The Nuns Today
Talk given at a gathering of the Dominican Family Day 30th June 2007
The Nuns Today, 800 years after the first foundation in Prouilhe, have not changed greatly with regard to the essence of our life – which is a life of prayer and penance as our Constitutions say:
"These women free for God alone, Dominic associated with his ” holy preaching” by their prayer and penance." ( LCM 1. 1).
This is the same today. Our Constitutions give a further description of our way of life while describing that of the other branches also. I quote:
"The friars, sisters and laity of the Order (all of whom are represented here today) are ” to preach the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world: the nuns are to seek, ponder and call upon him in solitude so that the word proceeding from the mouth of God, may not return to him empty, but may accomplish those things for which it was sent.” ( Is. 55:10) ( LCM 1.11)
We, the nuns, are called to seek, ponder and call upon Jesus in silence and solitude so that the word of God as preached by you, our brothers and sisters will bear fruit. This is our particular place and role in the Order and we are very happy to share our life with those who wish to come to our monastery for private retreats. I would like to extend again an invitation to our sisters to come inside the enclosure for some retreat days. The friars and laity are also welcome to avail of our guestroom and Retreat House. Presently we are at the stage of submitting plans for an Extension to our Retreat House in order to make it more attractive to would-be retreatants for we are very glad to have members of the various branches join us for the celebration of the liturgy and share with them our life of prayer in this particular way.
It is interesting to note in recent chapters of the Order, that the friars ask us, the nuns, to challenge their activism but perhaps we ourselves need to re-assess our own vocation because we too are influenced by the culture in which we live. We are called to be counter- cultural in all aspects of our life. As we strive and struggle to be faithful to our particular vocation in the Order we need to keep our eyes on the goal, on the ideal as expressed in our Constitutions, in the letters of recent Masters of the Order and in Church documents.
In particular it is the vocation of the nuns to bear witness to the contemplative dimension of our tradition- keeping in mind that all members of the Order are called to be contemplatives. We do this primarily through the celebration of the liturgy, private prayer and lectio divina on Sacred Scripture. Although the whole of our life is ordered to the continual remembrance of God, I would like to focus in this presentation on two central aspects of our life: the celebration of the liturgy and private prayer.
The solemn celebration of the liturgy is the heart of our whole life and the chief source of its unity – so it is written in our Constitutions.( LCM 75)
In learning about the liturgy as a Novice I will never forget the following lines which were drummed into me!: They are: In the celebration of the Liturgy, the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity takes place. I doubt I will ever forget those two lines to my dying day!
The real significance of the Liturgy as Romano Guardini so powerfully says is salvation – which is being achieved as the celebration takes place, in that particular moment – in the ‘now’ of time. But I wonder if we understand this at its deepest level at all? I certainly don’t. Perhaps that is why the late Pope John Paul II and our present Pope Benedict continue to write about the Liturgy and the Eucharist in particular, in an effort to help us to understand the depth of this great and profound mystery. Can we ever grasp it fully at all, I wonder?
This is what the present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his most recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation’ Sacramentum Caritatis’, has to say regarding the celebration of the liturgy, particularly the Eucharist and the Divine Office and I find it a very beautiful text and well worth taking time to ponder over:
‘The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendour at their source. This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love. ……… The truest beauty is the love of God, who definitively revealed himself to us in the paschal mystery- in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.' (No. 35)
As we celebrate the liturgy in the monastery, singing, chanting, listening to and pondering the word of God in the psalms and readings, and interceding for the needs of all people – in and through all this we are united with the prayer of Christ Jesus, who continues to give praise, thanksgiving and glory to God the Father while interceding for the sanctification and salvation of the whole world. It is always good for us to be aware of this ecclesial and universal dimension of our life, coming to realise that our vocation is not for ourselves alone but that in the midst of the Church our growth in charity is mysteriously fruitful for the growth of the whole people of God.( LCM 1. V )
Recently I discovered an article on the Liturgy in a publication by our Dominican Nuns in the USA, Dominican Monastic Search, which sums up in a few sentences some profound aspects of the Liturgy. I quote:
‘Thus the liturgy is not of our making. It comes to us from God and brings us back to God. It is salvation and redemption in action in the present moment – in the ‘now’ of the celebration. It is forgiveness and mystical union. It is deliverance and friendship. It is communion and service. It is prayer and the ecstasy of love. It is the meeting of heaven and earth.’ ( Heaven & Earth Embrace- G. O’Donnell)
Aware as St. Dominic was that the celebration of the liturgy nourishes private prayer and vice versa, both being complementary and mutually interdependent, the latest document on the Contemplative Life, Verbi Sponsa (1) ( 1999), has the following to say to all of us, with regard to private prayer:
‘ Nuns in living the whole of their life as ” hidden with Christ in God” ( Col.3:3) realise in a supreme way the contemplative vocation of the entire Christian people, for there has rightly been a rediscovery of the contemplative nature of the Church herself and of the call addressed to every Christian to enter a grace-filled encounter with God in prayer.’‘ Their life is a reminder to all Christian people of the fundamental vocation of everyone to come to God.’ (No. 4)‘As contemplatives we are called to fulfil to the highest degree the First Commandment of the Lord: ” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind” (Lk. 10:27), making it the full meaning of our lives and loving in God all our brothers and sisters. ‘ (No 5)
We are encouraged, as are all people, never to lose sight of this, the greatest and first commandment- to love God with our whole being and secondly, to love our neighbour as ourselves.
What this document says about our place in the Church can be applied in particular to our place in the Order. Dominic himself gives us a great example of being a man of prayer. Before he founded the Order he had been a priest, a Canon Regular of St. Augustine and as such, lived a very contemplative life. We are given an insight into his person and how deeply prayerful he was, by Jordan of Saxony, his successor as Master of the Order. Jordan tells us that: ‘Dominic haunted the church by day and by night, devoting himself ceaselessly to prayer. God had given him a special grace to weep for sinners and for the afflicted and oppressed; he bore their distress in the inmost shrine of his compassion and the warm sympathy he felt for them in his heart spilled over in the tears which flowed from his eyes.’
Also in Jordan’s words we have what could well be the heart of Dominic’s charism: ‘Dominic had a special prayer which he often made to God, that God would grant him true charity, which would be effective in caring for and winning the salvation of all people. He thought he would only really be a member of Christ’s Body when he could spend himself utterly with all his strength in the winning of souls, just as the Lord Jesus Christ, the saviour of us all, gave himself up entirely for our salvation.’
And the historian Vicaire asserts that : ‘ the deepest source of Dominic’s inspiration was his love of Jesus Christ.’ This love, I believe, could only be Dominic’s response to his own awareness and realisation of God’s love for him: ‘ This is the love I mean, not our love for God but God’s love for us when he sent his son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away’ (1 John 4: 10)
All we have to do is receive this love and Ruth Burrows, a contemplative Carmelite nun, in her latest book, Essence of Prayer, verifies this as she writes that: ‘ …….. the mystical life is the human person becoming more and more receptive to the inflowing of divine love, which as it enters, of necessity, purifies and transforms.’ ( pg.200)
This is her observation and conviction after a lifetime of prayer – she must be in her 80s now-and what she says is for everyone and not just religious. She emphasises that it is not so much in our ‘doing’ as in our ‘being’ that is of most importance- especially our being open to receive all that God in his great love wishes and longs to give us. St John Chrysostom in the 4th Century teaches likewise in the following text:
‘ For not by labouring and sweating, not by fatigue and suffering but merely as being beloved of God we received what we have received.’
In prayer the emphasis is on us receiving- being the receptors – like Mary: ‘ Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy Word.’
Prayer is a gift that we receive, that is given to us and it seems that it is at the time of private prayer when, as the psalmist instructs, we are trying to:
‘Be still and know that I am God’ –
when our bodies become still and our minds become silent,- through whatever means is helpful to us – that God can achieve in us the greatest purification and transformation through the inflowing of divine love. In allowing ourselves just to ‘be’ there for God – not doing anything, not ‘saying prayers’ or making petitions( good as this is but not at this particular prayer time)- just being aware of God’s presence and allowing Him to heal and love us – receiving this love passively and surrendering our whole being to this powerful, silent, hidden, secret action of God – this type of prayer is of vital importance in our lives. Fidelity to it and persevering in it is our greatest contribution to the Order and the Church.
St John of the Cross verifies this when he says: ‘ In contemplation the activity of the senses and of discursive reflection terminates and God alone is the agent who then speaks secretly to the solitary and silent soul. Even though the soul is not then doing anything, God is doing something in it.’
How reassuring this is for us all as we struggle daily to be faithful to prayer. True prayer means wanting God, not self.
It would seem that the more we pray, the more time and commitment we give to being with God the more we are purified within and this inevitably is painful. Ruth Burrows again shares this insight:
‘Direct contact with divine love is deeply disturbing. The love of God, all self-giving, confronts our terrified self-protecting, would-be self-reliant, autonomous self and this produces deep pain’.
Accepting and surrendering to this pain, this process of purification, by staying with God in prayer, is a tremendous challenge and a great grace. It would be all too easy to avoid this painful encounter by distracting ourselves by doing things, becoming involved in works that are good in themselves but to do that in our life, to avoid this stark encounter with God during this particular time of prayer, would be a form of escape, – that is how I see it.
Difficult as this would seem to us we are greatly encouraged by our own Meister Eckhart, when he says: ‘ Do not waver from your emptiness’ and Ruth Burrows encourages us even more by saying that this ‘ emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling.’ These words of consolation and hope are certainly needed and appreciated by us all. They encourage us to deepen our personal relationship with Jesus through prayer.
The inflowing of God into our secret depths of its very nature must remain secret as John of the Cross tirelessly insists: ‘ ….it happens secretly in darkness, hidden from the faculties….. so hidden that the soul cannot speak of it’. But its effect on our life as a whole will be marked – chiefly by growth in selflessness and love.’
It is helpful for all of us to remember that prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person and escapes direct cognition ( knowledge) and indeed is beyond our understanding; therefore we can make no judgement about it. Where it takes place, in our deepest self is God’s holy domain and we have to trust it utterly to Him. This is one of the principal ways in which we surrender control.
We know that at the very core of St. Dominic’s life, there was a profound contemplative love of God – that first and last. But reading through the very early accounts of Dominic’s prayer- life, what also immediately impresses, is the place that is accorded to others- to the afflicted and oppressed- as I quoted earlier.
Paul Murray O.P. in his address, Preachers at Prayer, given to the General Chapter in Providence in 2001, has a lovely reflection on this special grace given to Dominic. He says:
‘The wound of knowledge that opens up Dominic’s mind and heart in contemplation, allowing him with an awesome unprotectedness to experience his neighbour’s need, cannot be accounted for simply by certain crowding memories of pain observed or by his own natural sympathy. The apostolic wound Dominic receives, which enables him to act and to preach, is a contemplative wound.
Remembering that Dominic haunted the church by day and by night, was ceaseless in prayer and was known to be always speaking either with God in prayer or about God in preaching, it is reasonable to ascertain that he received this contemplative wound while he was at prayer and from this flowed the effectiveness of his mission.
May we today, his sons and daughters, members of all the branches of the Dominican Family, be open to and receptive of, this special grace, this contemplative wound, offered to each and all in the intimacy of a personal encounter with God in prayer and which will make us, after the example of St. Dominic, truly effective in caring for and winning the salvation of all people – the mission of Our Order.