The only thing that beats flying into Washington on a beautiful spring day and seeing the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the White House lined up outside your cabin window is being a relatively new Catholic and driving up Michigan Avenue 30 minutes later. The cab passed Trinity College and the National Shrine, en route to my roost for the next four days, the Dominican House of Studies (left).
I am here with the slowly maturing aim of writing a book, as time permits, on priestly vocations in the Catholic Church. Fifty-nine years old and married contentedly with two grown children, I am not a candidate for the priesthood. But I find the courage and dedication of priests both inspiring and deeply mysterious.
But then, I thought, of course, Mary must be extraordinarily strong to hold Jesus in her arms, and powerful to lead us to Him! We need a muscular Marian presence, a heart of platinum, a loud unequivocal yes, to make Christ present in our lives.
I left the Shrine and crossed Michigan Avenue to the House of Studies. My friend Brother S. was waiting for me outside, a gesture of hospitality that did not surprise me. He gave me a quick tour of the original cloister, formed around an inner courtyard, and led me to the new state-of-the-art library to one side. Then it was off to the chapel for the Office of Readings and vespers. I made a noisy entrance tripping over the threshold.
While some of the rooms look refurbished, even modernized—signs of new life in an order that is seeing an increase of vocations—the chapel appears unchanged. Ornately carved choir stalls in three ranks on each side face a center aisle as in many monastery chapels. An ornate gilt lectern about halfway back, with a filigreed Virgin and Child, faces a high wooden altar. Organ pipes hang over keyboards to one side of the choir, and a young Dominican was busy preparing his sheet music. About 45 men in white, each with a heavy fifteen-decade rosary suspended from the waist like no-nonsense martial arts gear, filed slowly in and genuflected before taking their regular seats. Who tells them where to sit?
A handful of lay guests sat in the stalls furthest from the altar, where S. and I took places as well. A few more guests sat behind a wooden trellisworks at the back of the choir, with a public door behind them. I noted two older women sitting with us in the rear stalls, while several notably younger women sat in a line behind the screen. I couldn't help thinking what it must be like for student brothers like my young friend to sense the presence of these (very attractive) young women within a sideways glance. For my simple male mind, this represents a deep mystery of the religious life.
We joined in the singing of hymns, the readings of psalms, the recitation of prayers in the Daily Office. One side of the choir responded to another, alternately standing and sitting in a choreography that must take months to learn. And always a full 90-degree forward bow when reciting the first half of the “Glory Be.” Dominicans are teachers, scholars, preachers (the O.P. after their names stands for Order of Preachers), who live a quasi-monastic existence. Monastic customs followed us to the dinner table.
After a recitation of Psalm 129 (De Profundis) in memory of deceased Dominicans, we filed to our tables in the refectory, where Brother S. ushered me to a seat facing the Father Prior. This was the “power table,” S. told me with a smile, and I was honored to sit alongside the guestmaster and to face a scholar priest who, S. had warned me in advance, is famously brilliant in an order that has no dummies. The Dominicans are, after the all, the order that gave us Thomas Aquinas and his daunting Summa Theologica (Theological Compendium).
We ate salad in silence while a brother read aloud. Then Father Prior rang a little bell, a brother materialized at my elbow to clear our salad plates, and it was on to the main course, a surprisingly meaty puff pastry, alongside a cabbage dish in honor of today’s feast of St. Patrick. With salad and the reading over, conversation rolled gently in, like a foggy day with clamoring gulls.
There was much talk of books. The Father Prior told me that three Dominicans residing at the House of Studies had died in the past two months and, as a result, he has spent much time cleaning out their rooms, “mostly their books.” I asked if collecting or even hoarding books was an occupational hazard in the Order of Preachers. The scholar priest stated that Saint Dominic had made an exception to the vow of poverty where books are concerned. The three priests and Brother S. carried on about who had bought the Pope’s new book where, about buying books on Amazon just like you and me, about a table “out back” where Dominicans leave things they don’t need, and if you wait long enough just about any book you want will turn up there. After a while, it was hard to remember, except for the white habits, that these weren’t just any four male friends at dinner shooting the breeze, albeit a pretty scholarly bunch of guys who talk about books rather than baseball, beer, or babes.
After supper, I retired to my room in the guest quarters above the kitchen, rooms that once served nuns. My room is a typical retreatant’s room: clean as Mary’s conscience but spare, decorated with only a crucifix and a painting of St. Dominic on the walls, and a rough-spun face cloth and towel laid out perfectly on a bed so well made you could bounce quarters off it. I was waiting to meet with the vocation director, Father B., and I eventually did so. Our interview was interrupted by compline, which ended in almost total darkness, with only four candles for illumination in the entire chapel, a holy end to a wholly overwhelming day.
My interview with the vocation director is something I am still processing, and so I will make it the subject of another post, or perhaps a book, it’s too late in a long day to know which.
If you’ve read this far and would like to continue following my four-day stay at the DHS, you can do so from these links:
Day 2 (a)
Day 2 (b)
Day 3 (a)
Day 3 (b)