Friday, March 18, 2011

Dominican House of Studies, Day 2 (b)

A Catholic retreat is a way of searching for Christ. But this retreat—and it’s clear that’s what I’m on now, as any book project arising from my visit to the Dominican House of Studies is likely to be long-term—is first and foremost a confrontation with myself. I credit the brotherly Dominicans of the St. Joseph Province for this. To be among these 70 or 80 men in white habits residing on Michigan Avenue NE in Washington DC is to be forced to look in a mirror, one that returns a clear and loving gaze.

I am specially blessed because my prior friendship with Brother S. has opened doors for me, and I have had the privilege of chatting with, dining with, and even interviewing at length a number of priests and brothers. I am completely taken with the Dominican charism. There is no doubt in my mind that if I were young, single, Catholic, and inclined to the priesthood, I would look very seriously at the Order of Preachers. They combine the communal prayer life of monastics with an active apostolate, a reaching out into the community to serve. They are, after all, “Preachers.” Given my deep respect for my parish priest back home, my (totally imaginary) priestly vocation would be a toss-up of D’s—Dominican or diocesan.

In the presence of so many very smart, very clear-eyed men whose calling is to speak either of God or to God, I am forced to confront:
  • My noisy, cockeyed life: The silence is, in any religious setting like this one, the first thing that strikes me. But this outward silence is no antidote to the noise that daily fills my mind and heart. I arrived 30 minutes early for vespers this evening to say a rosary. Despite the silence in the chapel, broken only by the intermittent entry of priests and brothers, one by one, I could not bring my busy mind to a standstill. 
  • My frequent failure to judge my life seriously. The homily this morning by Deacon Austin was a masterpiece: a meditation on the word reconciliation and its nuance in today’s Gospel. What learning, but especially what serious thought lay behind that homily! Do I ever think as closely about the words I use or the values I talk about so lightly?
  • My tepid prayer life. Imagine: I think it’s a big effort to pray a rosary per day. These guys walk around with three or even four decades of beads hanging from their belts. It’s all I can do to say the daily Office of Readings faithfully. These guys are praying on my behalf even when I am asleep, which is often.
  • My confusion about human sexuality. I had a long conversation this afternoon with a priest who has just been appointed the first director of the Thomist Institute within the House of Studies. In other words, this guy rocks, theologically speaking. I sat with my mouth half open for twenty minutes, listening to him talk about the Dominicans’ vow of celibacy as, well, as so many things, but especially as a witness in a culture that has fallen off the cliff of sexuality. I thought, How little and lightly I think about these things!
I chose this weekend for a visit, several months in the making, because it includes the feast day of my patron, St. Joseph. It never occurred to me until yesterday that this would also be a special feast day in the Province of St. Joseph. At evening prayer, the Dominicans here typically say the Office of Readings followed by Evening Prayer, from the Liturgy of the Hours. Tonight, there was a short break after the Office to decorate the chapel in honor of St. Joseph and (always with the Dominicans) the Virgin Mother of our Lord. Candles were lit. Garlands of flowers were positioned around the gilt Mary that tops the lectern. Then the music resumed with a hymn to St. Joseph.

Afterwards, before supper, in the hallway outside the refectory, we again recited Psalm 129 (De Profundis) in honor of Dominicans of the Province who died on this date. Then we recited a novena prayer to St. Joseph. As we did so, the hallway boomed with a special resonance that seemed to echo inside me. I almost didn’t need to make the words with my own lips. They wanted to pray themselves through me.

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