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I’m still reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and I am finding more and more to like… more and more that “clicks” in my mind.  The chapter on “Tradition and Revolution” is one of my favorites.  Here are some excerpts that particularly resonated with me and with my Dominican soul.  They also relate a bit to what I was talking about in my Easter Sunday post on belief and understanding.

… the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the Church’s teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by that authority.

The first step to contemplation is faith; and faith begins with an assent to Christ teaching through His Church; fides ex auditu, qui vos audit, me audit.  “He that heareth you, heareth Me.”  And “faith cometh by hearing.”

It is not the dry formula of a dogmatic definition by itself that pours light into the mind of a Catholic contemplative, but the assent to the content of that definition deepens and broadens into a vital, personal and incommunicable penetration of the supernatural truth which it expresses–an understanding that is a gift of the Holy Ghost and which merges into the Wisdom of Love, to possess Truth in its infinite Substance, God Himself.

… The dogmas defined and taught by the Church have a very precise, positive and definite meaning which those who have the grace to do so must explore and penetrate if they would live an integral spiritual life.  For the understanding of dogma is the proximate and ordinary way to contemplation.


Yet true contemplation is not arrived at by an effort of the mind. … But God gives true theologians a hunger born of humility, which cannot be satisfied with formulas and arguments, and which looks for something closer to God than anaology can bring you.

This serene hunger of the spirit penetrates the surface of words and goes beyond the human formulation of mysteries and seeks, in the humiliation of silence, intellectual solitude and interior poverty, the givt of a supernatural apprehension which words cannot truly signify.

Beyond the labor of argument it finds rest in faith and beneath the noise of discourse it apprehends the Truth, not in distinct and clear-cut definitions but in the limpid obscurity of a single intuition that unites all dogmas in one simple Light, shining into the soul directly from God’s eternity …

Here the Truth is One Whom we not only know and possess but by Whom we are known and possessed.

I have had countless experiences where studying Scripture, the Catechism, or some theological text has led me to a more direct, intuitive apprehension of God.

At times it can be dramatic, like a bolt of lightning. I remember one day sweating over the concept of the Holy Trinity (one of my favorite theological mysteries).  My brain was going round and round, tying itself into knots.  And then, out of nowhere, without my seeking it or expecting it, there was a kind of “flash”–and all in an instant, I suddenly understood!  But in the very next instant, of course, I realized what was happening, and instead of resting in the light and in the sublime vision, my fool of a mind latched on to the experience itself–“Oh my gosh, this must be some kind of contemplative experience!”–and the light vanished as quickly as it had come.

That’s happened to me a few times, and sadly I haven’t learned to stay still and be quiet.  Or maybe it’s just supposed to be a quick “flash.”  Maybe that’s all I can handle.  In any case, it’s always enough to inspire me and keep me going in my pursuit of Truth.

More often, however, I’ll be in the process of studying, and I will just be moved by how incredible God is.  How good and beautiful and tremendous and majestic He is.  And I find that my studying becomes a form of prayer in which as my mind absorbs the divine truths, it also responds with praise, with thanksgiving, with worship.  It becomes like a dialogue between God and my soul.  A deep, wordless connection.  A sea of love and understanding and wisdom.

This is why it is so important to submit yourself to learning and, if necessary, struggling with Church teaching.  And why you must begin from a position of submission and faith, from the position, “I believe that the Church is right.”  Do that, and before you know it, your mind and your soul will open up to something and Somebody far greater than you.  You will see the light of Truth.  It might not happen in a bolt of lightning–it may happen slowly and gradually.  But it will happen if you are open.

It’s also why studying theology is so important for me.  People ask, “Why do you want to study theology?  What good will that do you?”  That’s understandable because in our society, studying is often intricately tied to career, to earning a salary, to getting ahead in the world, to gaining prestige.  Sure, people also study for leisure and enjoyment, for self-cultivation.  Theology is not a field of study usually associated with either career or leisure.  OK, maybe it’s part of your “career” if you are becoming a priest, but beyond that, it doesn’t seem to provide any real prospects.  So what is it that compels me and so many other people to study it, or to wish to study it?

It is simply this: that theology is an encounter with God.  With Life and Love and Truth and Goodness and Beauty and Mercy and Justice and Happiness.  With everything that the human soul loves, longs for, and adores.

That is the value in studying theology.  It is also the true value in studying anything else, insomuch as any genuine and earnest search for truth will ultimately lead the soul to God Who is Truth.

One of my favorite Saturday pastimes is watching Antiques Roadshow.  I love seeing the huge varieties of antiques, whether valuable, or maybe not-so-valuable.  I like collecting little antique things myself–especially Catholic items.  Nothing huge, just little books and things.  Sometimes I rescue them from used bookstores or shops.  I want to make sure they find good homes.

Dearest of all, of course, are things handed down in my family–such as the little 1940s Sunday Missal that belonged to my Grand-uncle John (who was also my godfather).  I’ve mentioned this missal before (see “Related Posts” below).  It’s not anything spectacular or materially valuable; an antiques dealer or collector probably wouldn’t pay me anything for it.  But it’s precious because it has been treasured by my family–it was important enough to my godfather to keep it, it was important enough to my father to keep it, and it is important to me to keep it and hopefully be able to pass it to somebody in the next generation.  This little book represents my bond with my family, and our shared bond with our Church and our faith.

As dear as material mementos and heirlooms may be, our liturgical traditions are even more so because they are alive.  They are suffused with the life of God and with the life of every creature, human and angelic, who participates in them.  In them past and present, Heaven and Earth converge.

I can’t understand why any of them were ever abandoned, neglected, or rejected.  If our ancestors left us chests of gold and priceless jewels, would we just suddenly one day toss them out, let them be scattered and lost, as if they had become worthless?  Would we look at them and say, “Oh, all of this stuff is so old, it has no place in my life today, I’ve moved on to newer, better things, I just don’t care about it any more”?  No.  We might preserve them, sell them, spend them, admire them, pass them to descendants, or squander them–but all of those acts would be based on the notion that the gold and jewels were still valuable.  We may have different ideas about how to best use them, but their value would not be disputed.

The value of our religious and liturgical traditions have been disputed and denied, and yet, in reality, they are far more valuable than inanimate objects like gold and jewels.  Gold and jewels can be preserved or spent, admired or squandered.  But our liturgical traditions can be lived, experienced, acted, and participated in!  They can be used this way every day, or even every moment, in every part of the world, without ever being spent–indeed they can grow and spread and become even more valuable the more they are used!

Fortunately, as we are seeing now, even if one or more generations ceases to regard them as valuable, later generations can revive and rediscover them and restore them to their proper dignity and worth–and restore them to even greater life than they knew before!  I am so very happy and grateful to see this happening in the Church today, with the Tridentine Mass, and with the Dominican Rite also.  And I am so grateful for the efforts of our Holy Father Pope Benedict and all of the priests and laypeople who have seen our liturgical traditions for the infinitely valuable things they are.

Related Posts:

Holding my heritage in my hand

Missal pics

Maurice Durufle playing the organOne of the greatest modern Catholic composers and musicians is Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986).

Lately, I’ve been delving into Duruflé’s Requiem (Op. 9), originally composed in 1947.  It is a sublime and ethereal piece, rich and nuanced.  A piece you really have to listen to many times in order to “get it.”  I have found it rather harder to “grasp” than the works of, say, Fauré or Poulenc.  But the more I listen, the more it comes together in my mind and the more I love it.  The best part is that Duruflé’s Requiem is largely underpinned by traditional chant; I recognized the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei from Mass at my local parish, but have certainly never heard them quite like this before.  My current favorite movement, and the one that really captured me and reeled me in at first, is the Domine Jesu Christe (Offertory).  Duruflé was a master organist, so organ features prominently as well.

Chant and organ–the treasured hallmarks of Catholic music, as Vatican II would reaffirm (despite the illusions of those drunk on the “Spirit of Vatican II”).  Duruflé saw no need to break with tradition, and yet his music was very new, creative, and unique–and remains so.  He was a true modern master, exacting in his artistry, who clearly strove to carry on and breathe new life into his heritage rather than to wantonly destroy it.  This is what Catholics have done for centuries and millennia.  Our faith is ancient, but never old–that is reflected in our Catholic culture, in our arts and sciences, in all of our thought and expression.

At least, that’s how it ought to be.  Things have gone horribly, hideously wrong in the last 40 years.  And instead of master musicians like Duruflé, the average Catholic is far more likely to be exposed to various bland and forgettable “contemporary” musicians.  If that is all people know, then how are they going to start demanding better things?  Our culture is so much richer than all of that–and we need to reclaim it and cherish it!

I still have a lot to learn and absorb myself, of course… and I look forward to sharing more of the treasures I discover!  Please feel free to share your favorites with me!

From Catholic World News:  Unite contemplation and activism, Pope says.  Excerpt with my emphases:Pope Benedict wearing saturno

Speaking to about 11,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope–who wore the broad-brimmed red hat, the saturno, to shield himself from the sun–summarized the wisdom of St. Isidore in a sentence: “Just as we must love God through contemplation, so we must love others through action.”

St. Isidore, the Pope recalled, lived at a time (560- 636) when the Iberian peninsula had been conquered by barbarians and Arians, and needed to be re-evangelized. Profiting from a rich family library, he developed “an encyclopedic knowledge of classical pagan culture as well as a profound understanding of Christian culture.” That scholarly background helped him to spread the faith in difficult circumstances, earning his title as a Doctor of the Church.

In fact, Pope Benedict observed, the circumstances of that era should be somewhat familiar to today’s Christians, who are witnesses to “the re-emergence of situations very similar to those on the Iberian peninsula in the 6th century.” Christians today, the Pope said, should profit from St. Isidore’s example as we are “called to bear witness to Christ at the beginning of a new millennium.”

Let’s see… contemplation, action, study… just add “community” and you would have the four pillars of Dominican life!  Indeed, this little excerpt captures a lot of why I wanted and needed to become a Lay Dominican.

I wanted and needed the healthy and realistic balance of Dominican life, the fact that it is built on those four pillars.  I especially like that it acknowledges the importance of scholarship and reason, while also bringing in the contemplation we need in order to know and love God beyond the limits of our reason, together with the love and support we give and receive through active ministry and community life.  It involves the whole person. The Dominican Order is really focused on the human person, and on allowing each Dominican to be his or her own person, to develop and contribute his or her own talents, personal attributes, and experiences.  The uniqueness of each person is one of the things that makes us human.

Our Holy Father is very right when he says that the circumstances of St. Isidore’s life–or, for that matter, St. Dominic’s life–should be familiar to us today.  Barbarism and heresy are not just things of the past!  The needs that St. Isidore and St. Dominic saw around them–the need for Christ, the need for the faith, the need for truth, the need for conversion, the need for mercy–are still in our world, and the world needs people to witness to those things, to let it know that its needs don’t have to go unfulfilled!  Barbarism and heresy and evil may be rampant, but the world is not condemned to them! The world doesn’t have to accept and give in to them!  We Catholics can serve as living proof of that, just as all our Saints before us have!

Prayer, action, study, community–these are the things that can see us through, no matter how difficult life and the world may be.  The Dominican Order has taught and demonstrated them admirably, but they are not just for Dominicans.  They are part of our timeless Catholic tradition.  And I really like to encourage all my fellow Catholic laypeople, to embrace that tradition, in whatever ways and to whatever extents their own specific vocations may allow.  Not everybody is called to be a Lay Dominican or a lay member of any other order, but I do think we are all called in some way to incorporate those four things into our lives. In fact, I would consider them absolutely necessary for being a practicing Catholic.

As I was praying The Liturgy of the Hours this morning, I had a moment of great joy:  I am not alone right now, I thought to myself.  This isn’t just me, alone in my apartment, on May 14, 2008, in Dallas, Texas, reading bits of ancient texts. 

Around the country and around the world, there were innumerable other Catholics performing this same action, reading and praying these same words: bishops and priests, consecrated religious, laypeople like me.  And it wasn’t only a shared action across space, but also across time: hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia.  Times and places I cannot even imagine. 

The Psalms take us back further than the time of Christ, long before a human mind or heart could comprehend or even conceive of so strange and marvelous an idea as God Incarnate or the Holy Trinity–ideas Christians often take for granted.  And yet the Psalmist’s prayers touch and move and resonate with even the most modern soul.  We understand them.  They are our prayers too. 

The Psalms and other scriptures, the praying of The Liturgy of the Hours–these are just a couple of examples of where Catholics encounter the timelessness of our faith tradition.  This timelessness, this being “ever ancient, ever new” to borrow one of my favorite phrases from St. Augustine, is one of the most important and appealing things to me about Catholicism.  It is one of the things that keeps me safely moored in the world around me, anchored to some of the things that are truly most important.

That’s why I tend to cringe when I hear or read somebody say that the Church is “out of touch” or “outdated” or “irrelevant,” or that the Church “needs to get with the times”–by which they really mean, “get with the modern secular world.”  Such sentiments seem to be a symptom of the modernist snobbery that presumes that the present modern age is the best and most enlightened age that ever has been and ever shall be.  It presumes superiority and–even more bafflingly–permanence where there is none to be had, as if the present can be isolated from the past and the future, held apart, and judged on its own merits!  The reality is that the secular world, with each successive “modern time,” is impermanent and ever-changing.  Any alleged superiority of today will most likely be sneered at, or at least shrugged at, tomorrow.  What will future generations say about our world and our modern time?  The answer to that question is:  What do we say about the past?  So maybe we’d better watch our tongues.

I don’t see how any sane person can deny any of that.  So why on earth, then, should anybody want to take something so timeless as the Church and try to conform it, to confine it, to our own little spot upon the vast expanse of history?  The Church has overcome much worse times than ours, and she has also seen much better–and she will do both again and again until time finally ends.  And people will still be praying the Liturgy of the Hours and being stirred by the Psalms and doing all the same things Catholics have done for nearly 2000 years now, and probably much in the same fashion.  Thus, we are part of the future, as well as the past.

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St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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