“Study enables the brothers to ponder in their hearts the manifold wisdom of God, and equips them for the doctrinal service of the Church and of all people.”
WITHIN the Constitutions of the Order of Preachers there is an entire chapter devoted to “study”.
It stands alongside the chapter on religious consecration (obedience, poverty, chastity) and the chapter on the sacred liturgy and prayer.
Study is a core element – a pillar – of Dominican life.
When St Dominic first encountered the dualist heresy flourishing in the south of France in the early 13th century he clearly perceived its principal causes: the laxity of the local clergy combined with their scandalous lives and lack of education in Church doctrine.
If the clergy could not explain the truths of the faith, it was hardly surprising that the faithful were falling away into all manner of error.
Thus in founding the Order of Preachers to combat heresy, St Dominic insisted that the friars of the order – in contrast to the ignorant and dissolute local clergy – be men of evangelical poverty and chastity, as well as learned in the teachings of the Church.
They were to be religious schooled in divine truth: men who knew and understood the doctrine of the Catholic Church and were thus able to defend it.
So characteristic was this emphasis of the order that, in a papal bull of January 1217, Pope Honorius III described the friars as “Christ’s unconquered athletes, armed with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.
“Fearing not those who can kill the body, you valiantly thrust the Word of God, which is keener than any two-edged sword, against the foes of the faith.”
The intimacy between the Dominican order and the teaching authority of the Church was thus established from the outset.
To this day our constitutions speak of our “doctrinal service of the Church” and the “doctrinal apostolate”.
It is essential, therefore, that a Dominican friar be well-versed in Sacred Scripture, theology and the teachings of the Church.
This means we must study – a lot.
When I arrived at the priory in Adelaide to begin my postulancy it seemed that the first question I was asked upon meeting any friar was: “Is there a good reading lamp in your room?”
Study is an integral, life-long component of Dominican life and is a particular mark of the order.
Here in Hong Kong, the timetable for the novitiate has several hours blocked-out every day for “class” and then several more for “private study”.
In a way this is particularly fortunate, as we have been reminded on more than one occasion that a Master of the order – Cardinal Cajetan – once wrote that any Dominican not studying for at least four hours a day is in a state of grievous sin.
The Cheshire-cat grin with which this fact is related is enough to send any reluctant novice scurrying back to his desk.
The purpose of all this study is not merely to amass knowledge for its own sake.
In fact, St Thomas Aquinas would say that to do such a thing would itself be a sin – curiositas.
The study and search of the truth – and all Dominicans are ultimately characterised as lovers and seekers of the Truth – is ultimately directed towards the mission of the Church.
Our study is inseparable from its ultimate purpose: the proclamation of the Gospel and the salvation of souls.
As Hong Kong is rather an international hub, we are privileged enough to have occasional guest lecturers from members of the order who are passing-through on their way to other parts of the world.
On one such occasion the speaker – a former provincial of the Irish province – characterised the Dominican vocation as the “readiness to preach the Gospel whenever and wherever the need arises”.
In order to do so, however, we must have some idea of what we are talking about.
It would be difficult to explain the truths of the faith to someone else if we do not first understand them ourselves.
Yet judging by the questions that various friends and family members have put to me in recent years, it would seem the idea that there are truths of faith and that the Truth – Jesus Christ – is an absolute, have become alien concepts for many people.
As highlighted by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, some people seem to have become convinced that “religion as a whole is to be relegated to the realm of sentiment, feeling and subjectivity”, as though the life of faith were merely an affective religious experience, rather than the commitment of the mind to an objective reality.
Yet the truth is not relative: good and evil, truth and untruth are not merely subjective categories.
Those who claim that the truth is a matter of an individual’s perspective and – furthermore – that such an attitude is a manifestation of enlightened tolerance are not actually being tolerant at all: they are merely indifferent.
If the truth is an absolute – and Christ Himself said that He is the Truth, not a truth (John 14:6) – then to withhold it or distort it for fear of offending someone else’s competing notion of reality is not an act of tolerance: it is an act of indifference.
It means that we do not truly care for the welfare of the other; that we do not truly “love our neighbour” as ourselves. (Mark 12:31)
Given that God has revealed God’s Self in the person of His Son and entrusted the Church with the mission of proclaiming and passing on that truth, to prevent others from learning of it – or to be lackadaisical in its proclamation – would be an offence against charity.
And so as Dominicans, we study.
We do so, not simply as our own particular form of religious asceticism – for truly assiduous study is difficult and demands a great deal – but as a fulfilment of Christ’s commandment of love.
For if I truly love my neighbours I must wish them to be free.
Yet to be so, they must first know the Truth.
I should feel compelled to introduce Him.