Friday, March 18, 2011

Dominican House of Studies, Day 2 (a)

Plunged into some aspects of monastic life yesterday evening (evening prayer, refectory dining, a conversation with the vocation director), I plumb forgot that this place is also a graduate school. About 40 young men are in formation here to become Dominican priests, and this morning I had an opportunity to sit in on three classes in the new study building above the library. From the classrooms on one side, you look across Michigan Avenue to the National Shrine (left).

I audited three courses taught by strikingly different teachers with one common characteristic: remarkable intellectuality. A best-selling book about the Dominicans could be published with the title Religious Life for Dummies, Not. Attending courses here and studying for the degree programs are many non-Dominicans, religious from other orders, as well as lay people, male and female.

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, a slight young priest in wire-rimmed glasses, teaches the course on Holy Orders. He is more demonstrative with his hands than with his face; his smiles are mostly verbal, although an offhand joke about golf did bring a sly grin to his face. Erudition—about Calvin and the Council of Trent today—pour from beneath his slightly protruding upper lip without the slightest appearance of effort. His response to questions was extraordinarily quick and agile. My friend Brother S. had told me of Father White’s reputation for brilliance, and I was not disappointed.

Professor (didn’t get his first name) Carl is a lay academic, who also teaches at Catholic University of America across the avenue. Like Father White, Carl presented an “opposing” position with great sympathy. Father White remarked that Calvin offers the most cogent statement of current Evangelical positions vis-a-vis the Catholic Church. Calvin, White said almost admiringly, offers a “religion for the road.” Professor Carl’s subject was the Ethical Metaphysics of Emmanuel Kant—and, no, I can’t summarize the lesson. Dr. Carl, a Thomist, made it clear that he is no Kantian, but he seemed fair in his explanation of the opening pages of Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. 

Dressed in a blue suit coat, black slacks, a white shirt, and blue tie, Carl could pass for an IBM salesman, especially if that salesman were a retired slightly out-of-condition offensive lineman. With his sharp reasoning, scruffy beard, and black hair, the Catholic professor could also pass for a Talmudic scholar.

Father John Corbett, my third prof of the morning, has more than a bit of Woody Allen in him—deadpan and deadly funny. His course on “Principles of the Christian Moral Life II” is clearly a crowd-pleaser and a testament to the wisdom of not laughing at one’s own jokes. His topic was the passions, a subject easy to dramatize, even easier to ham up. Strolling back and forth with his right hand often in his pants pocket beneath his white Dominican habit and his left elbow stuck to his side like a hinge, Father Corbett gestured softly with his left hand while telling tales of passions pure, tarnished, and out-of-control.

He explained ecstasy, one of four effects of the first passion, love, by enacting the freak-out of a football fan watching his team eke out a win with a last-second interception, complete with a flying bowl of Frito’s corn chips. He also acted out the reaction of a young man meeting his fiancée at the train depot as a combination of desire and, when the man realizes his mother-in-law is also getting off the train, aversion. He performed an unlikely dance for a Dominican, one step forward (desire) and two back (aversion). I would dearly love to study here, although the circumstances of my happy family life in Massachusetts make that unlikely. 

At lunch, I was honored to share a table once again with Father Giles, the prior. As before, he, with the dean and the guest master, was a cordial host. But I am already exhausted. Time for a nap! Perhaps a second (b) post will follow this evening.

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