The weather around Washington D.C. these days is not quite cold enough to threaten frostbite, but a far cry from the warmth of spring. That means that if you stationed yourself outside of 487 Michigan Ave many of the friars rushing by would be wearing the distinctive black cappa (a two-piece cape with a hood) that earned us the name Blackfriars.
Now, I remember back in college that the only reason anyone in their right mind would step outside wearing anything like a cape would be for a Renaissance Fair or the premiere of one of the Lord of the Rings movies, and there were serious debates about whether those folks really were in their right minds. Basically it would only be as a costume to relive some bygone era or some otherworldly fantasy.
So is the Dominican studentate full of a bunch of wanna be minstrels or wizards? Despite getting mistaken for Jedis and LARPers, even sans cappa, the answer is a definitive “no.” Why, then, do we wear this odd outfit every day for prayers and class and meals and at ministries around the city? Simply nostalgia or fantasy? Well, yes and no.
Let’s start with fantasy. I hope I don’t have to convince you that we don’t believe that we’re living in a world of dwarves and elves and goblins. Nevertheless, there is necessarily something other-worldly about our life, not in the sense of being disconnected from reality, but rather of being rooted in the fullness of the truth of this world which cannot help but point beyond itself.
Dominicans are a varied lot, with backgrounds ranging from the arts to the sciences, from law and economics to philosophy and theology, and everything in between. We bring all the skills and truths that we learned in our previous studies to the study of the scriptures and tradition of the Church to probe the depths of our faith. We use the tools of philosophy and theology to engage the world around us and the revelation that God has given his Church.
At its best, this study feeds our prayer and our relationship with God and, with His grace, overflows into preaching. This preaching is not simply a matter of telling a neat story, or giving an interesting insight. Since the days of St. Dominic himself, Dominican preaching has always been ordered to the salvation of souls, our own, of course, but ultimately those of the entire world. Dominican life is fantastic in that it is oriented to the ultimate realities and is driven by the desire to draw others to that reality.
What, then, about nostalgia? If by nostalgia you mean a chance to escape the present by reliving the past, setting aside the modern conveniences to reenact a way of life long dead, then, no, that is not our motivation. You are reading this on a Dominican blog, so I hope I don’t have to defend that claim much further. But if by nostalgia you mean a connection to history, we are motivated by being incorporated into an 800-year-old tradition with roots even deeper in the monastic life of the earliest centuries of Christianity.
In some ways we are constantly looking backwards, seeking the inspiration of Blessed Henry Suso, St. Catherine of Siena and a long line of spiritual guides and mystics in our prayer, of St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas and a host of theologians and teachers in our studies, of Bl. Jordan of Saxony, St. Vincent Ferrer and countless gifted preachers when we stand before the people of God. Above all we look to our Holy Father Dominic who was inspired to found this Order of Preachers in order to bring together the life of study and the life of prayer and to allow their fruits to overflow in preaching to the people of God.
This connection to our history does not drag us back but propels us forward. It provides a confidence in the Dominican life and charism and a confidence that the lofty, other-worldly aspirations that St. Dominic had 800 years ago are not out of date and are not out of reach. The habit and the cappa are just one part, undoubtedly the most visible part, of our incorporation into that Order, hoping that our poor sinful selves might play some small part in the history of God’s fantastic salvific plan for our world.
Image: Lorenzo Lotto, St. Dominic Raises Napoleone Orsini