Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dominican House of Studies, Day 3 (b)



My good friend Bob texted me some advice on Thursday, as I was flying to Washington for four days here at the Dominican House of Studies. “Good luck, safe travels,” he wrote. “Remain a blank slate that God writes on. Don’t fall prey to your questions. Ask rather to be brought to a better evaluation of Christ in your life through His encounter with theirs.” Bob, the cradle Catholic, is never shy about giving this convert advice, be it about religion, bowling, or golf. Especially golf.

I have kept Bob’s words in mind since arriving here, and the advice has proved sound. Convinced before my trip that I wanted to write a book on vocations in the Catholic Church, I realized after 24 hours among the Dominicans that I could study them and their order for the rest of my life and never write a definitive book on vocations—among the Dominicans. In other words, my fascination mounts and my focus narrows. New friends here have been slipping me books and pamphlets and Web links, such that when I return home on Monday, I will have a semester’s worth of studying to do before I dare show my face here again.

So then, by yesterday afternoon, I was convinced that I wanted to write a book about the Dominican order, in the context of both its illustrious history and its remarkable vocation boom today. It was at this point that my friend Brother S. approached me and told me he had set an interview for this morning with Brother Isaac, OCSO. In other words, with a Trappist. My first impulse was to think, Why would I want to interview a Trappist if I am writing a book about Dominicans?! My second impulse was to think of Bob and his advice. “Remain a blank slate . . . ”

So this morning I spoke with or mostly listened to Brother Isaac, baptismal name John Slater, under which name you will discover him as a published poet of some distinction. His forthcoming book of poems, Surpassing Pleasure, can be preordered here. His publisher’s Web page about the book is here. “John Slater” is also co-translator of a book of Sufi poems by Hafiz of Shiraz, here.


Brother Isaac seemed less interested in discussing his own work than in speaking about his community, The Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. With a magnifying glass, you can spot Brother Isaac in the above photo, at the right end of the front row, his hand on the shoulder of an elder monk. I have promised not to blog about details of the vocation stories I am hearing while staying at the DHS, but I was particularly moved by Brother Isaac, who combines the calling of poet with the vocation of monk in a way that recalls Thomas Merton. We discussed Merton at some length, and Brother Isaac’s perspective was corrective to my own.

Brother Isaac especially wanted me to share with my devoted handful of readers the short video on the Abbey that sits atop this post. I commend it to you. If you enjoyed the film Into Great Silence, about a Carthusian monastery in Europe, you will appreciate this piece of video. It is both much shorter and less silent.

Brother Isaac told me of seeing the new film Of Gods and Men, recommending it. Following Bob’s advice once again, I plan to see the film this afternoon. It’s a beautiful spring day in Washington, and the promised rain has not materialized.

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