The Dominican Life of Happiness

September 5, 2012

“I know it is a worthy vocation and calling to be a Dominican, but will you be happy?”

I do not think there is one Dominican who has not experienced this question from either a family member, friend, or even some random person at a metro stop. The questioner seems very concerned with our happiness, which is a good thing — St. Thomas teaches us that all humans naturally desire happiness as their end and goal, even if they do not know exactly how to attain it. The difficulty in answering the question comes from its false premise: Dominican life and happiness are mutually exclusive. This premise is not entirely unreasonable, as Fr. Paul Murray, OP, in his marvelous book The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality relates: “Involvement in religion or in the pursuit of a spiritual life is such a serious matter, believers in all religions have a tendency to become very grim, solemn people.” And I think we can all think of religious people who do wear a frown more often than a smile.

Happily, this is not so among the Dominicans! In fact, Fr. Murray goes so far as to say happiness “is a word which can, I am convinced, take us no small distance in our understanding of the Dominican life and Dominican spirituality.” Dominicans are to be happy religious, following in the footsteps of St. Dominic, who St. Cecilia tells us “always appeared cheerful and happy.”

This sense of joy and happiness was expressed by a modern day Dominican saint, Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP. In reflecting on his days in the novitiate he writes:

I was immensely surprised and delighted when I became a Dominican to find that sadness was never considered to be one of the products of the religious life… Long faces were not considered outward and visible signs of sanctity.  If under a penance you sulked — no vocation!  If you hadn’t joy, out you went!

A wonderful story of Bl. Jordan of Saxony (Second Master of the Order) also supports this theme:

The Master once was traveling with some companions and many novices that he had received into the Order. The came to a place where they had no convent, and stayed at a guesthouse. As they began to pray Compline, one of the novices began laughing, and soon all the novices were laughing loudly. One of the Master’s companions tried to stop them by waving his hands, but they only laughed the more. The Master then suspended Compline, gave the blessing and said to his companion, “Brother, who made you novice master, that you should correct them?” Then he said to the novices, “Dearest brothers, laugh loudly and do not stop because of this brother. You have my permission. You have every reason to be joyful and to laugh, since you have come out of the devil’s prison, and his bonds that held you for many years are broken. So laugh, dearest brothers; laugh!”

Happiness and joyousness are not only historical facts of the Order of Preachers, nor are they mere concepts used to articulate a Dominican spirituality; most importantly they are a reality of the Order that I experience (and enjoy!) everyday. Smiles and laughter abound within the cloister walls, and when we are out together there is another question that most Dominicans are asked: “Why are you always so happy?” The answer to that one is easy: “Come and find out yourself.”

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