Of all the things he said then I remember one in particular. “I am coming to the end of my religious life and you are now beginning yours. As I look back over my religious life, and it has been a long one, I think of all that I have laboured to build and to support. Often I have laboured hard to construct something, to leave some monument behind me, when, inevitably, some idiot has come along after me and torn down all that I have built and called it progress.” I hope Father Malcolm will not be feeling the same in a few months time! “So,” Father Ian went on, “I want to give you this piece of counsel,” and he paused—he was a master of homiletic timing—“whatever schemes you may hatch, whatever plans you may formulate be sure of one thing, God will frustrate them!” It is God who writes our futures. We are not the sole authors of our own stories.

When we make our profession we place our hands in those of the Provincial and make a promise. At the centre of our life is the sequela Christi, the following of Christ. The rest of our lives in the Order is an unfolding of that moment of exchange of gifts. As Jan van Ruysbroeck, the fourteenth century Flemish mystic, wrote: “All that you have, all that you are, He takes,” and He does, “all that He has, all that He is, He gives,” and he does. The key to that transaction is the imitation of Christ and the participation in his self-offering to his Father. Just as he delivered himself into the hands of sinful men, so do we also. Our religious lives are a process of deliverance, of handing over and being freed from. What do we hand over? What do we offer to God? You could say poverty, chastity and obedience. We offer him the trumpery of our poverty, the rags of our chastity, the timidity of our obedience. Is this all we offer? All of them have their difficulties, none of us have found them universally attractive and congenial all of the time. We struggle to live them because we have given our word. A preacher of the Word who cannot keep his word is no preacher but a bad actor. What do we truly give to God? What is the hardest thing to deliver to him and to be delivered from in the handing over? We give him our future. Religious men and women have no blood descendants, we are of barren stock, we leave nothing behind us to continue our own individual line. We live without a future. We hand our future to God, to receive it back as his providence. This is what we offer. Those whose future is anchored in God’s eternal present are people of hope. We live in hope as God touches the mysterious manuscripts of our lives with the gold of his providence.

The hardest thing we have to do is to live without a future. It goes against our deepest instincts. The instinct for mere survival wars against sacrifice. In the seventeenth century Blaise Pascal wrote:

“Let each of us examine his thoughts. He will find them entirely occupied with the past and the future. The present is never our purpose. The past and the present are our means; only the future is our purpose. And so we never live, but rather hope to live and, since we are always getting ready to be happy, it is inevitable that we never actually are.”

On the 8 May, 1919, when Father Columba Ryan was three years old, Father Bede Jarrett, our beloved Father Bede, came to Oxford with the members of his Provincial Council to inspect the site of the new priory, Blackfriars. He later wrote to a benefactress, Mrs Jefferson Tytus, of his own disappointment at their response.

“I can remember one of the members of my Council looking round at the place in the early days when the foundations were being put in and when the Council was there on the spot looking at the plans, and saying ‘Well we shan’t live to see anything built worth calling a building.’ I remember how I winced inside. He’s alive still to see what your hopefulness inspired and gave.”

If you seek his monument, look around you. It was for this that he gave his life.

In 1987 Father Malcolmfr. Malcolm McMahon, the preacher’s pedecessor as Prior Provincial, and later Bishop of Nottingham. and I were in Rome representing the Province at the beatification of Blessed Robert Nutter O.P. and the eighty-five martyrs of Great Britain. Nobody could fail to be moved by the list of names: stable-boys, glovers, serving men and women, housewives and mothers of families, all being read out slowly in the glittering surroundings of St Peter’s. None of these humble witnesses to Christ could have known with certainty that the banal and careless butchery of their martyrdom would be commemorated in this way. One of them in particular caught my attention: Blessed Humphrey Pritchard. He was the pot boy in the Catherine Wheel inn on St Giles’ in Oxford. He had been converted to Catholicism by the Catholic landlady of the inn. It was an example of what we would call the “lay apostolate”. On 5 July, 1589 he was executed in the town ditch of Oxford, which is now Broad Street, along with a wealthy Catholic landowner and two priests. On the scaffold he said, “I call all people here present to bear witness, in this world and on the Day of Judgement, that I die because I am a Catholic, a faithful Christian of Holy Church.” An onlooker called from the crowd that he was a poor wretch, because in his ignorance he did not know what Catholic meant. Blessed Humphrey answered “I may not be able to tell you in words what it means to be a Catholic, God knows my heart, and that which I am unable to explain in words I am here to explain and attest with my blood.”

Neither Humphrey Pritchard, nor his landlady, nor his companions in martyrdom knew that a few hundred years later a Dominican priory, a house of the English Benedictine Congregation, and a house of the Oratory would rise within a few yards of where he began his journey in faith. They lived in hope. We are not the authors of our own stories. Our hope is anchored in God’s eternal future. Humphrey is the patron of this street. Let us, the preaching friars, give voice to the faith of those who have not words to speak it.

To those who have no future everywhere is home, because that is where God in his mysterious providence has set them. The journey never ends for us. There are always new missions to be begun, new calls to answer, as God calls us from the mystery of his future out of the security of our present. In the thirteenth century, word came to the Studium at Bologna that the Emperor Frederick II had installed Muslim Arab philosophers to teach in his new university of Salerno. This caused a ruffling of lectoral feathers in the common room of the Patriarchal convent; you will remember that Comparative Religion and inter-faith dialogue were not exactly in vogue in those days. In the midst of this discussion, one of the oldest lectors, blind and bowed with age said: “Saddle my mule I will show them there are philosophers amongst the friars.” And off he went to Salerno, to confrunt them as one of our senior brethren would say. Let us show the world that there are philosophers amongst the friars: lovers of Holy Wisdom, worshippers of Divine Truth. Let us make the journey, dream the dream, sing of the Lord’s mercies and the wonders he has done among us.

Finally, I have the impression that over the past few days we have been happy together and have lived at peace; it shows it can be done! I realise that over the next few years, inevitably, I shall hurt some of you. For this, in advance, I humbly beg your pardon. I pray you will forgive me. I think we are a merciful Province; that mercy that I sought all those years ago I have found amongst you. But, you can always take comfort in the thought that you will probably hurt me too. I am one, there are a hundred of you. I am but one, you are many. Your name is legion! If there are hard times let us remember the good times. Let us look to the good. According to the Lives of the Brethren, two things characterised the early friars: their good looks and their joy, but above all their joy. Blessed Reginald of Orleans once said, “There is no penance in this Order for there is so much joy in it.” Remember the joy. The Lord loves a cheerful sinner, the miserable sinners provide him with no amusement!

May God reward your charity, fulfil your hopes and, above all, make you eager in your obedience!

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 3:11-26 | Luke 24:35-48

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.

Comments (1)

  • A Website Visitor

    Refreshing and a source of deep delight when just now read, 15 years later, on the Feast of Blessed Robert Nutter, and in the house of Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney. May the past, present and future of the English province be more and more joy and mercy in truth and love.

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