“WHO said poverty couldn’t be tasty?”
These were the profound words of one of my fellow student friars as he sank his teeth into an expertly assembled ham-and-cheese sandwich, while resting in the shade of a gum tree on a knoll overlooking Apollo Bay.
Our common student holiday this year entailed a prolonged, scenic drive along the Great Ocean Road – stopping at the appropriately apostolic locations – as well as a week in Port Fairy, a picturesque town on the Southern Ocean.
Having chanted Matins and Lauds and celebrated Mass for the day, we piled into the van and pointed ourselves in the direction of the South Australian border.
Upon stopping for lunch we were delighted to discover that the friar placed in charge of catering for our culinary needs over the course of the trip had made a supererogatory effort.
Not only were we supplied with a number of the loaves of bread that the local Brumbies store throws out of a Sunday afternoon, but we had ham, cheese and – thanks to the generosity of a parishioner with a penchant for gardening – a ripe avocado.
Throw in the additional essential ingredient of “hunger” and I can assure you that a loaf of bread has never been consumed so quickly.
I suspect the Student Master – who is also the Provincial Bursar – was especially pleased with this example of prudent planning, as even the simplest fare in the surrounding eateries was being advertised at a price that seemed to suggest the sale of a kidney or two would be an appropriate means for raising the necessary funds.
Our vow of poverty entails a surrender to providence that allows us to delight in what other people may regard as restrictively simple lives; we could even laugh at the fact that the single knife packed to cut the block of cheese was so blunt it would have struggled to partition a boiled cabbage leaf.
This was not, I hasten to add, the fault of the friar who packed it – rather, it is simply a consequence of the eclectic mix of cutlery available in the priory.
Whenever I am placed on kitchen duty and have to re-set the table after a meal, it is a cause for rejoicing if – in a house of more than 20 friars – I can find a fork and knife that match one another.
If you think this is not a particularly consequential challenge, then you have obviously never tried to consume spaghetti with something that was clearly originally intended to function as a snail fork.
We arrived in Port Fairy in the early evening, having diverted through Warrnambool – “The Bool” as the locals (we hope) call it – and settled into our accommodation. Board games constituted our evening entertainment.
I have always maintained that a person’s true character can be gauged over the course of an evening spent contemplating moving pieces on a board – he may seem calm and collected at all other times of the day, but the moment you tell him he will not be collecting $200 when he passes “Go”, all bets are off.
No doubt it made an interesting contrast for our neighbours; one moment hearing us having a free and frank exchange of views as to whether an individual is permitted to play a Development Card on the turn that he purchases it, or only on subsequent turns, and the next to discern the sound of us chanting “In manus tuas” during Compline.
Port Fairy will never be the same again.
Our days were occupied with hiking in the Grampians.
We were suitably impressed with those magnificent rock formations and the sweeping views – and I suspect the bronzed, Germanic-looking tourists we passed on our way up were equally impressed (or bemused) by our conversation.
The nature of the Church, hypothetical moral theology quandaries, how to engage those with differing views – Dominican hiking talk, I have found, is similar to Dominican table talk – the tradition of the “disputatio” lives on.
I suspect that is a phrase that may require some explanation.
The “disputatio” was a formal method of debate developed during the High Middle Ages, whereby each participant would accept those points and premises made by the other which he thought to be true, while drawing distinctions and highlighting discrepancies where they were to be found.
In this way, it was hoped that a closer understanding of the ultimate truth under examination might be reached.
It was the ultimate and greatest expression of “play the ball, not the man” – the friars were genuinely interested in the truth, not simply with “winning” the debate.
It transpires that this thirst for accurate expression of the truth continues to manifest itself within the Order of Preachers, whether at sea level or at altitude.
In fact, so keen is our desire to plane away even the tiniest modicum of error in our argument that some of the older friars have nicknamed a particular student “Brother Sed Contra”.
This is a reference to the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas.
In dealing with each particular question under examination, St Thomas would first list the possible objections that could be raised against an idea and then write sed contra – “But on the contrary” – and thereafter proceed to expound his own solution to the problem.
Thus, knowing that one of the students has been dubbed “Brother Sed Contra” ought to give you a fairly clear idea of his conversational style – if there is a contrary point to be raised, he will raise it.
We are all becoming much more precise in our verbal expression as a result.
What our fellow hikers made of our exchanges regarding the nature of change or development in liturgical praxis I cannot say; I can only deduce from the fact that they were still happy to have us take their picture that perhaps they hoped that our desire for precision in argument would also manifest itself in crystal-clear images of their flushed faces as they overlooked Halls Gap.
Having concluded our stay in Port Fairy and driving back to Melbourne – this time along the inland route – we were engaged in answering questions from a prototype version of the “Catholic Bible Trivia App” that a team of friars in the province is developing and which is soon to be released.
Following on from the success of the Catholic Trivia App, which was launched last year, this new development was being trialled by various friars around the province in an effort to gather comments for improvement before it is made accessible to the wider public.
Living as a professed friar, I have come to realise that these impressive collaborative efforts are expressions of the essence of common life within the Order of Preachers.
The life of constant debate and discussion – “disputatio” – within which we live, whether while hiking or playing board games, necessarily overflows the boundaries of the priory and expresses itself in the multifarious ways we engage others in thought, discussion and prayer about the faith.
Thus, while we might be doubled over with laughter as we listen to the impassioned pleas of a particular friar argue as to why he should not have to advance his token to the nearest railroad and pay the owner twice the amount owed, we are aware that the great joy we are experiencing could also manifest itself in other interesting, providential ways.
By the grace of God, that exchange might one day help to save a soul.