What is a Dominican Monastery?
Sr. Barbara Estelle Beaumont, OP
IN A WORLD AS NOISY AND STRESSFUL AS OURS, more and more people like to go and spend a few days in some contemplative monastery, in order to recharge their batteries in an oasis of peace and prayer. And of course, all monasteries have certain things in common: they are places for community life, and are usually somewhat withdrawn from the world in their geographical location. This is in order to favor the climate of silence and stillness necessary for days punctuated by the rhythm of prayer, liturgical or personal, that are the characteristic of this way of life. These are the great strengths of monastic life, to be found everywhere where two or three monks or nuns are gathered together in the name of Christ.
But should one venture to spend these few days in a Dominican monastery, after a while one becomes aware that this is not a house of Benedictines, or Trappists or of Carmelites. Yes, it is different — but what makes it different? What is particular about a monastery of Dominican nuns? The life of the Friars of the Order of Preachers is better known than that of their elder sisters, the Dominican Contemplative Nuns.
Profession on the Rule of St Augustine
The first important point that distinguishes us from that other great current of monastic life, the Benedictine family, is that we make our profession on the Rule of St. Augustine and not on the Rule of St Benedict. The difference between these two Rules is enormous and not to be underestimated. St Augustine, in writing his Rule, drew his inspiration directly from the Acts of the Apostles, from the first Christian community, who held all their goods in common. It is this ‘holding in common, or common life, which is the prime characteristic of monastic life based on the Augustinian model.
For his part, St. Benedict speaks of being soldiers of the true King, Christ Our Lord, taking up the powerful and glorious weapons of obedience” (Rule of St Benedict, Prologue). He also compares the monastery to a “school of the service of the Lord” (Prologue). There is none of this military or scholastic imagery in St Augustine. With him, everything is much simpler, more homely even. He writes at the very beginning of his Rule: “The main purpose for your having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.' And so it is unity that is the first and foremost demand of our life. The Rule of St Augustine is built around the notion of twin forms of charity — love of God and love of neighbor. This means that fraternal life — the fraternitas that was so dear to St. Dominic himself is at the very heart of our way of life. In our spiritual tradition monastic life is by no means a single or solitary combat, but a community adventure. Hermits have no official status in our Order, in contrast with all the other great monastic traditions.
On a practical level, in everyday life, the Sisters’ recreation plays an important role. It is there that they express their joy at being together, they laugh a lot, even to the point of surprising retreatants in the guest house who overhear these signs of merriment for half an hour or so each evening. The recreation is a different matter altogether in a great abbey of Benedictines, where the Mother Abbess, rather like a chairwoman, presides over some sixty-odd Sisters. It all tends to be more structured, all remarks being addressed to the abbess.
Fraternal Model of Authority
Indeed, one soon realizes that there is no Mother Abbess in a Dominican monastery, but that the superior is known simply as prioress. A detail perhaps? No, on the contrary an important and revealing point. Abbesses are elected for life; Dominican prioresses for three years only—this is a very short time. This all stems from the fact that a Dominican monastery is founded on a vision of authority radically different from that on which a Benedictine abbey is built. Benedictine authority is structured vertically on a paternal model, as the etymology of the title abbot or abbess clearly shows (Aramaic in origin, abbas means father). The abbot is as if occupying in the place of Christ himself in the monastery, hence something of an awesome figure. St. Benedict says that the abbot should constantly ‘remind himself of the title he bears, and justify by his actions a name that sets him at the head of the community” (Chapter II - Concerning the Abbot). In the Benedictine example, the prioress is the second rank, one down from the abbess. So in our monasteries of the Order of Preachers, the tip of the hierarchical pyramid is missing. In the Dominican Order, we have, on the contrary, a fraternal model of authority. Our superior is simply a primus inter pares, a first amongst equals, and authority extends out horizontally amongst the brothers and sisters.
Nuns of a Missionary Order Called to Study
The Order of St. Benedict does not undertake any outside apostolate, therefore the liturgy of the monks and nuns has become quite elaborate and occupies a considerable portion of the day. But in our case, there are only monasteries of Dominican Sisters, there are no monasteries of Dominican brothers, as there are of Benedictine or Cistercian brothers. This point is significant: our brothers are not monks, they are preachers. This was the great originality of St. Dominic’s foundation, launching into the world these new Religious for a mission that until that point had been reserved for the ecclesiastical hierarchy under the jurisdiction of the bishops. So we are the nuns of a missionary Order, with all that this implies, and this simple fact of being the contemplative and monastic branch of an apostolic order has a strong impact on our vocation.
Dominican nuns do not undertake any outside work either, but the Friars do, and so it is incumbent upon the Sisters to enter into some understanding of this apostolate, the better to pray for the success of the Friars’ mission. The nuns are thus required to devote some part of their day to study, at whatever level is appropriate in their particular case. We are then the Sisters of the Friars of the Order of Preachers, and that brings with it a certain responsibility on our side. When one is lucky enough to have brothers, one likes to take interest in what they are doing, so as to be able to follow their activities the more closely. Our brothers, the Friars, preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so it is incumbent upon us also to know this Gospel well; to make it and the Bible as a whole our own. This is true for all nuns, but Dominican nuns are perhaps less timid than others about venturing along the paths of theological interpretation, in the footsteps of their elder brother St. Thomas Aquinas. Our reading of the Bible is not simply and solely in order to nourish our own spiritual life; it is also our way of participating in the apostolate of our brothers.
Nuns Called to Celebrate the Liturgy of Praise & Intercession
St. Dominic recommended to the first brethren that the Divine Office be celebrated breviter et succincter. Although the monastic liturgy of the nuns can legitimately be rather more developed than this, it would be going against the spirit of our Order to go in for elaborate offices on the Cluniac model. Hence a certain sobriety and simplicity characterize our liturgy. The liturgy is the shop window of the monastery, so to speak, the point at which we enter into contact with the outside world, and so it behooves us to make it reflect something of the quality of our life, our unity and our joy. Even if we do not have opera-star voices, even if we are no longer young and pretty in our white habits, common prayer is the mirror image of our common life, as we come together to praise and to intercede. The intercessions indeed form one of the great characteristics of Dominican prayer. As is well known, Dominic spent his nights pleading with God in the words: “What will become of sinners?" The nuns are particularly free to devote themselves more intensely to this form of prayer.
I include at this point the example of the testimony of a Dominican nun who explains how she participates in the mission of the Order and of the Church:
Through prayer, undoubtedly. Intercessory prayer, making my own the cry of St. Dominic: “What will become of sinners?" but even more emphatically through my whole life, for my whole life strives to be a word and a prayer for the world. I entered the monastery not to flee from the world, to forget it or ignore its existence even, but in order to be present to it in some more profound way, to live at the heart of the world, in a hidden way, but that I believe to be more real. I came here not looking for a quiet life or security, but to share, to take on board the suffering, the pain the hopes of all mankind, it is a mysterious sharing. But in my daily life, do I not also have to face up to the same difficulties that anyone can encounter, particularly the poor: the precarity of work, the concern to earn our daily bread, worry caused by pain and illness. In human terms, there is nothing extraordinary about our life. Viewed from a certain angle, it is that of any woman earning a living in today’s world. And it is through this everyday sameness, humble concrete reality that my relationship with God flows.
Taking up this human life in faith, making my life one with God, and with mine that of all those with whom mine is bound up, that is how I situate our particular mission. In a world that is more and more secularized and where the meaning of prayer is more and more challenged, I think that we have to bear witness to the fact that a relationship with God is not to be found in extraordinary or unusual things, but on the contrary that it can only exist by respecting what is real and what is human.
Of course, our prayer is our way of taking part in the Order's mission. But we should not over-simplify the situation. Our role is surely not to be conceived of as simply a passive participation, by which the Sisters would simply stay in their cloisters saying hundreds of rosaries all day long for the success of the Friars’ preaching and for the salvation of the souls who listen to them. Perhaps at various times in history this simplistic interpretation prevailed, but historical research shows that this was not exactly what Dominic envisaged at the beginnings of the Order.
What he had in mind was surely some more active collaboration, rooted in fraternal links between the Friars and the nuns. In any case, it would seem difficult for the nuns to pray with conviction and perseverance for things of which they remained totally ignorant and in which they had no interest. If the prayer of the Sisters is their means of participating in the preaching mission of the Friars, they need to be aware of what that apostolate consists of, not in minute detail, obviously, but they should show a degree of solidarity with the general thrust of the Friars’ apostolic endeavor.
The purpose of studying history is to shed light on the present, and so it is important to take a glance at the beginnings of the Friars of the Order of Preachers. As is generally known, the nuns at Prouille were the first Dominican foundation, pre-dating by almost ten years subsequent houses. This is surely more than an accident of history. It was the monastery of Prouille that was the “holy preaching.” The Sisters were there, the Friars in their house alongside. Not cohabitation, but two separate houses on the same site. Dominic had lodgings kept for his use there, and maintained cordial relations with the community of Sisters. It is said, for example, that when he returned from a journey, even late at night, he would have everyone woken up so that he could straightaway share the latest news concerning the mission of the Order.
It would seem appropriate to quote on this point a few paragraphs from the text of a lecture given by Pere Marie-Humbert Vicaire, that great historian of the Dominican Order who died in 1993. He understood better than most the importance and the fecund potential of the Friar/nun synergy. He quotes the example of the Rhineland mystics, who are again very much in vogue these days. He explains very forcefully the wonderful things that can be achieved when Dominican brothers and sisters work to a common purpose:
By his example, even more than by his words, St. Dominic reveals evangelical, indispensable and, dare I say, congenital place of our contemplative Sisters in our ministry. If we wish truly to live from the Gospel, collaboration with our Sisters must always be profound, close and intelligent.
I should like to give you an example. At the end of the thirteenth century, there was a Dominican Province in which this had been better understood than elsewhere: it was the Province of Teutonia, which at the time consisted of Alsace and the western part of Germany. At that time, Herman de Minden, the Provincial, did not hesitate, in contrast to many of his colleagues, to receive all the convents of contemplatives who offered themselves in order to make them into Dominican nuns. At Strasbourg alone, there were seven such convents. It was a burden for the Province, certainly. Was it not on account of this burden that Humbert of Romans, fond as he was of the nuns, had tried to erect certain barriers against the acceptance of further convents of nuns? Hermann of Miden, for his part, did things on the grand scale.
Even better. He was not content simply to accept pastoral responsibility for the nuns... he detached for their service some of his best masters of theology. You know the result: it is one of the great claims to the glory of the medieval Church, the Rhineland mystics. The generosity of the Order of Preachers towards the nuns, especially in Teutonia, gave birth to an admirable flowering of contemplative life in the Church, I am not saying simply in the Order. If even today the monasteries of Toss, Unterlinden at Colmer, Adelhausen, Oetenbach or Katherinental light up by their example the Church as a whole in the fourteenth century, and even beyond the Church itself, for unbelievers too admire Dominican Rhineland mysticism, we owe it to Friars of the Order of Preachers who, having the better understood the evangelical ideal of the Order, sought closer links with the Sisters, and in doing so benefited in return from a renewed witness borne to the Gospel. In this ministry, the Friars who took care of the Sisters were not depending only on their personal knowledge, individual worth or competence, however well qualified they might have been. But rather they were supported, as our Father St Dominic had wished, by a highly original tradition that fully intended that the preached word be the expression of a vast and flourishing community of brothers and sisters, such as was the case in the beginnings of the Church, according to the Acts of the Apostles.
In our day, the Friars tend to feel more and more submerged by a heavy work-load and the demands of the apostolate which eats into their time and energy. There are also very many apostolic Dominican Sisters throughout the world busily engaged in professional life and charitable service. They too need some spiritual help. What the nuns of the Order are there to provide can be seen as a hidden spring that supplies cool water to refresh and make fertile the labors of those who are out in the fields gathering the Lord’s harvest. Dominic did after all create, alongside his fledgling Order devoted to apostolic activity, a spiritual powerhouse at Prouille, where consecrated women would offer to God, night and day a prayer of intercession and praise.
It is the very same reasons that justify the necessity of the active life of the Friars and apostolic Sisters that justify also the need for contemplative life. The cloistered Dominican Nun perpetuates a tradition that has not varied over the centuries as far as the essentials are concerned, fulfilling that complementary role that St. Dominic ascribed to her, and this work acquires a new impulse each time that the externally active members of the Order take on some new task or a particular difficult apostolate.
To come back to Fr. Vicaire, I conclude with the hope and the prayer that as in the time of the Rhineland mystics, the preached word, wherever it is spoken by a member of our Order, be the expression of a vast and living communion of brothers, sisters and laity, a true reflection of the early Christian communities that so inspired St Augustine, on whose Rule we pronounce our solemn vows.