Page 10, 10th October 1997

10th October 1997
Page 10
Page 10, 10th October 1997 — Drinking from ancient

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Drinking from ancient


ItAM NM' ow enough really to have experienced what English Dominicans ometimes call the 'old' Province. But like many who came into the Church at a time when the Second Vatican Council had happened, but had not yet been implemented, I have a sense of cream spilt and treasures wasted.

With the benefit of hindsight, Church historians can now see how the Council accidentally coincided with a phase of Westem culture which inevitably skewed the reception of its work. Its decade, the 1960s, was experimental, neophiliac, iconoclast. It wanted to reinvent not just human institutions but human nature as well. Of all concepts it found tradition the least perspicuous, and of all mind sets, veneration for tradition the least intelligible. Aspiring to a new humanity, it naturally tended to inflate the political sphere out of due proportion.

The Christianity that sat most easily with that decade made a virtue of constant adaptation and a moral imperative of shedding historical baggage. It was minimalist in doctrine, and in liturgy hostile to inherited forms. Its spirituality was activist and its idea of the Church's role largely confined to the socially humanitarian. It privileged immediacy and spontaneity in human relations; the role of rite and custom were alien to it. Its metaphysics were rudimentary. In the context of Religious Life, its antipathy to the idea of a God who is glorious in his sheer transcendence of the world, to the place of structure in common living and of habit in devotion, and indeed to the very notion that there could be an inherited wisdom, was especially damaging.

In such a climate, the Council's message of aggiornamento "coming up to date", through ressourcement, "going back to the sources", could never hope to gain a fair hearing. For that message presupposed the everperennial character of those sources, the ancient springs: the biblical Canon, the Fathers, the classic theologians and spiritual writers, the inspiration behind the founders of the historic Orders.

Deprived of its necessary mediation in ressourcement, coming up to date could be only a threadbare aspiration. What future could be expected for a Church in thrall to every passing trend of culture? Only that constant cycle of hasty union and widowhood which the German philosopher Hegel promised those who marry the spirit of the age.

FUTURE flourish

ing of the Catholic Church can be expected on such presuppositions, least of all in England where our national vice is to make virtue of lack of principle in thought and action. This conviction has formed the bedrock to my theological work and has given me my modest mission in the Church. It gave me the desire to fill my mind and heart with the thought and devotion, art and literature of the great tradition of Christian East and West, with the aim not only of nourishing my own but of making something available to others who were hungry, and some, maybe, who could be encouraged to become hungry since, as the Italian proverb has it "Appetite grows by eating!" That is why I have not wanted to write about theology without summoning a cloud of witnesses from all the Catholic generations, and have tried to make better known those modern theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger and Yves Congar who have viewed their own work in the same light. It is also why I have looked to Eastern Orthodoxy for the rounding out of Catholic truths, for the Church must breathe with two lungs, and also, though to a lesser extent, to the divines of the Church of England from whom lessons both positive and negative can be learnt.

ISUPPOSE IT WAS inevitable that I should look to those theologians and writers of the golden age of the English Dominican Province who shared the same desire to enrich the living tradition of the Church of England, and whose names I knew from my formation in the Order of the 1970s. For, contrary to popular rumour, the English Dominicans were far from deracinated by the subversive effects of the post-Conciliar crisis. Steadied by the continuing respect in which St Thomas's achievement was held and the retention of what can only be called monastic elements in the Order's conventual tradition, my Dominican teachers were simply too intel

ligent to be satisfied with less than the best. It would never have occurred to them that the epithet "pre-Conciliar" was a disparagement of the theological world of the "seven just men" I have written about most recently, for if to be preConciliar is in itself to be deficient, that verdict swamps all doctors and apostles together in its indictment.

The book, Dominican Gallery over whose appearance Cardinal Hume has done the Dominicans in England the honour of presiding is meant to be more than an expression of pietas towards our fathers in faith. It looks to this septet of figures: the dogmatician and psychologist Victor White, the spiritual theologian Gerald Vann, the philosopher and moralist Thomas Gilbey, the metaphysician and exegete Sebastian Bullough, the historian and aesthetician Gervase Mathew, the scholar of mediaeval literature Kenelm Foster and the contemplative Conrad Pepler for some further inspiration for Catholicism and notably English Catholicism in the future. It was their shared conviction that the supernatural integrity of Catholic Christianity conferred on it a culturecreating power. It need not be constantly scurrying behind contemporary cultural trends. Rather, thanks to its drinking from ancient springs, it could be ahead of them, eliciting and promoting them, giving them human balance and divine proximity. Philosophy and the arts, psychology, mysticism, and the exposition and exemplification of the virtues needed for a right social ethos in our country: the Church must be efficacious in all these realms not despite but because of her Catholic and evangelical mission.

E SEVEN Dominicans wanted a Church that was pastoral but not It the cost of ascetical and mystical effort. They wanted a lintgical life with depth and dig*, and the impassioned investgation of philosophy and psychology, history, literature and art. These diverse matrials and interests could new have been held together witlout the doctrinal framework if Catholic orthodoxy, and th Thomistic wisdom to whia they gave a twist all their out by the Englishness if ther concern for the concrete and particular. Their achieemert was nurtured by the pattern f Dominican life: fraterni community, contemp lativ; silence, the traditional liturg and its observances, assicluot study, and zeal to passon Catholic faith.

Since I have been confirmel in my own vocation byvritire this book, I hope that it, rather they, will help tit English Dominicans to ake a ever deeper hold on thei inhe itance, and that it will haN some wider resonance for goo in the Church in these island • Dominican Gallery kAick Nichols is published this week Gracewing, price po.

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