The opening number of the Broadway classic Fiddler on the Roof contains a striking line: “Because of our traditions, every man knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” A modern viewpoint may well suspect the customs of a traditional society to be rigid, confining, and even retrogressive. Yet Fiddler’s protagonist Tevye would have us believe that tradition is a crucial source of personal identity and meaningful direction.
In a way that appreciates such human wisdom, Catholics believe God reveals himself in the handing down of faith’s age-old essentials by the big “T” Traditions of the Church. There are also rituals and customs (lowercase “t” traditions) which help incorporate what we believe into our everyday lives and are more subject to adjustment. Among the many customs of the Dominican Order, here we look at four from the everyday lives of the friars. Influenced by the past, these liturgical traditions profoundly mark our lives together and individually—helping to root and shape them in the essentials of faith and even preparing them for a fruitful apostolate in the Church.
The Compline Confiteor. We kneel against the forms of our choir stalls and plead for mercy “to almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever virgin, to Blessed Dominic our father, to all the saints, and to you my brothers.” This confession formula actually mirrors the words we utter when, on the day of our vows, we knelt and promised obedience to our elected superior and his successors. This act of humility at the end of each day reminds us why we joined religious life: to receive and depend upon mercy from God and from one another. Only lives that take time to recognize the undeserved gifts God has so generously given can hope to communicate the news of God’s mercy to others.
Preaching Veritas. At each Mass, we have the chance to hear the Word of God preached from Holy Scripture and expanded by the homilist. Inheriting the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, we believe that the truth about God and the universe he created is intelligible to our minds and liberating to our hearts. Dominicans preach the Truth Incarnate, Jesus Christ, who reconciled us to God despite our sins through his suffering and death on the Cross. Consequently, our preaching is joyful and should engender joy in community! It also takes seriously the mandate of the Apostle to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season” and to challenge false teaching (2 Tim 4). Each brother must ask himself upon hearing the Gospel, “What is the saving message here to be lived and announced to others?”
Ecce Agnus Dei. Showing the sacred Host to the brethren kneeling in choir, the priest announces, “Behold the Lamb of God. . .Blessed are those called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” Clothed in white Dominican habits, we are reminded of God’s lavish goodness. We respond with a gesture of humility, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Evoking words and even vesture from the Gospels and the Book of Revelation, here we beg for a place in the future Kingdom for ourselves and others. The challenge for each is to recognize this kingdom as available even now on earth: “Do I let each day somehow be colored by the promise of Heaven?”
The Salve Procession. Each day in the priory, Compline (Night Prayer) ends with the solemn chanting of the Salve Regina (“Hail Holy Queen”) or another Marian antiphon. On weekends this involves a procession of the brethren side-by-side to a candlelit statue of Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word. The Salve has reminded Dominicans throughout the Order’s 800-year history that Mary is our “Mother of Mercy” who desires to intercede for the preachers who are her sons. Her image is also present with us in choir when we gather in the chapel to pray the Divine Office. Mary remains the perfect model of Dominican prayer and praise.
Fiddler on the Roof playfully teases the stubbornness of some human traditions. This is actually a necessary attitude if what is handed on by tradition is to remain liveable. In The Meaning of Tradition, Yves Congar explains that the Tradition of the Church is not something that can be contained in a liturgical book or even captured by a photographer. Rather, it depends upon Christians throughout the ages who faithfully receive the faith of the apostles and, guided by their pastors, let it take root in their lives and bear fruit in manifold ways. More than reminding us of the pleasant (or not so pleasant) past, Tradition-bearing “traditions” will reveal a timeless treasure which stimulates new reflection at each glance. May we—Dominicans and non-Dominicans alike—foster those practices which help root, shape, and even inspire the growth of the faith we profess and the way of life we live together. Then, without embarrassment, each man or woman will better know “who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Image: Solemn Profession