In the weeks ahead, how many things, and how many people will demand that we look at them. “Look,” they cry, “I am all decked out.” “See,” they say, “I am defying the darkness with lights and tinsel.” How do you look at all the holiday splendors, the lights and the ornaments, the fashions and foods, the gifts and the parties? Do you find it all exciting or banal? gorgeous or tacky? Abundance to delight in, or excess to avoid?
We are in for weeks of looking: what then is our way of looking? If I pause in my walk at a merchant’s holiday window, consider the options that are mine. Maybe I will take the decor head on, and come out with, “lovely,” “too much,” or, “wrong colors.” That would be looking at. Perhaps I will look away, edit out the decorator’s work, and focus on the merchandise. I could also take a defiant tone and look through to the merchant’s attempt to manipulate me – I will not allow this corporate giant to trigger my consumer impulses. Finally, I could connect to the window as art, and ask, “what are they trying to accomplish with this?” Thus I could look beyond the lights and ribbons to the creative endeavor itself. Of course, I cannot make this connection without looking squarely at the elements of the window: I must look at in order to look beyond.
Looking at to look beyond makes for a Catholic gaze upon reality. At every Mass we look at the Host and beyond it to the Body of Christ, and thence to the mystical to its mystical unity, that is Christ and His whole Church. If this visual stance becomes a habit for Eucharistic people, the season of Advent hones the habit, by pushing it to its radical applications.
Here come the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist, to show us the most piercing mode of looking at and beyond. They have from God the uncomfortable gift of looking straight on at the dead ends of the created world and the human heart. But for both of them the barrenness of the inner and outer landscape provides an opportunity for God to amaze with fruitfulness and forgiveness. Yet we do not perceive the gift as such unless we also name the futility the gift overcomes.
Lent looks through us; it discerns the fakery of our compromises, and our capacity to undertake growth through discipline. Advent speaks directly to the struggling and stuck human heart as it seeks to bring fruitfulness to the created world, justice to human relations, constancy to the life of the individual. Over and over we seek perennial goods and turn up with inveterate failures. For two millennia we have proclaimed a life-giving Gospel, and yet people are still hungry and still angry. Believing hearts still yield to fatigue and anxiety, and so we turn up again at the confessional bearing the weight of our mysterious compulsions.
I wonder how we will look at what the year 2015 has on display in its window. If I look at the window I see violence and dislocation. Even in America it is hard to look away from this window because I must see the homelessness right in my fine neighborhood. I can try to look through these terrible events and find someone to blame. While I might find the perpetrator of a given cruelty, I will be more hard pressed to name what set him, her, or them in motion so terribly and tragically. Here St. Paul writes with telling precision in the Letter to the Romans, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.” (Rom. 8:20) Paul’s insight echoes that of the prophets. God somehow allows us to feel the limits of created things, not so that we would yield to despair, but precisely so that we would look beyond them and hope.
Hope is the disposition of soul that looks to the fulfillment of things in God, even when things seem irretrievably broken, and hope dares this because God is God. Hope dares even to look into the difficult window of 2015. It looks without rose-colored glasses at the tragedies on display there, and it also looks beyond them to what faith discloses, which is the capacity of God to bring forth the good from His limitless store.
Hope rejects the denial of looking away and the cynicism of looking through. It requires the courage of looking at, and it goes beyond courage because it perceives that where human endeavor has met its limits, there is God. The brokenness of the world is very near to us. Perhaps Jesus can speak to our Advent, “In the world you will have trouble, but fear not, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Taking assurance for a foundation, we can make a habit of looking beyond, so as to look truthfully and mercifully upon the world as it is, to have hope and to share hope. The Church takes this tone as she begins Advent with the entrance antiphon for the First Sunday of Advent. “To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in you be put to shame.” (Cf. Ps. 25)
Kingdom, as a word, must evoke a variety of instinctive reactions. For me the word that comes to mind is safety. Kingship implies relationship, so that if I live in a kingdom I live in a place governed, pacified, and secured by somebody. If I am a subject of the King, I rest under his protection. Of course someone else might look at this same set of circumstances and find it a recipe for oppression. If I live in a kingdom, am I safe or am I stymied? Do I feel safe in someone else’s kingdom, or is the only safe place my own? These musings boil down to; where am I safe, and with whom?
A great question to ponder now that the year has brought us to the vestibule of “the holidays!” The days from Thanksgiving to the Epiphany present Icon after Icon of domestic safety;
The laden Thanksgiving table surrounded by family and friends
Jolly shopping at the Mall
Pre-Christmas cheer with your buddies at the office
The perennial loveliness of your creche and Christmas tree just out of their boxes
and embracing you like old friends
Christmas morning with the kids
Your easy chair and chili in front of the games on New Year’s Day.
For many of us, allowing for individual variants, the holidays mean having this set of familiar experiences, and taken together they amount to the homecoming of the year. During these days I think we make a pilgrimage to the heart of ourselves, and as the darkness establishes its winter kingdom, we look for our kingdom of safety, which might be a physical or spiritual place. As the song says, “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.” The homecoming plays a crucial role in the annual cycle because as long as I know home is intact I can be elsewhere and feel grounded.
But what if home is not intact? Perhaps the place is gone, or the people are gone, or the memories make it too painful to go there in spirit. Here is the pain of not being able to tap into my sources. Or perhaps home finds itself in jeopardy from outside sources.
By the time you read this, we will have but a week of distance from the Paris attacks. This latest round of terror brought particular pain because it brought violence into the kinds of places that city dwellers view as extensions of home, as if the terrorists are determined that even our home life be unshadowed by their threat. Thanks to this ingenious evil, a whole city will not be ablate go home for Christmas. How will any of us settle down for that long winter’s nap when barabarous people have demonstrated to us that the kingdom of our urban civilization is unguarded and maybe unguardable?
How do we respond to this violation? Do we put metal detectors at the doors of our restaurants and cinemas? Do we encircle our homes with barbed wire, or its technological equivalent, and celebrate the holidays in a kingdom under siege? On the other hand, we could defy the terrorists and carry on as usual.
We also might look for something deeper than defensiveness or bravado. Today’s Feast reminds us in whose Kingdom we of faith truly live. Christ has placed us inside a realm of safety, but He has also placed a realm of safety within us. In the mystery of the Kingdom Christ proposes the coherence of His law (the Sermon On The Mount), the effectiveness of His support (the sacraments), and the security of His friendship (the indwelling of the Holy Spirit).
The effect of these riches confided to us by our King is that we reign as He does, from the throne of the Cross. Where Christ’s tangible kingdom comes to complete destruction His own love of God and neighbor becomes tangible not only as an attitude, but as a realm within which He lives and can summon others to live. This realm will outlast all of those fueled by the drive to dominate. If we lay claim to this stance of charity, living “no longer for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose again for us,” then we will not only be followers of Christ but dwellers in Christ.
With this security that cannot be taken away, it becomes possible for us to mourn the victims of terror, and to name the evil that begets it. At the same time, we can celebrate the domestic rites of this season not just to be brazen, but to witness to the faith, hope, and love that are active within us. Where these exist, I am always at home, because there is never a time when I am away from the presence of God. Like Christ crucified we are able to be completely vulnerable and absolutely invulnerable, for the decision to exercise charity is always more powerful than the decision not to.
Even with the fragility of our age fully exposed there is reason for thanks and security for believing, and a real kingdom one can rest in.
Last Sunday, in both pulpits, we preached a special sermon on the Jubilee of the Friars of the Order of Preachers. The Law of Jubilee summons each person back to his or her homeland. Now since we Dominican Friars have no extensive property, our ancestral estate will be the way of life St. Dominic and his companions devised for us in the years between 1216 and 1228. A prudent question to ask at the outset of a jubilee project is this: if our house was built in the Thirteenth Century, can we as men of the Twenty-First century (more accurately, mid-Twentieth) actually live in it? The ancient observance of the Friars did not stint on personal challenges. By design the order possessed no reliable income, ate no meat, and offered the brothers little to no private space, except for communal silence, which was almost complete inside the house.
The life departed radically from the conventions of its own day, for it set aside the landed stability of monasticism. If living its specifics in the present time would defy most of us, its principles offer a life-giving challenge. For example, the ancient Friars understood their whole life as a form of vigilance, of keeping watch always. So, when Jesus counsels looking at the times with alertness for the Lord’s coming, as He does this Sunday, they knew what He meant and embraced the work with great joy.
Take the example of prayer. The Dominicans practiced the “midnight office.” When in the Sixth Century St. Benedict crafted the Rule for Monks that bears his name, he specified that they should get adequate sleep before rising to praise God. By contrast, St. Dominic and his Friars broke their sleep each night and rose at midnight to go to church where they sang the offices of Matins and Lauds, chanting the psalms and listening to readings from Scripture and the Fathers for an hour or more. Ever since, Dominicans have argued about what time they should get up. Some advocate for the purity of the observance and the primacy of prayer, others urge the needs of the ministry that demand wakefulness and attentiveness through the contemporary working day. Historical reform movements in the Order have sought to reclaim the midnight office, but the pillow always wins in the end. At St. Vincent Ferrer you can look above the confessionals and see the walkway, which the helpful and hopeful Mr. Goodhue provided so that the Friars could make it conveniently from their bedrooms to the midnight office in the Friars’ Chapel. The “night stair” still hopes to be used as such at least once before the Lord comes.
The prophetic challenge of the ancients comes not from the hour of rising but from its motivation. Their longings went way beyond the athleticism of doing a hard thing for its own sake. Rather, they sought to challenge the limited vision of complacency and to present themselves before God so as to be responsive and supple in His presence. They desired to recognize more deeply His goodness, truth, and beauty, to contemplate His unity and trinity, and to perceive His purpose for their life of preaching. This may seem like a tall order for a sleepy man at 12:05 AM, but the jolt of the night rising clears away all competing agendas, so that God’s Word really gets a chance.
Every subsequent age poses the challenge of living an alert life, and our time does in spades. In the dark of night, the Friars of the Thirteenth Century sought a wakefulness more profound that the practical acuity of midday. When the sun shines we have to see leaky pipes and hungry mouths, but there must be a time of day for seeing beyond. How does God’s clarion call now break through the caffeinated concentration of us modern text-walkers?
Many have come to put down their appliances in peace before the Blessed Sacrament. Somehow, the Eucharistic Lord speaks from the monstrance to distracted people of our time, who find in His presence the capacity to sit still, shut up, and wait to see what He will say.
Next Saturday on the Feast of Christ the King, we will have our annual night watch before the Blessed Sacrament at St Vincent Ferrer. For a night we live something of the ancient life, and seek its blessings for our busy selves. The program below is yours to use, insofar as it serves your prayer.
6:30 PM Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament after the Vigil Mass with First Vespers of
Christ the King
9 PM Conference and Compline
11 PM The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary
12 AM The Midnight Office – Matins of Christ the King
2 AM The Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary
3 AM The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
4 AM The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary
5 AM Conference
6:30 AM Lauds and Benediction
Every year people report blessings from this time! Access will be through the mid-block door on 66th Street, and the guard station will have a sign up sheet throughout the week.
I write you early in the morning of Tuesday, November 3. We are just now preparing to celebrate the Feast of St. Martin de Porres, who made God’s love tangible to poor people at the door of a Dominican Priory, even as he served his Brothers within. (I should note that both of our churches have lovely shrines to Martin.) Today marks the great feast of our Cooperator Brothers in the Order, who by their life and work reveal its essential spirit. Since our parish has four Brothers in residence, the day offers us an especially relevant teaching, and gives a singular point of entree into the 800th anniversary of the Friars, the jubilee we will have begun on Saturday, November 7, the Feast of All Dominican Saints.
Brothers Ignatius, Thomas Aquinas, Damian, and Michael have walked very different paths in the ministry; they have shared the riches of their consecrated life in the worlds of nursing, the foreign missions, parish life, and the internal administration of our houses and our Province. But the resourcefulness, generosity, and joy of their work makes tangible their fundamental identity as men who follow Christ in the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and who do so in the fraternal way bequeathed by St Dominic.
Our founder could have structured us according to the monastic pattern that pervaded his time. In monasteries the abbot or abbess relates paternally or maternally to the monks or nuns. Since St. Dominic was responding to a crisis of heresy, he could also have plausibly structured his community along military lines, as St. Ignatius was to do so successfully with the Jesuits several centuries later.
Dominic chose neither way. Rather, he saw himself as a Brother among Brothers, and to this day every man who wears his habit possesses the essential identity of Frater, or Brother, and this identity entered English in the early days as Friar. Brotherhood gave us our pattern of governance. Superiors are elected for a term and then rejoin the ranks, and they serve as the first among equals. Fraternity places non-dominance at the heart of Dominican government and administration, and it effectively mandates a collaborative approach to ministry. This way of doing things has always exacted a price in efficiency and clarity. Any downside, though, yields to the witness given by the life when fully lived. Indeed, the community carries the ongoing task of ensuring that fraternity never recedes into sentimental imagery or legal nomenclature. It also faces the constant temptation of rapid and convenient authoritarian solutions to problems. In a fraternal life we find time to be together even when a project does not demand it, and in such a life each of the brothers claims the Community’s problems and joys as his own. Fraternity seeks complete inclusion and a sharing of the whole of life.
It must be said that St. Dominic was a priest and most Dominican Friars are priests. Further, the Church classifies us as a “clerical” order, and the ministry of Word and Sacrament is not accidental but fundamental to the whole Dominican project. At the same time the Order exists, not just to respond to apostolic needs, like the staffing of parishes, but to be a way of living by which men reach God. Therefore, it would never be accurate to reduce the Dominicans to a type of priest, and it would be equally wrong of us to conceive ourselves as an association of priests, with priestly function as our primary bond.
Our Dominican life demands to be lived as a profound sharing of time and prayer, goods and decisions. This will not happen without our perceiving the ways in which we have been given to each other by God for the giving and receiving of charity. For eight centuries the Friars have struggled to keep this insight before them, and the Order has thrived in the times of their success, and it has stagnated when the Brethren have settled for easier ways of living and doing.
It would not be honest to package this jubilee as celebrating eight hundred years of success, rather it venerates eight centuries of perseverance in a way of life that demands struggle if it is to keep its proper shape.
The Jubilee Year of the Friars runs from November 7, 2015 until January 21, 2017. One of the works of our own parish renewal will be to celebrate properly this significant milestone. Perhaps one of the deepest reasons for this jubilee is that that striving to live a fraternal life still provides a timely challenge and an authentic witness to the truth that Christ lives.
Please pray for the ongoing renewal of our order, that we may not only provide preaching to others, but may be a preaching ourselves.