IN the final novel written by Leo Tolstoy – entitled Resurrection – there is a striking description of one of the central characters.
‘In Nekhlyudov, as in all of us, there were two men. One was the spiritual being, seeking for himself only the kind of happiness that meant happiness for other people too; but there was also the animal man out only for his own happiness, at the expense, if need be, of the good of the rest of the world.’
Perhaps surprisingly, that brief illustration of Nekhlyudov is very helpful in underscoring one of the greatest aspects of communal religious life.
Living together as a community of friars is meant to assist us in pursuing the first kind of life, and hampering our less elevated inclination towards the second kind of life.
Towards an elevated life
In a religious community, insofar as one of us falls, we all fall.
Insofar as one of us grows in virtue, we all grow.
It is a noteworthy characteristic of the history of the Church that saints seem to emerge, not as completely isolated monads, but in pairs or groups.
Pope St Leo IX and Pope St Gregory VII.
St Dominic and St Francis of Assisi.
St Ignatius of Loyola, St Francis Xavier, St Peter Faber.
A group of men or women who share a common, God-given desire to live in such a way that their joy in Christ diffuses and becomes joy for everybody around them.
In this way, religious life is exemplary of the scholastic maxim ‘bonum est diffusivum sui’ – goodness, by its very nature, diffuses itself into that which surround it.
‘Seeing, touching, tasting’
To employ a seemingly trite example from my own experience of religious life, I can mention an episode that occurred late last year.
A group of students in the priory have formed a schola cantorum to sing at various events, including the Holy Hour that is held in St Patrick’s Cathedral once a week.
Well, during rehearsal one evening, we discovered that the order of the words to the Adoro te – the marvellous Eucharistic hymn written by St Thomas Aquinas – differed in two equally prominent Dominican publications.
Was it to be sung, ‘visus, tactus, gustus’ (seeing, touching, tasting), or ‘visus, gustus, tactus’ (seeing, tasting, touching)?
The difference may seem like small beer to those outside, but when it comes to precision and accuracy with regard to our own liturgical and theological tradition, we leave no stone unturned.
Having concluded the practice without having reached a definite conclusion we returned to our respective cells, contemplating this particular mystery.
Later that same evening, however, the fearless leader of our schola happened to bump into another friar in the kitchen while carving a slice of some much-needed carbohydrate.
Did that other friar know the answer to our query?
No. And he was quite happy to admit as much.
However, having confessed his ignorance and wandered off down the darkened hallways of the priory, he returned only a minute later with the names of two other friars in the province who would likely know the answer.
Not wasting a minute, the singing student scurried back to his cell – toast in hand – and sent an email to the two friars who had been recommended as experts.
He received an answer – from both of them – within minutes.
Friar 1: ‘Visus, tactus, gustus is more likely, while visus, gustus, tactus in a few versions is probably the result of a scribal lapsus. In ST I, q78, a3 he argues for an order of the external senses: visus, auditus, olfactus, tactus, gustus – presumably his listing in the Adore te reflects this.’
Friar 2: ‘Very upsetting. If you look up the reading material for our course in 2016 you will see that the critical text of the Adoro te based on the study of Robert Wielocks (‘Poetry and Theology in the Adoro te devote’) used by Paul Murray is visus, tactus, gustus. See Murray, Aquinas at Prayer, 244 or pg 210 of Course Handbook.’
I have seen the emails myself and the time-signature does not lie; both of these venerable friars knew those detailed answers off the top of their heads.
So, as an example of the many diffused benefits of living in a religious community, I can now cite the ability to learn from experts upon questions of faith, morals, spirituality and – it would seem – liturgy.
That particular goodness diffuses itself very readily within a community of friars living under a rule designed for that purpose.
Better to enlighten than to shine
After all, St Thomas Aquinas established that ‘it is better to enlighten than merely to shine’ (ST II II, q188, a6, co.) so a group of friars who are dedicated to spreading the light to others will of course also diffuse that light to one another when they live in common.
Moreover, to draw the arc of a particularly long bow, once we knew the correct ordering of the words to the hymn, we in turn would diffuse that goodness – implicitly – to those kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in the Cathedral as their voices joined with ours in singing the Adoro te.
And while I am aware that conveying the correct order of scholastic sensory appreciation in the words of a thirteenth century hymn may seem trivial, it is indicative of a profound truth about religious life within the world and within the Church.
Each religious community is, hopefully, a font of living water diffusing the joy that is life in Christ into the world around them by whatever means providence might supply.
We aim to serve as exemplars of the reality that true happiness is to be found in living the first kind of life of which Tolstoy spoke, and not the second.
True happiness is not a zero-sum game; those things that give passing pleasure at the expense of others constitute a good neither for the person undertaking them nor for the people harmed by them.
True happiness is marked by its diffusion to others, by an increasing circle of joy; by the groups of saints who spring up from time to time, each mutually re-enforcing the virtuous aspirations of the others.
The simple joy of a hymn sung in adoration might spread more happiness than we know.
‘Seeing, touching, tasting, are in thee deceived.
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed.
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do.
Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.’