The Song Continues: Dominican Monastic Life in Light of the Jubilee

Dominican Contemplative Nun

Eight hundred years have passed since the founding of the Order and we are coming now to the conclusion of a nine-year period of preparation in celebration of this blessed event. Go and preach! we are commanded by our Master. Take up once again the staff of Peter, the book of Paul – the staff of itinerancy, the book of the Word – and allow the fire of the Gospel to set us alight once more![1]  This is as true for us, the nuns, as it is for the friars, albeit in our own way, very distinct from that of our brothers.

To us [as monastic-contemplatives] has it been given to carry the torch of the God-quest in the name of and in the forefront of the whole of humanity. The question is – how do we carry the torch of truth as Dominican contemplatives? What is our role within the Dominican family? And what sets us apart from other contemplative Orders? The challenge of the moment is to grow into the full measure of all that we are called to be, not as contemplative women only but as Dominican contemplatives.

Several years ago, Timothy Radcliffe, then Master of the Order, posed the question: “What does it mean to be a nun in a missionary Order?”[2]  I re-phrase Timothy’s question. What does it mean to be itinerant (or missionary) in a monastic setting? Itinerancy, one of the major features of our Order, leaves its mark on us as well. We too are called to the ‘frontiers of humanity.’ Our mission, as Dominican Nuns, shifts our gaze ‘to history and the world of humanity since that is where salvation is achieved.’[3]

What does it mean to be active in a life wholly dedicated to contemplation? In Dominic’s vision, the entire mission belongs to both the friars and the nuns. “They [the nuns] spend themselves totally for souls.”[4] The gift of ourselves to God is at the same time a gift of ourselves to our brothers and sisters. With St. Dominic as we fix our gaze upon Jesus, that Book of Charity which teaches everything, we are ever mindful of sinners whom ‘we carry in the compassion of our hearts.’

What does it mean to ‘preach’ when our entire life is hidden and we are dedicated to silence and stillness? From a Dominican perspective preaching is not simply something to be done but a way of life. It means to live a life which in itself is a preaching, a way of life that preaches.[5] The ‘Holy Preaching,’ we call it, is as true for the nuns as it is for the friars – and perhaps more so, in that we are to be the visible expression of that holiness envisioned by St. Dominic as the fount from which the apostolate was to flow.

There is no doubt whatever that Dominican Nuns are the recipients of a very beautiful and unique charism. Without our contribution to the full spectrum of spirituality, the splendor of the Church would (it seems to me) be greatly diminished. We bear the beacon of light granted to our Father Dominic for the salvation of the world.

Contemplation is the heart of Dominican life, the gem beyond all price set among the many active works that make up the Order’s life and mission. What, then, is the place of the nuns in the Order, we who have been given, in an intensified way, this treasure to shelter and keep alive, ensuring its vitality, so often endangered amidst the worries and cares of the apostolate?The place of the nuns in the Order is counterpoint. All the other members of the Order – friars, sisters, laity – are visibly engaged in the ministry of the Word. We nuns, if indeed we have ‘the highest part, the noblest part,’ are at the same time the most obscure. Since we do not have an external apostolate, we are harder to define.

If appreciation of the function of each individual segment of the Dominican body has become more apparent in recent years, perhaps the challenge now is to discover how best to bind ourselves together more intimately. This challenge may be met, I believe, by a continuously deepening espousal of authentic Dominican spirituality.

Dominican spirituality is at its core ‘a spirituality of the Word’ – the lodestone we Dominicans continually return to. We, the nuns, are also enamored of the Word – in the Liturgy first of all with its daily immersion in the scriptures…. In our personal prayer…. In the voice of the Church…. The Word calls us to friendship…. And to mutual preaching in our form of government.

Veritas – the Word of Truth: The light of learning is one of the characteristic features of our Order. Can we embrace it, give it the status it deserves? Can our thirst for understanding, for Truth, be one more beautiful and humble offering that we Dominicans bring to share with other monastics at the table of the God-quest so needed today? And further, is it not the marrow of the friendships that bind us together as one? 

Once we become enamored of the mystery of God dwelling in the midst of us, every other aspect of Dominican life falls into place: the gift of God’s friendship overflowing into love of all others; prayer fueled by the search to understand; a creative asceticism that up builds and fortifies. Our spirituality is positive, empowered by the knowledge that everything God made is holy, sacramentalized by the presence of the Word among us – that Word which we praise together, that Word which blesses us and all humankind, that Word which we preach and spread abroad to the ends of the earth….

The above is a synopsis of part one of a longer essay which attempts to differentiate Dominican monastic life from the other great monastic Orders with its emphases on itinerancy, apostolic activity, and witness. The synopsis of part two which seeks to delineate the place of the nuns within the Dominican Family follows. It focuses on a description of our Dominican spirituality of the Word and the mission we share in common. READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY HERE ​

Sister Emmanuella Handlos, OP - New Castle, DE / Springfield, IL, USA

[1] Bruno Cadoré, O.P., Letter for the Jubilee Year of the Order of Preachers, Rome, January 1, 2016.    
[2] Timothy Radcliffe, OP, “A City Set on a Hilltop Cannot Be Hidden: A Contemplative Life” Santa Sabina, April 29, 2001, n. 2.
[3] Carlos Aspiroz Costa, O.P., Proclaiming the Gospel in the Order of Preachers, Rome, November 7, 2002.
[4] Fundamental Constitutions of the Nuns, 1. II.
[5] Cf. Ministry of Preaching, Acts of the General Chapter, Rome, 2010, n. 51.