Home > Preaching > Novice Dominicans: brothers and sisters to all

Fr Bob Eccles, a Dominican novice a mere sixty years ago, reflects in his sermon for the 23rd Sunday of the Year on the vocation of Dominicans to be brothers and sisters to all.

A friend was sitting over a coffee somewhere in town when she overheard someone remark,  just listen, the Buddhist monks are back,  they always come back to Cambridge this time of year.  And indeed suddenly there was an explosion of laughter and hilarity somewhere close by,  evidently the monks were having the time of their lives, whoever they were.  All heads were turned.  You’ve guessed already,  it wasn’t Buddhist monks at all, it was happy friars  living it up in the street,  no doubt having clothings and first professions to celebrate.   Cambridge is where it all happens, this time of year.

Sixty years already come Michaelmas,  it was me and my friends’ turn to startle or amuse in our new black and white habits.  It feels like only the other day.  We should talk about this religious life, one of God’s gifts for his people.  For those for whom it’s meant,  this habit does two  things at once, it brings us closer together and in another way it sets us apart.  Religious are through their obedience not really their own any more, they are men and women for others,  in imitation of their Master,   who came not to be served but to serve and give his life for many.  See in contemplation the needs of your neighbour, an early Dominican taught the student friars.  It’s why our priories and convents ought to be homely welcoming places, so people can come close to us – come close enough in to be able to see through us, and so of course be disappointed in us, but perhaps in our homes they may get just a glimpse of their final home, which is in God. Some are attracted to the Dominicans for they want them for their friends (others, to sniff for heresy).

But the other side to it?  Perhaps it’s that when our Lord appears looking for disciples among friends and family, he steps between them.  If we can believe the gospel we have read just now (Luke 14. 25-33).  Things are not quite as they were before.  The new sister and the new brother have stepped aside or gone ahead if you prefer, they  have opened up an intentional distance,  are no longer available to do the usual things they did in the usual way they did them, because of following their star.

Gerard Manley Hopkins  wrote of the religious life as  an ‘elected silence’. Did you ever meet a completely silent Dominican?   do let us know, they are rare as hen’s teeth.  We are so much in love with words.  Dominicans are full of words. Yet we should have entered the silence of those who will listen for God, even if God only  speaks in silences.  The monastic life began in the silence and solitude of the desert, a place where seemingly God is not,  and the desert is still a very necessary place; if the brothers and sisters of Dominic and Catherine do not pass that way,  they will  have nothing to report on their return. There ought to be something different about us.

I’m ashamed to say I was really no great shakes as a novice, but I was taught  to enter into silence.  The brothers of the novice house created a solitude for me where I could grow.  Indeed in the silence,  I could almost hear myself growing.  Novices  will grow, you wouldn’t believe, they grow so fast, they grow out of all recognition, even when they are apparently quite big enough already, you can never guess how much more of them there’s going to be!

The crowds who flocked admiringly to goggle at the new prophet Jesus of Nazareth were no doubt put out and disappointed to be told they had to hate their own families before they could come any closer.   Except,  perhaps,  for  anyone who happened to  hate his mother-in-law already.  Our Lord wanted to make a point,  they needed to count the cost of discipleship.  But when we ask what this hatred looks like in St Luke’s gospel and in the New Testament generally, what do we find?  Oh, and what would it mean to actually hate even one’s own life too?

We have to stand back to see the whole picture.  Yes, sometimes families must be forsaken for the following of Jesus. But sometimes brought into the community, like the household of Paul and Silas’ gaoler who were baptised along with him,  like Onesimus who Philemon was to accept as a beloved brother (Philemon 9-17 our second reading), like the husband who is consecrated by his believing wife in 1 Corinthians, like the father and mother and children and servants who are a family of faith  in Colossians, or like the house churches Paul gets to know in  the Acts of the Apostles.  Yes, sometimes the Cross must be resolutely shouldered. But at other times feasting and conviviality is the order of the day:  Jesus himself eats with sinners,  dines out with  Pharisees,  Levi makes him a great feast, a woman anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair, Martha welcomes him into her house.  Oh, and someone obliges with the loan of a room for Passover.  We begin to see that this strong word hate is meant as deliberate overkill – one of those beefy semitisms,  with the sense of superceding something, subordinating, putting it in second place.  In fact family and friends are more precious to me, not less,  because you are the brother and sister for whom Christ died,  and where you gather in His name,  there He is in the midst.

In another place, we are told not about hating our family, but about loving the people you thought it was alright to hate:  “love your enemies and be good to those who treat you badly.”  How to pluck up courage to love all the horrible bicycle thieves in the place?  is the question.  Not to speak of all the strangers you never met.

 St Thomas Aquinas wants to draw our attention  on this issue!  Discussing the Great Commandment,  he  reminds us that we should care not only for friends but for friends of  friends, because they matter to them.  And even the bicycle thieves  must be loved, for God loves them, if He didn’t they would drop out of existence, so we are to love them, pray for them and care about their well-being, for His sake.

 Where it says,  “love your neighbour as you love yourself”, that reminds us that we too are God’s children and so loveable, doesn’t mean we think we’re the bee’s knees and can do no wrong, only that being made in the image of God we all have worth and dignity and are precious in God’s sight.   Only if you know you have the goodness given you by the Creator, and are not in fact a beastly pious weed and a blister, do you have the security and sense of self-worth that lets you practice the virtue of magnanimity, so as to be a source of love in your turn who makes  confident and trusting  relationships with others.   St Thomas says that we are to love others with the same love with which God loves us. So, letting you know about all this is just what Dominicans are for.  Blessed be God.  Amen.