As I near the end of my stay at the Dominican House of Studies, I think I understand better how we become signs for one another—in the best circumstances, signs of God’s love. A nostalgia has already settled over me as I write this post in the guest quarters behind the DHS. I have said my good-byes and leave at first light.
The brethren here have been extraordinarily kind and generous and even forgiving with me. My friend Brother S. has gone far beyond the call of duty, shepherding me about, introducing me to many of his fellow Dominicans. By this afternoon, many were calling me by name. But then I guess my name is memorable here, because it is distinctive. There are no Saint Websters. Nor even any Blesseds.
This evening Brother S. gave a talk on the Cross in poetry, especially in the work of John Donne and T. S. Eliot, and in an Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood.” With about thirty other members of the laity, I sat in the choir stalls among the monks. For the first time, I did not sit in what Brother J. jokingly calls “the penalty box,” the stalls furthest from the altar where the laity, and late brothers, normally sit for the recitation of the Divine Office. After the talk, which included an Eliot poem I have always loved, “Journey of the Magi,” it was time for compline. We lay people were permitted to keep our privileged positions in the choir. A Dominican chanted beside me and another behind me, while two lay women sat to my other side. It was easy to imagine that we were all part of one community, just as it was easy to feel melancholy about my imminent departure.
We are all part of the community of Christ’s Church surely, but there is an apartness to this Dominican community too that is palpable and proper. As a result, I do not imagine that my nostalgia or melancholy over my departure is reciprocated by the brethren. They will recite the Divine Office in the morning without missing me in the penalty box. Their smiles, their clean clear gestures of friendship have been heart-felt, that is undeniable, but they have also been completely unselfish. They have allowed me to appreciate, to witness the quality of a fraternal love that can arise in a truly chaste heart, one focused on God, not appetites, a heart therefore able to love others but without possessing them, without an agenda.
What the Dominicans offer us lay people then is not an object for our love, something to be held onto (I don’t want to leave!) but a true sign, which one can let go because it is not the ultimate Friendship (I am headed Home!). Theirs is a witness that points beyond the person. It is a love that does not possess and will not permit of possession, and so a love truer than most of what passes for that word in our day-to-day world.
After such an experience, I don’t feel so much like T. S. Eliot’s Magi, although saying so might wrap up this post in a tight little packet. Brother S. pointed us toward these lines from “Journey of the Magi” this evening:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In fact, I am looking forward to my “old dispensation”—my wife, my work, my church, my chair—and death is the farthest thing from my mind right now. If I feel any unease, it is not in the manner of Eliot, but of Isaak Dinesen, who wrote:
I sing a song of Africa, but does Africa sing a song of me?
Write as a I may about them, the Dominicans will not be singing antiphons to me in the morning. But that is OK. They will be singing about what they always point to and with such admirable certainty.