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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Contemplative Dominican Nuns

From The Rambler (Christendom College's Student Journal)

Monasticism to “Reinforce” Christendom
By Marc Solitario and Scott Lozyniak
Friday, 30 November 2007

Many around campus would joke (seriously) that Christendom is a product of the thirteenth century. If you’re actually one who likes this (at least a little bit), we’ve got good news for you! Just twelve miles away on a mountain top in Linden there’s a structure being built that resembles one of the best things to come out of the Middle Ages—and it’s supposed to be that way! After catching wind of this, a group of us from Christendom decided to go find out just what was happening in Linden.

A group of cloistered Dominican nuns have left their home in Washington, D.C., in search of a place more suitable for their way of life. While they are temporarily in Western Massachusetts at another monastery, they are patiently awaiting the completion of a dream become reality after many years of waiting—St. Dominic’s Monastery. So, over fall break we decided to visit these sisters at their temporary home and learn more about this new and exciting development in the life of both their community and the Arlington Diocese.

After 7:45 Mass on the Feast of St. Luke, we found ourselves in the small parlor of the Dominican monastery conversing with two of the sisters. Sr. Mary Fidelis, the novice mistress, and Sr. Mary John Thomas, who just last week entered the novitiate, eagerly met us to give us insight into their small, but growing community. After fussing with the tape recorder and getting settled in over some breakfast, we got down to business.

“So, Sisters, why did you pick Linden, Virginia for your new monastery, and are you anticipating growth in your community now that you have a permanent (and much larger) home?”

Sr. Mary Fidelis recalled being taken to the Linden site for the first time. “The view was breathtaking…in D.C. there wasn’t a lot of privacy, silence, or much solitude, so this property seemed to provide those things. We were able to get a large enough piece of property and build away from the road enough so that when the area develops we will still have that separation. The other monastery was just an old house [some laughter] that the sisters remodeled. In Linden it’s going to be a traditional monastery.”

In regard to growth, the Sisters are excited about the many inquiries they have received from the “rich Catholic area” that they will be living in.

“I think that some of the things that our community values are what young people are looking for in religious life: going back to the traditional habit, devotion to the Eucharist, fidelity to the Church and the Holy Father, and Marian devotion,” commented Sr. Mary Fidelis, “and it’s not an easy life. It’s a challenging life with a radical separation from the world.”

“I think another attractive thing about this community in particular is the desire to live the life authentically, as it is intended to be lived,” said Sr. M. John Thomas.

Sister M. Fidelis then spoke of the community’s movement in response to John Paul II’s “call to a new evangelization” and its revival of many ancient Dominican traditions, the absence of which after Vatican II left the community at a loss. For example, the Sisters said that they have returned to the 3:30 night office in the past few years as well as perpetual abstinence (no more steak, ladies!), the only exception being chicken on Sundays. Other small liturgical things within the monastery will also be re-appropriated. “When you think about it, these women 800 years ago were doing these same traditions,” reflected Sr. Mary Fidelis.

When we had begun speaking of their new foundation around Christendom, many thought we were talking about the new school being founded by the Sisters of St. Cecilia from Nashville, who are active Dominican sisters. The idea of a cloistered Dominican nun drew a few blanks, although ironically the nuns (fully cloistered) came first, founded by St. Dominic himself in the thirteenth century. Then we decided to put the question to the sisters, asking what exactly the difference between them and the active Dominicans sisters was.

“Actually, I was with the Nashville sisters for two years,” replied Sr. M. John Thomas, the youngest in a family of 14 children from Houston, Texas. “I can personally say it is very different. Some of the externals seem the same, and some of the monastic practices are similar, but our life has a fundamental difference in what it is ordered to, and I think for us as nuns it is sole union with God.” She explained that the nuns don’t have an external apostolate, such as teaching. “The other big difference would be the enclosure (separation from world). The very nature of consecration means being set apart, and for us it is for union with God.”

Then, really putting the young novice to the test, we asked her to explain what would distinguish Dominican nuns from other cloistered orders (Poor Clares, etc.).

“The emphasis on the search for Truth, Veritas [the Order’s motto], is part of every branch of the order, and so for us it is the search for Truth as a person. We come to know Truth as a person in God. It [our life] is very Eucharist-centered, with emphasis on the Incarnation of the Word, not only to know it in Scripture, but also through the Liturgy. Dominicans are known for their Marian devotion; the propagation of the Rosary was popularized by the Dominicans. We’ve had the tradition of singing the Salve every evening since the second Master General.”

I inquired into the meaning of the Dominican saying “Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere” (“To contemplate and to share the fruits of contemplation”), and after thinking for a moment, Sr. M. Fidelis commented: “Study is an important part of the Order for the friars, sisters, and nuns. I know a lot of people would react with saying ‘why study, you’re not going to have to teach or preach’, but as Sister was saying, we’re not studying for anything external, but to get to know God because the more you get to know someone, the more you love them. That is the goal of our study.”

Sr. M. John Thomas then added that Dominicans are known for being at the heart of the Church, and especially for “promoting fidelity to the truths of the Faith, the Magisterium, and to orthodoxy.”

Now that you, dear Christendom student, have an idea of what this community’s charism and life entails, it is only reasonable to want to check it out in person and see these Dominicans in action, as it were. Sister M. Fidelis told us that though a permanent chapel has been planned in the next phases of the project, a temporary one will serve the sisters until the necessary funds are acquired. Also, there will be Eucharistic exposition and adoration, which will grow in length (during the day) as the community increases. Even before the permanent chapel is built, there will be a public chapel that will hold around 25 people (just enough for 2 Christendom van-loads!).

In regard to students visiting, Sr. M. Fidelis said: “we would always welcome the students at different (arranged) times.” The Sisters expressed a desire for even those who might not have a vocation to their community to be exposed to their way of life, even for future priests and fathers to know the life and come to appreciate it. As the Dominican Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell, long-time supporter of St. Dominic’s Monastery, recently expressed (paraphrased): the contemplative nun acts as a silent witness to us, who are caught up in the humdrum of everyday life, to the reality that ultimately, God is the Origin and Meaning of life.

There will be two guest rooms attached to the monastery for relatives and lay people who desire to make a retreat for a week or weekend- a sure “energizer bunny” for our spiritual life.

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