Nuns at the Heart of the Preaching
by Sr. Claire Marie de Jesus Rolf OP
(In this presentation given at Prague to a gathering of Dominican nuns Sr Claire captures the essence of the life the Dominican nun. It is used here with Sr Claire’s permission. Sr Claire has spent many years on the international commission of the nuns of the Order and served as prioress in the monasteries of Langeac and Prouilhe, France).
We are enjoying trying to communicate in different languages, so I would like to begin with a little French lesson. The English word “Preacher” is “Precheur” in French. My mother language is English and when I first met Dominicans, while visiting France, I was just starting to learn French. When I first heard the name of the Order I understood it to be “the Order of ‘pecheurs’” My English ear could not yet hear that French “r”. Pecheurs means “sinners” – so I had understood that this was the “Order of Sinners”. I was quick to realise my mistake and laugh at it but I’ve always thought that there was a great deal of truth to it. I find it wonderful to be a part of an Order of Sinners who have personally discovered – and therefore preach – God’s mercy!
With time, I learned that the “Order of ‘Pecheurs’ (Sinners)” had a special veneration for Mary Magdalen, this woman of desire, who anointed the feet of Jesus with precious perfume: “Her sins were forgiven for she loved much.” Even if there is some controversy among Scripture scholars about the identity of this woman in the various gospels, this woman, whoever she was, if she is anything like me, was, indeed, a sinner and knew the mercy of God. This was another reason for me to feel at home. The figure of Mary Magdalen has always touched me and awakened my contemplative heart. I sensed that I was being called as a Dominican nun “to sit like Mary Magdalen at the feet of Jesus and listen to His words.” (Constitutions of Dominican nuns;LCM§III).
I was curious to discover how those who “make of their house, and especially of their heart, a place of silence” (LCM 46§2), could call themselves Preachers.
Where I came from, in day to day life the word “preach” had negative connotations. To preach at someone was to take a position of superiority and tell others what to think, what to believe or how to act. In church circles it meant to stand up at the pulpit and give a sermon.
How could I call myself a Preacher? I am not naturally a person of many words… in fact, as a child I suffered a disability that made expressing myself difficult. Talking in front of people was not my strength, (but “here I am Lord” for the love of my sisters and of our Order).
When my missionary heart learned that St. Thérèse of Lisieux was called the patron of missionaries, I was confirmed in my belief that there was a mysterious link between prayer and effective preaching. It dawned on me that a life of contemplative prayer could possibly be the most effective way that I had to be useful to a world that I so loved. For me this mysterious link is about “communion”. As the cry in the desert of the preacher, John the Baptist was preceded by the silence of Zachary, so my silence and prayer can mysteriously precede and accompany the preaching of others. Prayer is a work of mercy. It is apostolic. It is a labour of love with the intention of being effective “for the salvation of souls” (F.C.O §II).
Yes, I believe that the nuns have a vital and mysterious place in the heart of the Order. This place can be compared to the mystery of Mary who is at the origin and in the heart of the church. What was the place of Mary? She didn’t say much but what would the life of Jesus or the Church, be without her? She was present, receiving, believing, interceding, and holding in her heart all that she witnessed. She contemplated. She questioned. She tried to fathom the mystery of the incarnation. Mary was present, lovingly present, from the crèche to the cross. She was also there in the upper room with the disciples at Pentecost attracting the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Dominican contemplative nuns are this loving presence at the heart of the Order of Preachers. Their faithful abiding in love contributes to the fruitfulness of the Dominican preaching mission. As St. Therese of Lisieux said: “in the heart of the church we shall be love”. Our place in the heart of the Preaching Family is really a question of love, crazy love.
We have to admit that, to “the world” (and to some Dominicans), the contemplative nuns’ vocation appears to be a bit crazy. It could be compared to the folly of St. Mary Magdalen wasting all that expensive perfume. Our lives, which are far more precious than perfume, are poured out in gratuitous love. Our lives provoke questions; they are a sign … a preaching. If God does not exist then it is complete folly, but, if you believe that God exists and if you believe in the power of prayer, then there is wisdom, (“what is folly to men is wisdom for God” 1Cor 1:25). Our lives not only preach to the world the existence of God, but they say that God can sustain a human heart. He can be our source. He is enough. He is that priceless treasure for which we sell all. He is the essential. He is not only our destiny in heaven but also our joy in this present life. As our sister Catherine of Siena says, “All the way to heaven is heaven because He is the way.”
Yes we are preachers by our very lives.
In 1989 our dear brother Damian Byrne wrote a document on The Ministry of Preaching. In this document, brother Damian did not limit the understanding of the word preaching to that of giving a homily during the Eucharist. He began by saying that “the key to Dominic’s success as a preacher was his manner of life… it is not so much what we say that wins people, as what we are”. He reminded us that “our Lord converted sinners like Matthew with a word, Peter with a single glance, He ate with sinners… in action and in word, Jesus proclaimed the compassionate love of God.”
As it was for Jesus and for Dominic, so it was for Damian. Those who had the grace to meet and know Damian can witness to the fact that he preached as much by his manner of life as by his words. Whenever I hear someone speak of Damian they talk of his humility, his evangelical poverty and his deep compassion. Brother Damian’s life was a preaching. Damian said in this document that “words are empty unless they are supported by the witness of life both individually and as a community. The common life is inextricably linked with the preaching mission. Mission and communio are two sides of the same coin both in the Church and in the Order. We cannot separate them. And then Damian goes on to say “it is precisely here, through the witness of their lives that our contemplative sisters are at the heart of our preaching family.”
Did Dominic not have this in mind when, 800 years ago, he called the first community of women the Holy Preaching of Prouilhe? He could have picked a safer place to plant that community, but no, they were founded right in the middle of a spiritual wasteland, on a “line of fracture” (P. Claverie OP). They were completely surrounded by Cathars, people who had had enough of those who did not practice what they preached. The lives of the heretics who were speaking errors were more credible that the words of those who were trying to preach truth without integrating it into their lifestyle. Words were not enough so Dominic and Diego then did something very heroic, if you ask me. They abandoned their horses. They decided to go by foot (sometimes bare footed) and preach in “act and in word”. Like St. Francis they wanted to “preach everywhere and always and, if necessary, even with words.” It was important to be seen and not only just heard as followers of Jesus. I think that when Dominic gathered the women together to form the Holy Preaching of Prouilhe he wanted the community to be a light shining in spiritual darkness, a visible, incarnate example of evangelical values, a community that emanated the living presence of Jesus. Prouilhe was to be a silent yet powerful preaching.
In a world where people are saying, like the disciple Philip, “we would like to see Jesus” and seekers, like the apostle Andrew are asking “where do you dwell?” our monasteries should be places where people can “come and see”. I’m always a bit amazed when I hear people outside of the community make remarks like: “What a radiant community! There is such a spirit of gentle joy here! The love of God is almost tangible in the love that you have for one another!” It is usually just when I’m not feeling very radiant, loving, gentle or joyful. Yet, it is true! Even when it is not always our experience as individuals, this is what the community is emanating! The Holy Trinity dwells amongst us and shines through! A Dominican community, when it is healthy, radiates joy and the presence of God. Those who are in contact with the community sense that God dwells there and He touches them… He is the one who preaches directly to their hearts.
So, we see that when we reflect together about preaching it would be unfortunate to limit our understanding of the word to that of giving the homily at Eucharistic celebrations. There are countless ways of preaching.
It was quite moving to listen to the different members of the International Commission at a meeting in Rome as they reported the responses they had received from the monasteries in their regions on a questionnaire on how we see ourselves as ‘preachers’. Much thought and energy had been put into the reflection and one could sense that the nuns around the world are of one heart and mind on the matter. They do not have an identity problem: we are preachers…but…. in our specific way. If preaching is not part of our spirituality our spirituality would not be Dominican. Here are some of the statements made about preaching. There are lots of opportunities to preach:
- Our way of living together is a way of preaching.
- The Word proclaimed and celebrated in the Liturgy of the Hours is a preaching.
- A beautiful liturgy or the sacred space of our church is a form of preaching.
- The welcome we give in our guesthouses and parlours is a form of preaching
- Preaching starts with silence and listening – to whom do we listen?
- We preach to one another in our common life
- Intercessions: spontaneous and prepared intercessions at the offices and Eucharist are a particular preaching forum.
- Books and articles written by nuns
- Talks or conferences given by sisters
- Work well done, Handicrafts or Artistic works
- Wearing our habits is a form of preaching
- The monastery itself gives a prophetic message
- Praying the Rosary together
- Speaking the truth in daily life, the respect we have for one another is visible and preachers
- Sharing our insights from our reading of Scriptures
- The monasteries are schools of prayer, promote prayer
- Living in silence is a preaching
- Dominic’s prayer was a preaching. His Nine Ways of Prayer he preached in an incarnate way, the Word Incarnate.
Brother Damian said that Dominicans “are a reminder to the whole church of the importance of preaching.” Brother Carlos has said that the nuns remind the Order of the importance of contemplation in the lives of all preachers. All preaching, if it is to be a Holy Preaching or bear fruit for the Kingdom, is born of contemplation. A truly life-giving word finds its source in the silence of listening (to the Word and to the world) and is verified or becomes credible through the witness of our manner of living. If Dominicans do not live a vital relationship with Jesus in prayer we risk becoming like a club doing social work or intellectual research, or even theology. The Oakland Chapter said “we have not always been aware enough of the contemplative dimension of our Dominican life … and the effectiveness of our preaching has suffered the consequences” (n̊147§4). Yes, the nuns have a role to play as a sign of that contemplative dimension in the life of the whole Order and of the Church.
In conclusion, I would like to come back to that great contemplative, Saint Mary Magdalen. We can sense that it was love that moved her to anoint the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon and wash them with her tears. It was love that motivated her to sit at His feet listening to His words in Bethany. Love, too, pushed her to be present at foot of the cross and then to tearfully search for Him in the garden. She was there obstinately present in her loving despair. In response to this great love, Jesus came to her, called her by her name and revealed Himself to her. She heard Jesus with her own ears. She saw Him with her own eyes. She was a true witness. Only then did she receive her mission to go and announce the life-giving presence of our risen and beloved Lord. This was how a crazy contemplative woman became a preacher, to the point of being called “the apostle of the apostles”, and a patron of the Order of Preachers.
May our love and our lives also be a Holy Preaching for “the Salvation of souls”.