800th Anniversary of the Death of Our Holy Father St. Dominic (1172 – 1221)
As one of the Dominican Sisters of Oakford preparing my reflection on St. Dominic, I invite you to be with me, as I share in a table conversation with our beloved Saint. Although this is my personal encounter with him, I trust that you, my fellow Dominicans, respecting my vulnerability, can relate to our sharing and so experience our holy founder in the way you have come to know him during your years in the Dominican Order:
Gemma: Saint Dominic, you consoled and assured your grieving brethren as you were dying, that you would be of more use to them after your death than you were while living among them (Jordan’s Libellus, #93). Reminded of this your faith, your promise, and recalling how available, gracious, and merciful you were, when anyone in your community needed your guidance, support, as well as challenge, I have invited you to sit with me at this crucial time in our Congregational history during the devastating Pandemic of COVID19. By now it is a whole year that no guest could come into our convent due to COVID 19 restrictions, yet you and I can sit together here in the morning sunshine of early Spring on this spacious porch of the Dominican Convent.
How happy am I that “facial masks and ‘social distancing’” does not apply to us! You are my first visitor since last March who is exempt from such Corona virus regulations; and I am secure in your closeness.
Dominic: We are not alone, Gemma: He, who promised to be with us always, is here with the two of us. What a joy! I am also conscious of the presence of our whole Dominican Family on earth and in eternity…. and think of all the people you carry in your heart! —
Gemma: And may the glass of wine on our table celebrate this belonging, our shared vocation in the Dominican Family and our timeless mission to proclaim the Gospel. You showed us in the beginnings of the Dominican Order and it remains true till today, that it is who we are and how we live that preaches. To me the wine on our table also relaxes the atmosphere and reminds us to take time to celebrate the gift of this NOW together.
Dominic: My Sister, how is this Pandemic a wake-up call from God for you and our world? You have learned from our 800 year-history as Dominicans how I encountered the heretical Church of the Cathars in southern France while on that journey to the North with Bishop Diego. In contrast to the Catholic clergy at that time those heretics lived a very austere life of evangelical poverty, which made them more credible witnesses of the Gospel to the simple people in those regions. We learned very fast that our preaching the Catholic faith and the truths of the Gospel would only be effective if we lived a simple lifestyle and were austere in our traveling on foot and by the clothes we wore. Those were the early beginnings of the order’s Preaching Mission. Pope Innocent III encouraged me to form a religious community. As the number grew of those who felt attracted to our preaching mission and the evangelical poverty we lived, we needed to make study a necessary part of our way of life and mission. The very next year Pope Innocent died.
His successor, Pope Honorius III, confirmed us as a religious institute with preaching as its goal. Two years later in 1218 he designated us as “the order of Preachers”. Naturally I had also to provide for the theological training of those who joined us who were not yet trained. Veritas became the motto of our order, as we preached and defended the truth of our Catholic faith at universities and among the simple people of the countryside.
Gemma: It was, however, not only your strong sense of the preaching mission that attracted a growing number of followers, including women, but also your joyful disposition and capacity for relationship and creating community. (Dominic is smiling.) You wanted to be and were like a brother among your friars, in joyful poverty and prayerful centeredness radiating a freedom that comes from the indwelling Spirit.
You are asking how I hear God calling us through the present Pandemic? Just as you and the friars’ Holy Preaching answered a grave need in the Church for Truth, compassion and simplicity of lifestyle, our present time cries out for Truth in an even wider realm than the heresies of the 12th and 13th century. This is especially true for us in the United States who during the past four years have increasingly lived with untruth, “fake truth”, disinformation and mal-information and blatant lies threatening the very fiber of our society and making inroads in our polarized church. Our new President Joe Biden is calling us to unity and honesty and to a working together for the common good. This crisis of truth is something new to me, and I discovered that the more I listened to the news, the more I lost hope and trust. I have alarmingly realized what happens to me when I am giving the news media priority time.
Dominic: You can be grateful, Gemma, that you realized quite soon how and what you feed on becomes part of you. You know the saying “We become what we eat.” You probably also miss the Eucharist on which you were fed daily before the pandemic closed access to it for so many of you. Your faithful rhythm of personal and communal prayer will nourish your hope as you are on your way of recovering your balance and joy in the Lord.
Gemma: Dominic, you are bringing our conversation to the place prayer holds in our life. Your own example of the nights you spent in prayer, wrestling with God for the salvation of souls, weeping with compassion for the suffering poor and neglected, instilling in the brethren and Sisters a desire to speak either to or of God, to give silence and solitude an important place in their life, all of these have remained a school of learning for 800 years within the Dominican family. You yourself did not write much but what you lived and preached has inspired us and renewed us to the present moment.
Dominic: Maybe this pandemic — as harsh as it has been on so many who died or lost loved ones, or those who suffer hardships, loss of employment and more….. may also give people time to reflect on the meaning of their life, their belief; it offers time to evaluate their priorities, their values, their relationships. It could serve to help you renew your way of life, bring about greater equality and justice, a new commitment to care for the earth and become more responsible stewards. It is good to see more people walk with each other, experience the beauty and healing quality of nature, have less pollution from airplanes and cars …! How long will it take until we understand that we need each other in our diversity to become whole?
Gemma: Here I can see the place of STUDY, to which you personally and for your followers were so committed. You planted this seed 800 years ago and cultivated it, and it still is an essential part of our Dominican life. Study in whatever form does open doors of growth and conversion. Dominicans are lifelong learners. While all of us have had academic and professional studies to prepare us for service, study has remained an integral part of our life. Right now we here at San Rafael, where I live as the only Oakford Sister in community, are participating in ongoing study as members of small groups focusing on diverse topics such as Pope Francis’ two encyclicals Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, the history of Slavery and Racism in the US and the related experience of White Supremacy and Privilege, uncovering our prejudice and assumptions. Climate-change is another study (to give just a few examples). Through reflection and/or facilitation, our learning is quite holistic affecting the whole person.
Dominic: I can hear how much this growth opportunity means to you, my Sister. Your joy and gratitude are alive.
Gemma: Dominic, before our time together is up I do want to thank you for what you left your Friars and all of us Dominicans as a powerful heritage at the time of your dying, after you yourself lived by these directives a holy life: Have Charity, preserve humility, and possess voluntary poverty! This is what you left us as your treasure before you parted from your community. You trusted those surrounding you in your dying and you have trusted us through hundreds of years and me at this time, to take your words to heart as the treasure they were to you. Thank you for having such faith in us. It is the same trust you showed when you dispersed your friars to universities and distant missions without strict supervision. You had your own way of caring and being of support to them. Your few words make it easier to remember the essence. I have taken them to heart, and periodically little vistas open up showing me where and how I need to grow.
Dominic: Remember, Gemma, at the heart of voluntary poverty is the common life. Our preaching mission called us to an itinerant poverty as well as a conventual one.
Gemma: Having recently dwelled more on your life by reading in the books about you, I felt moved to also read in our Oakford Constitutions, and there are two articles which are calling me in a special way for the place they give to the WORD. I have read them in the light of your Word-centered life, dear Dominic, and find them so true of you, while I feel my own neglect of living up to them:
The Word is the center of our unity lived in faith, hope and love and is expressed through mutual caring, concern and support.
In building up one another in a community of truth and freedom, we allow the Word to dwell amongst us.
Dear Dominic, your life has inspired me anew to make the Word of God, that we Sisters claim as the Center of our life, to be more truly a living presence in my days, that I may be more deeply rooted in the Truth of God’s very being, and so remain a presence of hope and love.
Can we two, before you need to move on, sit for a little while in silent gratitude for God’s beauty surrounding us in these blossoming trees and diverse flowers surrounding the flowing fountain?
And after we sat in the stillness of belonging, Dominic intoned the Salve Regina for the two of us to sing together. .. before he continued his itinerant journey.
Sr. Gemma Neunzling, OP
Dominican Sisters of Oakford