Sixty years ago a group of about twenty, including us Clarke twins, was knocking on the door of the Novitiate House of the English Province of the Dominican Order. We were seeking to be accepted as members, Friars of the Order of Preachers. Not one of us really knew what he was getting into. After sixty years I'm still finding out!
A few days of settling in and of being 'shown the ropes' was followed by a week's retreat to prepare us for what would be one of the defining moments of our lives. We were to be clothed in the Dominican Habit. On that day we were to be clothed by the Prior of the Community, and in the presence of all its seasoned members, in a liturgical rite loaded with symbolism.
The Dominican habit was not something any of us could lay claim to as being his own, like all the items of clothing stuffed into the draw of my room. The Religious Habit was given to us, put on us...as a privilege, in deed , as a grace. We were to be clothed in an 'outfit' or uniform, which had been the identifying signature of the Order of Preachers since its foundation in the 13th century. The design of this Dominican apparel has not changed over all these years. It has been able to give a certain distinction to friars of every shape and size, and has clothed individuals of outstanding sobriety and eccentricity.
On this day we were to be clothed in the culture, tradition and mission of the Dominican Order, with the particular, I won't say 'peculiar' flavour, of the English Province. This outfit is known as the 'Habit of the Order.' Members will habitually be seen wearing it when preaching, lecturing or taking part in liturgical celebrations. This is the way we Dominicans 'dress up' for such occasions. We are seen for who we are. The expectation and ambition of each of us is that he will be clothed in his Dominican habit when the time comes for his burial.
As I reflect on my wearing the habit for sixty years I see my vocation as a gift from God through the Dominican Order. By no means is it an achievement on my part. Now, day after day, I clothe myself in the Dominican habit that was originally given to me all those years ago. This is my deliberate preference over all other possible garments. Some would say my threadbare habit looks every bit of that vintage!
Our Dominican habit comes to us in three pieces. It's whiteness symbolizes the purity of heart to which we are called.
Firstly, there's the tunic, girded by a belt from which hangs a large Rosary. Tradition has it that it was revealed to St. Dominic that members of the Order of Preachers should have a special devotion to Mary. They would use the Rosary as an aid to their preaching that Jesus was truly human and that He accomplished our redemption through the humanity He received in His mother's womb.
Then there's the scapular. This is a wide piece of cloth that hangs over the shoulders to remind us that we have been called to follow Jesus in carrying the yoke of the cross. Over the head is placed the capuce -a hood -that serves as the blinkers worn by race horses -limiting the range of distractions of the wandering eye. Last of all, the black cape -cappa -and black capuce, which have earned us Dominicans the title of Black Friars. Black symbolizes the life of penance to which the friars are vowed.
"The cowl does not make the monk" -nor the habit the friar -so the saying goes.
As I mused about the habit with which I'd been clothed 60 years ago I speculated about the habits I'd acquired during my time as a Dominican -what I'd absorbed, what the Order had done to me in shaping my personality. At this moment I'm not interested in what I have done in and for the Order. I'm trying to discern what God has been doing in me over these years, during which I've been meeting God mywaygodsway -dominicanway -ways both mysterious and baffling. What have I become? And what have I prevented God from doing in my life?
I am reminded of the words of St. Paul, "Every one of you who has been baptized has been clothed in Christ," (Gal. 3. 25)...all of us mystically, spiritually clothed in Christ by His Church, acting in His name. This was symbolized when as an infant I, and Isidore, were clothed in a special garment once we had been baptized. I fantasize about which of us kicked and screamed the most when the water was poured over our heads. It was our baptisms that projected us into becoming Dominicans. Dominican Christians? Certainly. Christian Dominicans -through and through? Or no more than somewhat? I ask this of myself and do not presume to speculate about others.
Meeting God -mywaygodsway as a Dominican...over almost a lifetime...trying to understand the 'what' and the 'how' in the interaction between me and God...a journey of highways, byways and seeming dead ends. Believe me, it takes time and patience just to ponder these things. Gladness and sadness intertwined together. It's worth it. Why not ask yourself about your own trajectory of life...from the decisive moment of your being conceived and of your being reborn at baptism?
Next week Fr. Isidore will reflect on 'What's in a name?'