Contemplata aliis tradere – The Vocation of the Dominican Order


Giles Hibbert O.P.

A talk given to the Dominican brethren at St Dominic’s, Worthing,
Barbados on 3rd March 1996 and first published in Hislop VI No.1

Of the many mottos which the Dominican Order actually has, or uses, [E.g. ‘Veritas’ (Truth), ‘Benedicere, laudare, praedicare’ (To bless, to praise and to preach), and the above,] I can think of none that expresses better how we should actually operate than Contemplata aliis tradere – handing on to others the fruit of our contemplation. But if we are going to make this our rule, it is important for us to know what it is that we contemplate, how we achieve this, and what is involved in sharing it with others.

There is much that is worth contemplating and passing on, whether it be a matter of everyday skills, high academic erudition, or simply the joy of life, but as Dominicans what we are committed to, and therefore primarily concerned with, is preaching the Gospel and the knowledge of God which that Gospel gives, How then, is God revealed to us, and how do we pass this on – share it.

The Revelation of God is expressed in the Creed; it is formulated by Councils; it is examined, explained and backed up with logic and philosophy by Popes, bishops and theologians. It can be summarised in textbooks, according to the needs of the recipient – but all this will be dead, will not really be suitable for contemplation, and will not be received as any form of living truth, if, instead of seeing it as the living Gospel, we think of God’s Revelation as being made up of facts or propositions – ‘doctrine’.

The opening of the Fourth Gospel – its Prologue – gives us a good example of what I mean. It is a proclamation of the great mysteries of the Creation, the Incarnation, and God’s presence as the Light amongst us; but however much it may seem to be a statement of the ‘basic facts’ which then get presented to us in detail in the chapters that follow, it is not this at all. It has often been thought of in this way, understood in this way, and studied in this way, and as such ‘contemplated’ – but for the most part to the detriment, rather than the enhancement, of our faith and our knowledge of God.

The Prologue, I suggest is not really an introduction to the Gospel at all, but its conclusion, which has been taken and put at the front as it were as an introduction (Prologue). The implication of this is that it is not really something to start with, however effective as an introduction it may have been at the time of the Gospel’s first emergence in definitive form. It is when one has lived the experience, through which the chapters of the Gospel lead one, an experience of dialogue with Jesus, sharing life with Jesus and his disciples, and praying to his Father with Jesus (and those same disciples), and gone on to make this a reality throughout one’s whole being, that one can then pause, as it were and take breath, saying: ‘Now I can see that: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God; and the word was God…’

No academic theologian could have made such a summary of the Gospel’s content; it comes out of living faith. That the greater part of the Prologue is based upon a hymn that was probably part of the expression of faith of a community whose life was the actual living of the Gospel, is not insignificant.

Faith is not believing in this or that – whatever is revealed to us on God’s authority, about him or about truth in general – nor, unless we want to confine ourselves to analytical intellectualism, is it adequately referred to as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ [Heb 11:1. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, XIV de Veritate, 2.] In thePrologue we are told: ‘To those whoreceived him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God’ [Jn 1:2] – God’s heirs, his co-workers, sharers of his life. The receiving itself, the accepting, is our faith, our being prepared, at his calling, to insert ourselves into his life. Now this life, his life, is not, of course, simply his physical bodily life; it is the whole life and companionship which he shared with those who sought him and followed him as he went around Galilee, and then up to Jerusalem, teaching them and revealing to them the will of God and the values of God, and explaining to them how this was to be made a reality.

But again, it is more than this; it is his family, his background, the whole history out of which he emerges – the history of God’s People – this is his life. The life of faith, to which we are called by Christ, is the living out, with him, of the whole history of the People of God – living the promise of the coming of ‘the Day of Yahweh’ [Cf. Is 58; Joel 1-2; Amos 5, etc.], the ‘Gospel’, the Good News, the news of the Kingdom – God’s saving acts for his People throughout history.

What Jesus taught his disciples, both in Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem, was basically how to share that life, to come in on God’s view of his Creation, his sharing of life with the People he had chosen, his values, his mercy, his love and steadfastness. They did not find it easy: ‘How often should I forgive my brother?’ he is asked. ‘May we sit at your right hand and your left when you come to sit on your throne of glory’ James and John ask him [Mk 10:37] – not that the question was wrong, they were simply asking that they might share in the Messianic Judgment: bringing Justice and Peace to those in need, feeding the hungry, bringing the outsiders in and putting down the mighty from false thrones; what was wrong was the quarrelling which it provoked.

They had to learn whom it was that God himself revered and honoured – the impoverished widow, the tax collector (collaborator), but not necessarily the rich and seemingly important, or the pious and exemplary; we hear that they are amazed, and again astonished, when they were told in effect that the rich would not be first in the queue for the Kingdom’s honours.

The disciples’ contemplation of the truth they were living is the same as ours; it was listening – or first learning to listen. As Jesus takes the road to Jerusalem he tries to teach them that the Son of Man is not going to achieve his victory by heading an army, throwing out the Romans, and imposing God’s will upon his people, upon the world, but rather by sharing, giving, offering, suffering – impressing in this sense, not imposing.

The time of Lent, which has for the most part been epitomised by Christ’s temptation in the Wilderness (hence the forty days), is better represented, I suggest, by his journey with his disciples up to Jerusalem, upon which he was trying to teach them the truth. And they were trying (though so often failing) to listen. To listen to Christ is what Lent is all about. If we could but listen, how joyful we would be, for what he is telling us is the Good News. The Lenten Preface of the Mass talks of Lent as ‘this joyful season’. This is our contemplation – walking with Jesus on the road with minds open; and although in Lent we are not symbolically concentrating on the Resurrection as yet, we must surely realise that as we walk ‘our hearts glow within us as he walks and talks with us on the way’ [Lk 24:32]. This is our contemplation, and the intriguing thing is that it is not different from, but identical with, our handing it on to others.

Sharing, caring, loving, giving, and openness to those whom we are with – listening, never imposing – this is true Lent, not just fasting and discipline, so often trivial even when seemingly rigorous. ‘Lent’ is not just for a season, but for all the year round – listening to Christ on the way up to Jerusalem – a ‘joyful season’ – our vocation.

Some extraordinary, and misguided, attempts have been made to follow Christ rigorously, to impose ‘law and order’, uniformity to arrive at the truth in this way. At the time of St Dominic the ideal that was developing within the Canons Regular from which he came was that every member should be doing exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time. Simon Tugwell O.P. has pointed out that many of the early ‘regulations’ (relaxations or freedoms in the Rule) in the emerging Order of Preachers were developing in exactly the opposite direction. [Simon Tugwell O.P.,Early Dominicans. The Praemonstratentian Order actually laid down which foot went in first and exactly where, when going to bed!] We are an Order bound in freedom, for preaching the Gospel; able to listen, just as the innkeepers in Provence were able to listen to (and argue with) St Dominic. He didn’t, impose upon them; he shared his life with them as he passed through, not as the prelates who both tried to impose their will and lodged only with the mighty. This sharing was surely contemplata aliis tradere. [Contemplata originally referred to to what went on in the dialectic of Scholastic disputation. As Scholasticism degenerated the idea of contemplata became more and more arid and divorced from living faith.]

Neither the Church, nor we as a grouping within it (the Order), are a society bound simply by rules and regulations. We are not an association of those believing in a set of dogmas – as the non-Christian often sees us – nor even committed to a code, moral or legal. We are not hierarchically structured with each person in his appropriate place. We are free in our bonds of obedience and love.

The Church is the coming together of those called by God, ecclesia, as brothers and sisters, to share his life with him – the life which goes right back to the Patriarchs, through the history of the calling and the formation of his People, to that history of God’s love, compassion and understanding; alive and onward-going here and now. The Church, the People of God, or in minuscule the Dominican Order, is not something that has all the answers – the Truth, in that sense. It has the potential, and the possibility, of searching out our flaws, our weaknesses, our tendency to oppress others – if we allow it to; if we allow ourselves to listen. We are called, together with all Christians to work God’s Messianic work, and thus to make him visible in the lives we share – to make his Truth real and living.

If this is what we actually live, the Dominican Order itself, our life – like Lent – will be for us a ‘joyful season’.

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