Jeremiah P. Coffey

Reflection on the Dominican Pillar of Prayer

by Jeremiah P. Coffey, Ph.D.
Professor of Religious Studies

The span of the College's life has coincided with the period of change in human history almost unimaginable in both its scope and pace. We have lived in "interesting times." In this potentially destabilizing moment, we at the College have been fortunate that the tradition of the Church, like the scribe of Matthew's Gospel bringing forth from the storeroom both the new and the old (13:52), has provided guiding metaphors to keep us from losing our spiritual bearings. We can count our blessings.

The College began in the Catholic world of the American Church of the first half of the twentieth century, a largely immigrant church living the Post-Reformation spirituality of the European lands of origin. In this ideal, the Church conceived of itself as a community of souls striving for heaven, docile to the way of life, the way to heaven, taught by Jesus and preached by the Magisterium. Most significantly, this community of souls included as familiars the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints, and for us, especially the Dominican Saints. Fra Angelico beautifully captures this landscape in the left side of his painting, "Last Judgment." Here winged angels and haloed saints can be seen mingling purposefully among the faithful who are gently almost gliding from this world, ascending only a small distance and across the subtlest of thresholds to heaven. Our world was peopled by the living and the dead, by angels and saints. We were a communion of saints.

Beginning roughly mid-century with Pius XII's encyclical, Mystici Corporis, the Church began to invite the faithful to a self-understanding shaped by the notion of the Mystical Body of Christ. This metaphor created the possibility of a spirituality rooted in the notion of organic incorporation into Christ, as a cell in a body, interconnected and interrelated with all the members of the Body. This idea presently ignited timely Christological reflection that retrieved the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity at the same time the sciences were offering the gift of the first glimpses of the magnificent reality of an evolving, emerging Creation. It became possible to imagine all humanity and indeed all creation as united in Christ, the Pantocrator, and through Him with the Source of all and the Ground of Being.

Among the many theologians who contributed to drawing out the rich implications of this way of thinking was the Dominican, Edward Schillebeeckx. Even just the title of his groundbreaking work published in 1960, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, conveyed with John the Evangelist, that being in Christ suggests being in God, since as Jesus says, "I and the Father are one."(Jn. 10:30). In this perspective, Jesus, as fully divine and fully human, encapsulates the truth that reality is essentially a participation in Trinitarian life: in, with and through its membership in Christ, the totality of Creation in all its emerging, evolutionary magnificence, by the unity effected with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is an eternal hymn of praise to the Creator.

This ancient way of thinking retrieved from the Church's storehouse encouraged a turn to a mystical spirituality, and in Eckhart von Hochhelm, the Dominican tradition had a true master. Meister Eckhart as he is now widely known, a 13th century philosopher, theologian and spiritual master, became an inspiration and spiritual director to the generations in the latter half of the 20th century experimenting with the "experience with experience" that the recent theological developments invited. Here was a spirituality of "sinking out of your your-ness and flowing into his his-ness" (Sermon 83), a spirituality that fostered mindfulness of the profound nature of the reality in which everything by its very being participates. As Pope Leo I had done centuries earlier, it urged a realization of our dignity and a delight in our being, amen, and a fulfillment of our purpose, alleluia.

Indeed we have been blessed with a spiritual bounty during the "interesting times" of the last 90 years, but as we have been led from riches to riches, we have remained rooted in the world of our founding. Perhaps at no time is the spirituality of the College more in evidence than during the month of November, the month par excellence of the communion of saints.

Shortly after the celebration of the All Saints Liturgy which begins the month, the college community gathers for a Memorial Service, and as the list of those who have died in the previous year is read, our kinship with them and each other and all members of the Albertus community of the last 90 years quickens. The feast of Albert the Great, November 15, reminds us that as members of the College we are embraced by the 800 year old community of all Dominicans. And at Thanksgiving, a greeting card arrives to administrators, faculty and staff from President McNamara, confirming the familial bond of our contemporary community. Throughout the month, the hymn "For All the Saints," sung with gusto at the All Saints celebration, plays in our minds.