Cloistered Dominican Nuns Corpus Christi Monastery

To Know The One We Love

Study - To know the one we love (web)

“I’m not smart enough to be a Dominican…  My spiritual director/pastor/friend told me to contact you, but, I’m not a theologian…  I don’t have all the academic degrees needed to be a Dominican…”  These are some of the things we sometimes hear from young women who are discerning a vocation to religious life and do find their way to our vocation directress.  But they are all rooted in misconceptions of one of the Dominican pillars of life: study.

One purpose of religious study is to submit ourselves to the teaching of the Church and the magisterium.  As we come to know God and the Church, we can know whether we are falling into error in our actions or words.  It renews our minds so we may love God more completely.  St. Teresa of Avila recognized the need for great theologians and encouraged her sisters to pray for them.  Contemplatives instinctively recognize this need of the Church.  This is also why every community and order should have some study built into their formation and life.  Yet, contemplative study is yet different from simply learning about our Catholic faith.

When St. Dominic founded the Order, it was in response to heresy.  Its mission: contemplate Truth and proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of souls.  Yet, Blessed Jordan, the second Master of the Dominican Order, was once criticized for allowing men to enter the company of friars who were thought to be “not smart enough”.  His responded, “Wait and watch.  These men will by far make the better preachers.”  Blessed Jordan’s attitude toward intellectual ability is telling.  Study and knowledge is to always be at the service of preaching for the salvation of souls.  We study not to simply “know more” or attain academic recognition.  Dominican study is contemplative study, that is, it is “a loving gaze upon Truth.”  We study to know better the One we love, and to be able share with others that Truth.

Contemplative study is indispensable for those called to holy preaching.  A life of intimate union with God does not take the place of study – rather, it makes it all the more necessary.  If the preacher is to express his or her contemplation accurately, he or she must be able to correctly articulate it, and in accord with the Church.  Additionally, if a preacher does not have a firm grasp on the mysteries of faith, how is he or she to teach others about them?

 

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Our Novitiate Sisters Wrestling with the Study on the Sacraments

So, how does study fit into the life of a contemplative nun, since we remain in our cloister?  It does not serve exactly the same function as it does in the lives of our friars, sisters, and laity, but it is no less important.

Again, contemplative study is done in openness to the movements of the Holy Spirit and is not done in a purely academic matter.  We study to know better the One we love, and as a sharing in the work of our Order – from our foundations, the contemplative nuns were referred to by St. Dominic and his friars as, “Sister Preacheresses.”

Contemplative study also helps us withdraw from the noise and the distractions of the world and strips us of a sensory and imaginative way of thinking.  By focusing of God and His Truth, we also begin to renew our minds; we increasingly see everything in light of God’s transcendence.  It forms in us a way of thinking that centers our mind on God.  As St. Thomas Aquinas described, it forms a habitus – a deep-seated disposition of the intelligence.  Since a person can have only one habitus, we aim through contemplative study to form ours centered on God and His will.

Contemplative study also forces us to make our faith explicit and to count its many riches.  In wrestling with doctrine and the teachings of the Church, we take it in much more deeply.  Knowing and understanding Christ’s actions through Sacraments helps to increase our attention and participation and makes us that much more open to His graces by engaging our intellect and will.  Studying the works of the Desert Fathers, Cassian, St. Augustine and others adds depth and reason to understanding and living monastic life today.  And when prayer becomes dry and dark, when we can no longer “feel” God’s presence (as many saints and others assure us, it will happen as we progress in the contemplative life), contemplative study and the knowledge of Truth is a support to help us persevere in the contemplative life.

For these reasons, and many more, Dominicans cherish and guard their study time – it is one of the fundamentals of our charism that is, or at least should, never be given up or compromised.  It is a time to encounter God through the intellect.  For our studies are always placed in an atmosphere of profound prayer – the more we gain from our studies, the more intense our prayer life should be.  St. Thomas Aquinas provides a beautiful example of this practice and we see the fruits of this in his writing; not just his great works of theology, but also in his prayers and hymns.  Before studying, he always prayed for enlightenment, understanding, and aid in retaining what he learned.  He would periodically stop his studies and go to pray, then return and continue.  And he ended his studies with gratitude.  In that tradition, a Dominican should always weave prayer throughout his or her studies and give God plenty of room to speak.

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Contemplative study thus requires humility, docility, and obedience to learn from the Holy Spirit and others He brings into our lives to teach us.  Again, we see in St. Thomas Aquinas many examples of this humility and obedience that permeated his life.  One day, a young friar was rushing through the priory when he stopped the older and by this time much acclaimed St. Thomas Aquinas and told him he needed to go with him to beg for the day’s bread.  Clearly, the young friar was instructed on this errand and likely told to take the first friar he found on this errand, not realizing who he’d commandeered.  But St. Thomas Aquinas stopped what he was doing and immediately went with the young man.  As they went about town through the day, begging for bread, St. Thomas Aquinas struggled to keep up.  Finally, toward the end of the day, shortly before returning to the priory, another man stopped the young friar, appalled to see the lauded St. Thomas lagging behind on such an errand.  “Don’t you know who you have with you?!”  Appalled, the young friar begged St. Thomas’ forgiveness.  “My dear brother,” St. Thomas responded.  “The only fault here is mine for not being able to keep up with you.”

If you are drawn to contemplation, have a burning desire for the salvation of souls, and find yourself drawn to learn more about Truth, these are signs you may be called to a Dominican vocation.  Still doubt?  Think of St. Thomas Aquinas who was called “dumb ox” by his classmates, St. Catherine of Siena who was illiterate, the many men and women who were almost dismissed from their communities because they didn’t seem to measure up intellectually, and the story of this man who entered the Dominican Order, desiring to give himself wholly to God and the preaching of the Gospel:  As he was immersed in the disciplines of the novitiate, he struggled with his studies and was failing.  Eventually, he reached the point of frustration and despair and decided he would leave.  He planned to wait until nightfall, then climb the cloister wall and depart for good.  The house was silent as he slipped out under cover of darkness and made his way to the wall where he’d left a ladder nearby.  As he climbed the ladder, he began to weep and called on our Blessed Mother for help.  She appeared to him and smiled, “Why didn’t you ask me before?  Go back and I will assist you.”  At peace, he climbed back down the ladder and returned to his bed.  Infused with grace, he excelled at his studies.  We now know him as St. Albert the Great, teacher and mentor of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Dominicans always have recourse to our Lady, patroness of our Order.  Though Jesus was the greatest theologian, Mary’s knowledge of God consisted in intimate union.  Let us ask her for help in knowing God as she did – with simple obedience, humility, and intimacy.

Shield Thomas Aquinas (Web)

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

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