Unusquisque: A Dominican Love Story
1) Latin adjective (masculine singular), from unus (one) + quisque (each). Eg: Each one looks to You to give food in due season.
2) Tongue-twister from the Dominican prayer book, bane of my life in the early weeks of postulancy (see also: gloriosissimae; necessitatibus; famulorum famularumque).
I don’t know whether, in your former community, you tangled with this monster during the formal grace in Latin as I did (it’s pronounced oo-noos-QUISS-quay, by the way, and getting it right for the first time is a real buzz) but if you were in Dominican formation I bet that you’ve encountered these other eight-hundred-year-old traps for the unwary:
- Courtesy of the angels who started handing out bread at the junior end of the refectory table, you get to go first in everything! Want to wait invisibly at the back and watch the senior Sisters to find out what they do? Actually, you’re leading the procession. Good luck!
- You (finally) make a perfect profound bow. Everybody else makes a head inclination. Hopefully they’re all keeping custody of the eyes and missed it.
- For anyone who’s not naturally a soprano:
no further explanation is required. I used to do my choir practice down the local cemetery, figuring that my paint-peeling rendition of this beloved chant would take years off Purgatory for any Holy Souls who happened to be listening.
- Processions in general. Did anyone else crash into furniture on the way around the chapel? Execute an impeccable turn, and then realise that a partner had been left stranded because you were supposed to bow to her first? Meander off too far to the side and get patiently towed back in by one elbow? (Or maybe it’s just me. Who am I to judge?)
Also, unless your written work rivalled the perfection of the Summa, you will have found yourself on the receiving end of that other profoundly Dominican gesture: the uncapping of a red pen. Veritas. The deepest instinct of these Hounds of the Lord is to find out what’s wrong, and, for the glory of God, fix it. While still in the convent, I read the results of a survey about religious beliefs sent out to different communities of nuns in the 1960s: lots of sisters dutifully filled out and posted back their responses, but, surprising nobody except the authors, the Dominicans corrected the questions before they answered them. (It certainly didn’t surprise me. I’d just failed an essay for the first time since my early years in high school.)
And you know something? I miss it all fiercely. As Dom Hubert Van Zeller points out, a yearning for the externals of the religious life doesn’t mean that my vocation was to stay in that community – of course I miss the processions of white habits, the candle-lit vigils before Jesus in the monstrance, the solemn Salve. It’s also obvious that when my health began to shatter under the demands of monastic life, all of those beautiful things weren’t enough to keep me there. So why, then, did I spend the better part of two years afterward fighting an irrational desire to turn up on the community’s doorstep one morning and ask them to let me have another try?
When I left, the most important thing that became forfeit was not my hope of wearing the veil that would set me apart for Our Lord, and the scapular for Our Lady, and nor was it the chance to spend my days with a lively, intelligent group of devoutly Catholic women of whom I had become fond. It wasn’t even the privilege of living in the cloister and chanting the Divine Office with them at the heart of the Church. What I surrendered was twofold: to be a bride of Christ, and a daughter of Saint Dominic. In my heart, I’m both. Officially, I’m neither. Worse is the thought that, if I died today, in heaven I’d be neither.
Of course, if it turns out after further discernment that I don’t have a religious vocation at all, I could become a tertiary, but I suspect for me that would feel a bit like winning the silver medal. Here’s why. The desire to be a sister first hit me in my teens when I was barely practicing the Catholic faith, and before the year was out I’d fallen head over heels in love with Jesus. Listening recently to the TEDx Talk on discernment that Jenni gave, I realized for the first time that, somewhere in those early days, I skipped a crucial step in the process: I wasn’t afraid of the path ahead. On the contrary, I was awed at having been noticed by God, and wildly excited about getting started in the religious life. Forget your people and your father’s house, for the King has desired your beauty!
Thanks to prosaic things like tertiary studies and the resultant debt, the better part of a decade passed before I got my wish. Enough time to get over the honeymoon, commit myself to some serious study, collect a few battle scars and get a realistic idea of what I’d be facing when I entered. It always surprised me, though, when people said, “Wow, that’s a big step to take! Aren’t you scared?” No, I’m not, was the honest reply – it’s just the next obvious step. Giddy romanticism dispensed with, I was still eagerly looking forward to entering: I’d discovered the Dominicans at World Youth Day, and found what I was looking for in a religious Order. Then, a few months after I entered, I finally met Saint Dominic.
I’d been struggling through an assignment about the founding of the Order (having, as previously mentioned, failed the first one) and, one morning, simply pushed all my other essays aside and buried myself for several hours in the life of this gentle, luminously holy man. The shy scholar who sold his books to feed the starving; the preacher with bleeding feet, on his own among thousands of heretics; the beacon of chastity whose sheepish deathbed confession was that he had sometimes enjoyed preaching to young women more than old; and the devoted spiritual father who promised after his departure to help the brethren by his prayers. By the time I put my books away and hurried off (as quietly as one can hurry down a cloister while dodging the squeakiest floorboards, that is) to help prepare lunch that day, I’d become a Dominican. An ordinary desire to follow Christ had crystallized into the desire to follow Christ just as Saint Dominic had, in contemplation and preaching of the Truth.
So, I’m starting discernment again from scratch, trying to find the place where my home on earth might be. And this time, I am scared. I know what can go wrong, and how badly – but also how beautiful it can be. That’s in the future, though. For now, I remember and continue to pray the exquisite Dominican prayers I learned in the convent – not in some useless pretence of monastic life, but because their meaning has become intertwined with my personality like silk threads woven into a piece of cloth, and I wouldn’t know how to pull them out if I wanted to. I’m still a Dominican inside. Please God, one day I’ll sing His praises in heaven as one, too.
Praedicator gratiae, nos junge beatis.