Liturgy and Prayer

One of the mottos of the Dominican Order is Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare: to praise, to bless, to preach. One interpretation of this phrase that might help us to consider the place of the liturgy in the Dominican life is to think of these three words in relation to the Dominican balance of liturgy, study, and preaching.

In the first place, the Church is fond of speaking of the Office as a “sacrifice of praise.” As Pope Paul VI eloquently wrote:

The sacrifice of praise is the offering of lips honoring the Lord in psalms and hymns, devoutly consecrating the hours, the days, and the years as times of worship, with the sacrifice of the eucharist at its center, like a shining sun, drawing all the rest to itself.

In the second case, consider the literal meaning of benedicere: “to speak well”—and what is study, but the effort to grasp the meaning of reality, to be able to speak well or to articulate the truth?

Finally, we should be sensitive to the fact that preaching is an analogous concept: we can think of God the Father speaking or rather preaching the Word, who is himself the fullness of revelation; the preaching of Christ, revealing the Father by his words and deeds; the preaching of the apostles, instituted by Christ; the preaching of bishops and their priestly delegates; and finally, the forms of Christian teaching, life, and worship that transmit to each generation all that the Church herself is and all that she believes. In this broad sense of the concept of preaching, Dominican apostolates such as teaching play an integral role in the transmission of the faith.

So how do these three dimensions fit together?

Inherent to the Dominican life is a certain tension between the active and contemplative aspects of this vocation. Dominican friars are called to develop a balance between the apostolate of preaching and teaching and the contemplative dimensions of communal prayer, regular observance, and the common life. Throughout the history of the Order, there have been some moments at which the balance has been lost, and it is thus a constant duty of Dominicans to examine and renew their own fidelity to this balance. As the great historian of the Dominican Order William Hinnebusch has written, “Every reform and every restoration of the Order of Preachers has been accomplished by a renewal of the contemplative apostolic spirit.”

One central text for understanding this balance is St. Thomas Aquinas’s reply to the question “Whether a religious order that is devoted to the contemplative life is more excellent than one that is given to the active life?” In this article, Thomas concludes that a mixed life of contemplation leading to apostolic preaching and teaching is the ideal: “For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” It is important to note that for Thomas the two dimensions are intrinsically joined: it is not just a matter of fulfilling one’s prayer quotient and fulfilling one’s apostolate, as if these were both necessary but unrelated aspects of the religious life, but rather that contemplation will bear fruit in the apostolate.

When we consider the relationship of prayer, study, and preaching, we can thus see that in the Dominican Order liturgy and study and practiced not only as ends in themselves, although they possess an inherent dignity, but also have a role in preparing Dominicans for and sustaining them in the apostolate. And yet, the fruits of the apostolate flow back into prayer and study: Dominicans have the opportunity to pray for those they encounter and praise God for the blessings they receive in our apostolate, and have a renewed motivation to study so as to address the questions and problems they encounter in our apostolate.
Here we might do well to consider a passage from St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, in which God the Father addresses the problem of self-serving contemplation:

These people find all their pleasure in seeking their own spiritual consolation—so much so that often they see their neighbors in spiritual or temporal need and refuse to help them. Under pretense of virtue they say, ‘It would make me lose my spiritual peace and quiet, and I would not be able to say my Hours at the proper time.’ … But they are deceived by their own spiritual pleasure… For I have ordained every exercise of vocal and mental prayer to bring souls to perfect love for me and their neighbors, and to keep them in this love.

In Fr. Hinnebusch’s analysis, the love of God and love of neighbor are balanced in what he describes as the “vertical” and the “horizontal” dimensions of the Dominican life. The vertical dimension concerns the relation to God, and the horizontal concerns the relation to other people—both the brothers and sisters in community, and those whom they encounter in the world. For Fr. Hinnebusch, “It is the vertical phase which primarily produces the Dominican; the horizontal permits him to develop further discharge into the world of the love of neighbor which he has learned when grace opened his soul to God.” As Fr. Hinnebusch further states, “The vertical phase of Dominican life creates consecrated persons—men and women committed to the things of God.”

And yet, it is important to emphasize that this “creation” of consecrated persons is not a one-time thing—liturgy, after all, is not just a matter of initial formation, but something a man continues to participate in throughout his life as a Dominican. Through the liturgy, then, men are continually being created anew as Dominicans—they continue to be formed in the image of St. Dominic.

In the treatise on sacraments in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas uses the evocative phrase “the rite of the Christian life.” In a sense, every aspect of the life of a Christian has a liturgical character. The sacraments, ranging from baptism to the anointing of the sick, accompany us at every moment of our lives as Christians, from birth to death, and in the Eucharist the faithful are exhorted to offer up all of their joys and struggles along with the sacrifice of the Mass.

In addition to the sacramental rites that are the privilege of all Christians, Dominicans have a proper set of liturgies that are suited to their life as religious. Just as baptism makes them Christians, they are made Dominicans through their vestition with the habit. They are strengthened in their Dominican identity through the daily round of prayers and community observances—and here, the sacramental economy and the Dominican liturgy intertwine in their daily participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They are confirmed in their Dominican vocation through the rite of Profession. Finally, they are commended to God through the last rites and funeral observances that are proper to the dying and departed Dominican.

When we take this wider view of the Dominican liturgy, we can more fully understand that it is a life-long practice that informs the whole Dominican experience. As Fr. Hinnebusch observes, “Dominic chose the liturgy as the chief ingredient of the Dominican environment.” This is not because it is the sole purpose of the Order, but because it is the liturgy which makes men Dominicans; it is the liturgy that gives the shape to their lives, and allows their preaching to flourish.

——Adapted from a talk by Br. Innocent Smith, O.P.

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