Vocations find their true meaning in Christ
Three young men share their stories as they are just days away from receiving an irreversible grace of being ordained priests. They speak about how they were influenced by others and how they could not avoid the call from God to be men who serve others.
Click here to see their video.
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ON BEING A BROTHER: BEGINNINGS
By Br. Daniel Thomas, OP
Links will break at Bottom
Part I - Beginnings
It was 1952, I was nine years old and my parents were taking a trip all the way from California to New York. It was the biggest trip that anybody in my family had ever taken and each of us kids were asked what kind of "souvenir" we wanted our folks to bring back to us. I asked for a fifteen decade rosary! I don't exactly know where I got that notion other than from the fact that I was taught by Dominican Sisters in kindergarten and might have been impressed with the way that large rosary hung so prominently from their white habits.
The more amazing fact is that somehow my mother actually found a fifteen decade rosary and brought it back to me. It was to large to fit into my pockets so I had to be satisfied with attaching it to the belt of my trousers and wearing it while I was in the house. I was smart enough, even then, to know that it wasn't possible for me to be a Dominican Sister and even though I used to "play Mass" there was a subtle feeling that I should be a brother. I don't know where this feeling came from but I know that I kept at it even asking my older brother - who had been in the seminary for a few years - who seemed to be knowledgeable on such matters. He gave me a little booklet that had a description of the Dominican Order.
In my high school years the Teen Club that I belonged to sponsored a "Day of Recollection" which was held at the Dominican House of Studies in Oakland. It was on a Sunday and we all arrived in time for the 8:30 Solemn High Mass. We sat upstairs in the balcony because the choir stalls which were on the main floor were totally filled with Dominicans. In the moments that it took me to get up the stairs to the loft it was as if I had been transported back in time and was dropped into some monastery in the middle of who-knows-where and in a totally different age.
I had absolutely no idea what this place was all about. The four-story buildings were huge, the grounds were extensive and the Chapel was like something I had never seen before. Rows upon rows of "monks" in individual choir stalls facing each other and all singing in Latin. It was 1957.
The day of recollection was conducted by several of the resident Dominicans and we gathered in the various classrooms which were in the public parts of the house. We were given an introduction to what St. Albert's was all about and that was my first awareness that I knew that I belonged on the other side of the doors marked "cloister," a word that indicated that women were strictly forbidden to enter into the private part of the Priory where the men lived.
At lunchtime, though, the teen-age boys were invited to eat with the Dominicans in the refectory. We were ushered in - through those frosted glass cloister doors - and into the quadrangle garden which was formed by the three wings of the priory buildings and the Chapel. The refectory was like a mirror of the Chapel with tables replacing the choir stalls. The Dominicans ate in silence with their hoods up while one Brother read from a book on spirituality.
I don't remember too much more about the day other than that we ended in the Chapel for Benediction. I went home knowing that something had happened to me, but I was not clear exactly what it was. In a chance gathering of a Teen Club event I had fallen into a place where I felt very much at home and where I somehow knew I belonged.
Where and when does a vocation come from and begin? St. Thomas Aquinas says, "Grace builds on nature." Natural events occur. People, places and things effect us and impress us and somewhere along the way, God moves and something grace - filled happens.
A year or so later, another chance encounter. I worked in the library at my high school and Sr. Virginia, also a Dominican, asked me to set up a vocation display at the entrance to the library. There was always something that drew me to like Sr. Virginia. She was old - at least that's what I thought - and she was a maverick. She didn't fit the classic model of nun. She was short and rather heavy set, was always late and in a rush, and sometimes looked as if someone had thrown the white Dominican habit on her from the other side of the room. Her fifteen decade rosary was held together with paper clips and safety pins and always in a knot. Pins and parts of her were always dropping off and on more than one occasion I had to retrieve her black veil which had slipped off when she got up from a chair. She was a conniver, too, and she knew that I was probably interested in the Dominicans.
She also knew that she needed a ride to the Dominican House of Studies where a graduate of Bishop O'Dowd High School was going to make his first profession of vows as a Dominican Lay Brother. "Did I want to go?," she asked coyly, and, more to the point, "Could you give me a ride?"
How could I say "No?" It was another opportunity to get a glimpse inside the place that I now knew I would one day call 'home.'
The ceremony was ancient, simple and impressive. The two brothers walked into the sanctuary where the Father Prior was seated. They were dressed in the complete Dominican lay brothers habit: white tunic, black scapular, capuce and full length cape. They knelt down, and then, with arms outstretched, fell prostrate on the floor. After a brief exhortation they each knelt before the Prior and pronounced their vows.
At the end, all the other Dominicans lined up in front of the choir stalls to give an encouraging embrace to the two brothers who had just made a commitment to live as vowed religious.
Afterwards we were able to meet the brothers who had just made their first profession of vows and talk with others. I was also given a complete tour of the Priory which was a high point of the day.
I wrote for more information but received an invitation to come and talk with the priest who was in charge of the lay-Brothers formation. I hurried right from school and was greeted at the door by one of the lay brothers. Here was another character! He was an older brother and I was struck by the fact that he was smoking filter cigarettes in a cigarette holder! He was also wearing a bright orange sweater under his habit - which I thought was quite irregular - AND his black scapular and capuce were dusted with ashes from the cigarette!
I can still see him today, leaning up against the door of the visiting room asking me, "So, you actually want to join up with this outfit?"
My interview was also unique. The priest - now a very good friend of mine - sat quietly and introspectively across from me, staring up at the corner of the ceiling. I didn't know what I was supposed to say and finally followed his line of vision to see that he was watching a large spider subduing a "daddy-long-legs" caught in its web! Eventually we must have talked about necessary matters because I was told that I only needed to fill out the formal application papers in the spring. I had just begun my senior year of high school. Around Easter I sent in the papers and waited.
I graduated in June, enjoyed a pleasant summer, told all my friends that I was going to be a Dominican lay Brother and waited for the next step. In September I began to get worried. My friends had all gone off to colleges and my parents were asking what was going to happen to me and the Dominicans.
On Monday afternoon, September 14th my mother and I had just finished hanging new curtains in my bedroom. The telephone rang. "It's a man calling for you," my sister said. It was the Dominican Provincial, Fr. Joseph Fulton. He said, "I've looked over all your papers and have decided to accept you. Can you come to the Novitiate (across the bay in Marin County) on Wednesday?" I said that I was sure I could. Thinking that this was going to be the final interview, I asked if there was anything that I should bring. Fr. Fulton said in his unique style, "My boy, bring everything you have, you're going to be with us the rest of your life!" My mother's response? "But we just put clean sheets on your bed!"
My father took the day off from work, I packed up all the clothes that I thought I would need and we all drove across the bay to Kentfield. The Novitiate House was a smaller copy of St. Albert's. We were given a brief tour around the few parts of the house that were open to the public and I said my "good-bys" to my family and friends. My dad asked me if I needed any money and I told him, "I have a few dollars but I think they take a vow against money so I should be 'OK'." I turned and followed one of the brothers into the Priory.
Walking through the doors marked "cloister" I was stepping into a lifestyle that had changed little in the hundreds of years since the beginning of the Dominican Order. The Church was at the edge of the Second Vatican Council. Stirrings had already begun in the Dominicans. For one thing, the role of the lay-brother was changing. New possibilities for ministry and apostolate were being opened. No longer was the lay brother's life to be restricted to domestic chores only. Lay Brothers were already teaching, involved in administrative positions, and being prepared for other ministerial roles. An external sign of these changes came in 1962 when the Order put the lay-brothers in the same color habit as the priests. Gone was the distinctive black scapular and capuce (hooded cape) replaced by the white habit of equality. It's interesting to note that "civil rights" was an issue within society as well. I don't know which came first .
I don't for a moment regret that I entered the Dominican Order in a time when lay-Brothers were seen to be little more than domestic servants. When I was asked to take my turn at what we called "Bells" (attending the telephones and the front door) I took it as an opportunity to bring people to a moment of grace. In those years we only had two incoming phone lines and the job was not difficult since there were just two phones sitting on the desk in the Porters Office. You had to physically open the door since there wasn't any buzzer. As I pushed open the door I would say to myself, "I don't know who or why this person is coming here and I don't know what kind of a road they have journeyed on to get here. All I can do is cheerfully welcome them and in doing so, bring them to that special place where God can touch them with his grace." I certainly didn't want to take the chance that this encounter might be the last try at finding God.
I enjoyed my duty as "Porter" and saw that task as being very special. Now, almost forty years down the road, I could easily see myself going back to that and not at all feeling less a person of ministry in that job.
In my early years in the Order I was placed in many different positions. I was initially trained in carpentry. The skills that I picked up in that brief period have been useful to me in every other ministry that I have been asked to do. Next, I was asked to do simple nursing: attending to the bedridden elderly Dominicans that lived with us. Although this didn't last very long, I have fond memories of those I took care of. That short time of geriatric health care enabled me face my own parents in their old age with a deep love and appreciation and no compunction to take care of their very basic needs.
My stint as a librarian was even shorter than that of nurse so we'll save a lot of time there. Cooking at the Brothers Formation house gave me an opportunity to do a very creative ministry, one that I enjoy to this day. Ultimately, I got into formal training in graphic arts and ended up managing the Albertus Magnus Press which was housed in the basement of the Priory in Oakland. There I worked side by side with the artist/poet Brother Antoninus Everson. He was tall, gaunt and used to scrunch up his face as he shouted out, "Oh God! After 'um!" I was scared to death of him but had enough courage to ask, "Who are you chasing?" He would turn, smile at me while patting my shoulder, "Spirits and ghosts from the past." Being in the dingy basement corridor of the Priory with him on a spiritual plane that I didn't understand was a totally new experience for this young Dominican.
I stayed at that job for almost ten years and brought the Province's printing adventure right up to the edge of the computer age where we needed to make a critical decision: would we go 'high tech' and move with the times or would we stay as an artistic, hand set - hand printed, letter shop?
Part of that decision was made by the Provincial who wanted me to get involved in more public ministry. So, after 12 years behind the scenes, I went from my hidden life into Campus Ministry at Arizona State University.
Since then, I have continued to minister in parish or parochial positions using and developing skills that I never knew I had. I am currently director of the Province's only Retreat Center in Central Oregon. I see myself as a fully active member of the Order of Preachers and have many opportunities to preach at the retreat center. When people hear me speak on prayer or spirituality or hear me comment on scripture - using the gifts that God has given me - they still ask why I'm not a priest in this age when there is such an obvious need.
Questions like this have forced me to develop authentic answers. I look on life's choices and vocations along a horizontal line. In the older Church model the pyramid was used and there was a hierarchy that started on the bottom with lay folks and ostensibly went up through sisters, nuns, lay brothers, monks, priests and on up to - I guess - the Pope. The trouble with that model is that - if it's true - then a whole lot of us have fallen way short of the goal of life in not aspiring to be Pope.
On the horizontal model, you look at all the choices as being different yet equal. Our goal then, in life's choices, is to be sure that we are where we should be and not in some place that pleases other people.
The Gospel tells us, "Now is the moment of salvation..." and each of us needs to be in that moment where grace is connecting to the reality of our lives and we are responding by being in that moment which is now.
I believe that God has not called me to priesthood and I cannot presume to step into something when not called by the Spirit. Recently this entire matter surfaced again causing me to question my own vocation. I sought spiritual guidance from trusted advisors. One dear priest-friend of mine asked me, "Do you have a burning desire to become a priest?" When I answered, "No, I don't think so." He responded, "Then you certainly cannot become a priest just because there is such a need for priests in the Church at this time." That answer has helped me to be a lot more open to the Spirit and freer in my life.
A lot has changed in the Church and the Order in the 37 plus years that I have been a Dominican. Many who entered the Order as Brothers have left. Several have sought ordination as deacons and priests. The challenge to be a brother in an Order which is principally made up of priests is not always an easy choice.
A priest often has a ready-made model to follow: officially celebrating The Liturgy and dispensing the Sacraments. Although I am very much involved in the liturgical life of the Church I do not "say Mass" or "hear confessions" and there are still some Church regulations which limit some of the things a brother can do officially. Many people, pushed by societies "get to the top of the heap" mentality see a brothers life as being less than the best. Since I am perceiving that I am where the Holy Spirit has led me how can I be in the wrong place?
Since it isn't always the easiest road to follow, I see the Brothers vocation as one that takes a real courageous person who doesn't just follow the path of least resistance but, guided by the Spirit - is willing to stand alone with God to do a job that needs to be done. One of the Order's most recently canonized saints, Martin de Porres had the courage to follow the spirit's guidance in a time when he was considered the lowest of the low. He was a mulatto, born in Peru and was officially illegitimate. He was trained as - what today we would call - a medic and God used those natural skills to work wonders. Martin was given tremendous miraculous abilities working with the poorest of the poor. He let grace build on nature and is, today, the patron saint of social justice.
I don't yet claim "miraculous powers," but I do know that by letting the Spirit of God rest upon me at each step of my life I have the confidence to know that I am doing what God is asking of me.
At the posting of this web page, Br. Daniel Thomas was the Director of St. Benedict Lodge, a Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. This is his first article in the series "On Being a Brother." He can be reached through his email.This will break!
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March 16, 1997
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