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Dominican Life: Prayer

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

By Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá | You have probably heard that the life of a Dominican revolves around four ‘pillars’: preaching, study, community and prayer. But if this is what distinguishes the Order of Preachers, you might be wondering, what is it that other orders devote themselves to?

You have probably heard that the life of a Dominican revolves around four ‘pillars’: preaching, study, community and prayer. But if this is what distinguishes the Order of Preachers, you might be wondering, what is it that other orders devote themselves to? Surely prayer should be a pillar in the life of any religious, or indeed of any Christian? Or is it the case that Dominicans are so absorbed in their scholastic distinctions and missionary escapades, as to need to remind themselves every so often that prayer is also fundamental?Au contraire: such confusion arises from the fact that, on the one hand, the idea of the ‘four pillars’ is a relatively recent characterization of our life, traditionally understood to revolve simply around preaching, assisted by other monastic practices, such as study, vigils or fasts, and, on the other hand, from the more important question of whether there is a distinctively Dominican way of praying. Much has been written on this point, often against the idea; but even those who avoid the notion of ‘Dominican spirituality’ show a particularly Dominican approach to the matter. This is because we all generally agree that there is nothing mysterious about it: prayer is, simply, friendship with God, accessible to everyone, requiring no special methods or techniques. Think of the Nine Ways of Prayer. Far from being a treatise on the angelic heights of contemplation, this small work reminds us of the importance of bodily posture and movement when we pray, which is, if you wish, another characteristically Dominican note: not that we pray with our body, but that it is the whole person that prays as body and soul indissolubly linked. But this only reflects the ‘bodily,’ tangible spirituality pervading the Scriptures, most evidently the Psalms: ‘O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water’ (Ps 62:1).

So we do not pray as disincarnate beings, spirits longing to be freed from the indignity of matter. It is precisely against this oldest of heresies that the Friars were first sent to preach in the 13th century, reminding the world of the alarming truth of the Incarnation and the goodness of the created world. One such man was Bl John of Vercelli, the sixth Master of the Order, who joined the ranks of the Friars Preachers around the time of St Thomas and commissioned a new tomb for the remains of St Dominic. He is probably best known, however, for spreading the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, a task entrusted to him by Pope Gregory X in the combat against the Albigenses. That such an antidote would have been chosen for the evils of the age should come as no surprise, since nothing exemplifies better the unity of body and soul than the two principal ways by which we identify a person: their name and their face. Christians preach the God-made-man, a God with a name and a face, not a remote entity beyond our reach. Prayer, in this sense, is the seeking of God’s face; a task for which we are not alone, since we belong to the tradition of those who have sought God’s face and called upon his name, a tradition that could be said to start with Moses.

When Moses first ascends to Mount Horeb, he covers his face for fear he should see God and die (Ex 3:6, 33:20). Instead, he receives the revelation of the Divine Name, in that moving passage in Exodus that constitutes one of the foundational events of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God is no longer ‘an unknown God,’ as read the inscription on the altar St Paul saw at the Areopagus. The contrast between the hidden face and the revealed name is fitting, since our faith comes from what is heard (Rm 10:17), but the vision of God is reserved for our encounter with Him in the world to come.

‘No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known’ (Jn 1:18). In this life, it is Jesus who reveals the Father in his own person. Thus, when he teaches us to pray, the first petition of all is ‘hallowed be thy name,’ that is, give glory to God’s name, a name entrusted to our care as something fragile, like the hosts consecrated at the Eucharist, so easy it is sometimes to dishonour somebody’s name or reputation with an idle word. It is also interesting that when Jesus meets his disciples in his transfigured humanity after the Resurrection, a subtle reverence seems to refrain them from addressing him by name. ‘Rabboni,’ exclaims Mary Magdalen; ‘it is the Lord,’ says the beloved disciple. Only after Pentecost do we find the apostles invoking Jesus’ name, as does Peter at the healing of the lame man when he went up with John to the Temple: ‘I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk’ (Acts 3:6).

‘There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). In Jesus’ name we become part of the history of those who knew God and entered into friendship with Him. We are no longer solitary selves calling on a nameless, faceless God; and our participation in this history transforms us. The book of Revelation speaks of a white stone that we shall each be given, ‘with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.’ Prayer helps us overcome our natural resistance to be given a new name, a new identity, and this is, perhaps, the secret of all prayer: to acknowledge the primacy of grace, of God’s initiative to shape our lives. Until the day when those who seek God ‘shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever’ (Rev 22:4-5).

Br Pablo Rodríguez-Jordá O.P.

Br Pablo was born and grew up in Alicante, Spain. He first lived in the UK as a student of History and English at the University of Southampton, and after graduating worked as a language teacher in Oxford, where he met the Dominicans. He entered the novitiate in 2017. Reading the works of Thomas Merton was a particular catalyst for his calling to the religious life. Similarly, reading G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. H. Newman led him to the practice of the faith earlier during his university years. He is interested in languages, 19th century literature and the history of English Catholicism. | pablo.rodriguez@english.op.org


(Fr Martin J Clayton) commented on 24-Feb-2019 12:36 PM
Thank you for these enriching insights. Much appreciated!

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