Last Friday, I packed up my kids and drove out to beautiful Clinton, MA (home of the Museum of Russian Icons!) for the funeral of a departed Dominican brother. The 18-month-old was delightfully well-behaved, but his two older sisters spent the majority of the time whining, punching each other and fighting over books. Just letting you know that I won’t be getting that Parenting Award this year. Again.
During the homily, Father talked about the ways in which our brother had contributed to his parish, professional and family life. I sat there with a large contingent of my fellow Lay Dominicans, wondering when he would mention our brother’s commitment to his Dominican vocation. Then the priest said,
“He was also a Lay Dominican, a member of a prayer group that got together once a month to pray– to say the Rosary. They would do a litany. And also the Liturgy of the Hours and his presence in that group will greatly be missed.”
Our chapter president, who was sitting directly in front of me, rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Well, that description was embarrassingly wrong.”
I was going through some formation materials with our current novice about the history of the Lay Dominicans (formerly known as the Third Order or the Order of Penitence of St. Dominic). Here’s a selection:
“‘Tertiaries need to be involved with attaining the goal of the Dominican Order. Third Order members are therefore Christian laity who are involved with the apostolate of the First Order– proclamation of the Word— in the broadest sense of the word.'(Schillebeeckx, The Dominican Third Order: Old and New Style, 1960)…The first purpose of the Dominican Laity, the individual purpose, is simply to be Dominicans. The second purpose of the Laity, the purpose within the family, flows from the first; the Dominican Laity are truly members of the Dominican family.” (emphasis added)
That doesn’t sound like a prayer group to me. It sounds like a vocation: a call to fill the world with holy men and women who will preach in places that the friars (the First Order) can’t. It is true that our chapter gathers for prayer on a regular basis, but that is because we need the time to pray together (and study, which we do every meeting) before returning to our preaching vocation in the world. We may not get to wear our full habits until we die, but we are as much a part of the Dominican family and the preaching mission of St. Dominic as are the friars, nuns and sisters– something our dear departed brother knew and lived very well.
Yet the charge that we appear to be nothing more than a prayer group is not without substantiation. There are times in the history of the Order when lay groups have seemed nothing more than Rosary Groups For Old People. When the average age of a chapter is not young, it can be difficult to engage in active preaching apostolates as a group, which would be one way to show that we have more to offer than insular, mutually-edifying devotion. I’m not saying that prayer groups are bad– they are wonderful! But the Lay Dominicans are something different, and the fact that we may not appear different is lamentable.
You may think I’m just complaining because I have a bruised ego over the whole affair. Maybe. I’m very sensitive to those who insist or insinuate that being a Lay Dominican isn’t a “real vocation.” But I think (and I hope!) that the real reason I’m dwelling on this incident is that the priest’s words struck me because they were a challenge. They challenge me to not grow comfortable in just three of the four pillars of Dominican life. I must meet with my chapter, I must pray and I must study, but in order for the world to know Christ, I must also turn outside these nourishing components of my vocation. I must preach. I must share the fruits of my chapter, prayer and study. Some people, like the priest at the funeral, will miss the connection between my apostolic efforts and that group I attend every month. That’s fine, but I can’t let lack of recognition be an excuse to get discouraged in my preaching, which admittedly can be a difficult temptation for me. I like people to acknowledge my efforts and my contributions, which seldom happens when it comes to preaching or teaching the Faith. Ultimately, I must learn to desire that people will come to know Christ through me– and if that means that I and my Dominican status remain unknown, that needs to be OK. How disappointed Dominic would be if his sons and daughters didn’t heed the call to make disciples of all nations just because people on the outside didn’t realize they were more than a committed prayer group.
So in response to that call, I’m here to say:
Jesus loves you. Mary, His mother, is eager to open her heart to you and take you under her protection. Your sins are forgiven in Christ– Go to Him.
And if you feel inspired to preach to others, to study and to teach the Faith, maybe you, too, have a vocation to the Order of Preachers. Maybe you are called to be a friar. Or a nun. Or an active sister (which is what I thought my vocation was before I met my husband). Or maybe you are called to the vocation of a Lay Dominican. I’d be very happy to talk with you if you want to learn more. Many wonderful lay people spread the Gospel in their families, places of work, and even online. But sometimes we are called to do so with the support of a chapter, with the prayers of St. Dominic, and the special protection given to his family under Our Lady’s Mantle. So keep an open heart and an open ear– for yourself and for others.
And… if at my funeral, the priest says that I was part of a Dominican prayer group, please just roll your eyes and shrug your shoulders on my behalf.