Recovering Our Dominican Contemplative Tradition

By Richard Woods, O.P.

Anyone who heard or has read Paul Murray’s address to the General Chapter at Providence on “Recovering the Contemplative Dimension” will have come to appreciate the depth of our spiritual tradition as he described it, but, also from my perspective, the risk of trying to add anything substantial to Paul’s remarks — if not the temptation just to steal from them outright.  Since plagiarism has fallen out of favor since the Middle Ages, my contribution to the discussion will be fairly summary, or at least a bit shorter than Paul’s address. But it goes without saying that neither he nor I or anyone else can hardly lay claim to providing the last word on the subject of recovering our Dominican contemplative tradition.

By way of introduction, let me say that I have come to appreciate even more what it means that, as Meister Eckhart said,

We find people who like the taste of God in one way but not in another, and they want to have God only in one way of contemplation, not in another. I raise no objection, but they are quite wrong. If you want to take God properly, you should take Him equally in all things, in hardship as in comfort, in weeping as in joy, it should be all the same to you. (1)

Speaking on the Dominican contemplative tradition originally seemed like a relatively simple matter of capitalizing on the course I had recently taught on Dominican spirituality.  But as the deadline approached, not only did I find myself finishing up a demanding semester of teaching, but my computer came under a series of assaults from the Klez virus among others, and finally had a complete nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization.  Then my car radiator went out the afternoon I picked up my computer from the shop and also needed serious surgical attention, including an organ transplant.  I have also been in the midst of moving from my residence at Loyola University, where I had been living for almost fourteen years, to the priory of St. Thomas. My books are presently in a number of cartons large enough to start a pyramid and tended to be 20 miles away when I suddenly needed one. On top of all that, my new community has been in the midst of a prioral election for the past few days.

As I ruminated about solitude, leisure, and the tranquility of order, jotting notes in repair shops and during the wee hours of the morning, I sometimes found myself suddenly laughing at what seemed like the incongruity of it all. But such circumstances are not incongruous with contemplation, and certainly not unusual for Dominicans.

My thinking was also sharpened by an exchange with a friend, a former Dominican whom I had known many years ago in the studium. He had been three years ahead of me, and so I had thought of him as a paragon of spiritual wisdom. When he learned about the present topic, he wrote,

I recall John Connell being pretty esoteric about the subject [of contemplation] in my novitiate. Then, I read Arintero and he convinced me that contemplation was beyond my reach. A few years ago, I looked back at him to see if I had misinterpreted what he says. Nope. So, now, I just ignore him and go on my way.

Dominican and other spiritual writers of the last century, including Juan Arintero and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, ably defended the unity of the spiritual life, insisting that contemplative union was in the normal way of sanctification and not some esoteric side-track reserved to monks and nuns and people with peculiar sensibilities and a lot time to spare. But they also created the impression that attaining the “heights of contemplation” as they liked to put it was a very complex, difficult, and lengthy process in which few souls ever truly got very far. The demands of ordinary active life are simply too great.

This, of course, is simply the ancient and traditional problem of the tension between action and contemplation. Any number of recent commentators, Paul Murray included, have observed that the emphasis on pastoral theology and social action following the Second Vatican Council considerably diminished the status of the contemplative life in the Church. The sheer amount of work incumbent on those engaged in ministry today did the rest. So it is not an idle endeavor to recover the contemplative dimension of our tradition — or perhaps more accurately, to rediscover it. But this begs the question to some degree. First, we need to remember why we should bother to. Why not just get on with our work?

My approach involves three main points and a few lesser ones.

First, the original place of contemplation in Dominican life was simpler and much less esoteric than later formulations imply. But it was foundational.

Second, although contemplative experiences can be gratuitous, preparation and training, including study, are required to develop and maintain a contemplative spirit. But that is easier than one might think.

Third, despite the serious obstacles to contemplation presented by contemporary culture, ordinary life situations, including active ministry, far from being a barrier to contemplation are, in fact, the necessary condition for and normal occasion of contemplation.

The witnesses I plan to call include those I consider the greatest teachers of contemplation in our early tradition – Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Catherine of Siena. If we wish to recover our tradition, where better to look?


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