Undertaking the task of explaining how “Dominican Life is Contemplative” has been a real challenge (just ask Mark who has read a variety of drafts). While explaining what it means to me is hard enough, trying to find a way of expressing a more global view is another. Contemplation means too many things to too many people. So, I think it is important to start out with the truth that my article will not be a full expression of how Dominican life is contemplative, but I think through prayer, I may have stumbled onto a means of explaining contemplation in a way that is relatable to most people.
Let us start with coming to a decision about how we will define contemplation for purposes of this article. Some people say that it is the equivalent of meditation. Others describe it as a higher form of prayer. The truth is, it is all these things and more. In order to expand my personal view, I reached out to other Lay Dominicans. After some discussion, one friend said that our discussion on the issue was contemplative, and that rang true. As I later pondered why the search for an answer was contemplative, I came to see that contemplation includes all forms of seeking Truth, which explains why it is so many different things to different people.
How does this definition shape the explanation of how Dominican life is contemplative? By answering the call to join the Dominican Order, we have chosen to follow Dominic’s example of how we search for God. Luckily, his example is rich and diverse. As the last article in this series said, Dominic was priestly, and we were encouraged in ways to live out our priesthood, the priesthood of the faithful. We also know that St. Dominic sought God in private and public prayer. He sought God in his apostolic works. He sought God in his fight against the heresies of his day. He sought God in all things.
More importantly in my mind is that St. Dominic created the order around four pillars: study, prayer, preaching, and community. Thus, as Dominicans, our spirituality, the way in which we quest for God is strongly rooted in living out these pillars. This does not mean that our spiritual lives are identical for there are many ways of living out the four pillars. For instance, a single person will have to live them differently than a married person because the aspects of community are different in each lifestyle.
If contemplation is one’s search for Truth, then we would do well to found our search in the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. He was sent to teach us everything that Jesus said and more. Jn 14:26.
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.Jn 14:26.
Thus, the next question we need to ask is – how do we tap into this Truth? Over the last two thousand years of studying the Bible and learning to live it in each and every age, we have learned that it is through all forms of prayer that we are educated in the way of Truth.
Through vocal prayers, we make our petitions to God, and in so doing, we grow in humility. We learn our proper relationship to God and our utter dependence on him.
In praying the scriptures through activities like meditation and lectio divina, we look to understand the words revealed to us by God. Anyone who has so studied the Bible can attest to the fact that such study reveals deeper and deeper awareness and understanding of these holy texts. This is especially true when we seek to study these words with the Spirit of Truth who helps us to properly interpret these words and the greater contexts in which these words were written. These practices can become for each of us a personal walk to Emmaus where scripture enlightens our hearts.
Similarly, daily living can be studied like scripture. When we take life experiences and questions to God through prayer or discussion with others, our understanding of Truth is enhanced.
Those who have gone before us tell us that in these and similar prayers we find ourselves drawn to silence. We find ourselves like Mary pondering these things in our heart. Lk 2:19. This is important because through baptism the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in our hearts, and it is in this inner chamber with him that we have the potential of reaching the loftier forms of prayer.
Through those who have gone before us, we also know that it is only through the Holy Spirit that we can ascend to such heights. However, it is likely that in extending our hand to the Holy Spirit, He may lead us where we do not want to go. John 21:18. Going deeper will show us things about ourselves that will be hard to see. The Bible tells us that only God is good. Mk 10:18. Encountering this truth is bound to bring each of us to a place where we will have to choose between being humbled or turning away.
When we have such encounters, it is important to know that the Holy Spirit is leading us on these paths not to humiliate us, but to heal us; to more fully unite us to himself. One cannot stand in the presence of Light and remain in darkness. One cannot seek Truth without seeing truth through the eyes of Him who is all truth.
While all of this is difficult to endure, when we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us and to heal us, we find peace, love, and joy. This makes no sense from a worldly point of viewpoint, which views brokenness as a reason for rejection. No. Divine love understands how we became broken, empathizes with us, and then seeks to repair the damage done. Unfortunately, he chooses not to override our free will, and it is only in surrendering to him, inviting him in to do his work, that we can achieve the new person spoken of by Paul. 2 Cor 5:17.
In closing, contemplative living is a life lived in an ever-increasing awareness of the indwelling Spirit of Truth, and through such awareness of his presence, all untruth is purged. As Dominicans this awareness is grown through the practice of our four pillars. He is with us when we pray, study, preach, and engage with all layers of our community (those in our Dominican Chapter, our family, friends, co-workers, and others we know through our apostolic works). It is in living our four pillars that we are not only sanctified (which can be defined as the process of healing all within us that is not Godly) but help lead others to sanctification.
Of course, there is more to the story because the fullness of Dominican contemplation includes all aspects of study, prayer, preaching, and community. Throughout this series on Dominican spirituality, we will continue to see how this quest for Truth, rooted in four pillars, includes a love of doctrine, liturgy, apostolic works, and more.
As I mentioned in the very first paragraph, there are many ways to view Lay Dominican life as contemplative, and I hope you will continue building on this concept by adding your own experiences in the comments section below.
Next up: Dominican Life is Apostolic.
About the Author: Debra is a temporarily professed Lay Dominican who will be eligible to make her final profession in early 2023. She spent several years studying Carmelite and Jesuit spirituality both by attending classes at the local monasteries and independently studying books written by or about saints from these orders. She always felt called to join an order as a lay person but did not find her home until someone introduced her to the Dominicans where the four pillars rooted her and made her feel at home. She endeavors to structure her day around a format that supports her goal of prayerful study before preaching to community. You can find more fruit of her labors in her blog, Thoughts of a Crazy Woman.