The Dominican Discerner and Scripture

September 11, 2012

If the common stereotype declaring the apathy of Catholics towards the Bible is to be believed, then St. Jerome’s well-known saying that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ bodes ill for us.

Thankfully, for Dominicans, it is almost impossible to ignore Scripture, because it absolutely

Detail, The Mocking of Christ – Fra Angelico, 1441

permeates our life. It is often pointed out that St. Dominic always carried with him the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul, which he read so often that he memorized. Not surprisingly, then, Dominic’s entire prayer life seems to have revolved around God’s Word: every single one of the famous Nine Ways of Prayer describes him either praying to God with words from Scripture, imitating the prayer of the great pray-ers in Scripture (most notably in the Sixth Way of Prayer, in which he imitates the prayer of the prophet Elijah, obtaining a similar result — see 1 Kings 17:21), or meditating upon the Scriptures. I am thinking particularly of the Eighth Way, which seems fairly clearly to describe lectio divina (for more on lectio divina go here and then here).

Ever since the foundation of the Order, in imitation of our Holy Father St. Dominic, Scripture has remained an essential part of the life of a friar. We study Scripture, we pray the Divine Office in common (which almost entirely consists of Scripture), we meditate on Scripture (for example, the Rosary is an eminently Scriptural prayer, as is, of course, lectio divina), and we preach from, about, and in response to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. We are taught that God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Ps 119:105), and especially as Dominicans we are called to share this light with others, following the example of St. Dominic himself — this is why we call him Lumen Ecclesiae, the Light of the Church. In the same great antiphon, the O Lumen, we sing, “Aquam sapientiae propinasti gratis” — that is, “Freely you poured forth the waters of wisdom.” The way he became a walking, talking wisdom fountain was by his preaching, which flowed forth from his life of prayer.

For those considering a vocation to the Order of Preachers, then, it only makes sense for Scripture to be a key part in the discernment of God’s call. Of course, each of us is called to be a saint — we hear about this fairly often. But the discernment of how God wishes to accomplish this in us requires us to pay attention and to listen for His voice. It is here that we arrive at the perennial question: Just how am I supposed to do that?

Thankfully, in his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini Pope Benedict XVI provides some insight (as Pope Benedict is wont to do):

Our call to holiness is revealed in sacred Scripture: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:7). Saint Paul then points out its Christological basis: in Christ, the Father “has chosen us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). 

Scripture is the answer! God has chosen us for holiness in Christ, the Word, which fact is revealed to us in the words of Scripture. (We could rephrase St. Jerome’s exhortation, then, to say that ignorance of the word of God is ignorance of the Word of God.) Our call to holiness is revealed in Scripture; if God has chosen us to fulfill that vocation to holiness precisely by a vocation to the religious life, how can we doubt that this election could also be revealed to us in Scripture? So it is important, even essential, that the Christian trust in the power of God’s Word and incorporate it into his prayer life. It is even more essential (if such a thing is possible) for the prospective religious, the young man considering a Dominican vocation, because God does not fail to speak through his word, which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

Just because he is so insightful, let’s turn one last time to Pope Benedict, who writes a little later on in Verbum Domini that the consecrated life… born from hearing the Word of God and embracing the Gospel as its rule of life. … More than ever, the Church needs the witness of men and women resolved to “put nothing before the love of Christ.” … Contemplative men and women, by their lives of prayer, attentive hearing and meditation on God’s Word, remind us that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (cf. Mt 4:4). … [T]his form of life “shows today’s world what is most important, indeed, the one thing necessary: there is an ultimate reason which makes life worth living, and that is God and his inscrutable love.”

* Frequently you will find Dominicans with an aversion to the word “discernment”, as it implies starting the consideration of a religious vocation with a turning to the subject. When I have used the word in this post, I have meant by it the arrival at a deeper understanding of how one is able to freely respond to the grace offered by the Lord in a call to the religious life – not simple introspection, but free and joyful action in response to grace.

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