Sr. Emmanuella, O.P.
Novice Mistress | Dominican Nuns | Springfield, IL
217-787-0481 or 856-278-6939
When one thinks of contemplative nuns – women living a hidden life of prayer – hardly ever does anyone think of Dominican nuns. It is, rather, Carmelites, Poor Clares, or Trappistines that come to mind. In fact, most people are not aware that Dominican nuns even exist. And this even at the highest level of Church authority! Very often when questionnaires/bulletins are sent out from the Sacred Congregation for Religious, we Dominican nuns are overlooked.
And of course, the opposite is also true: when one thinks of Dominicans, it is not the cloister that comes to mind first. ‘Dominican’ means ‘The Order of Preachers,’ valiant defenders of the faith, men (and women) eager to present the truth and beauty of the Gospel. Dominican means itinerancy, social action, and engagement in dialogue, not any kind of quiet repose in a cloister.
And yet, it is the genius of St Dominic that he was able to bring together in a new and powerful synthesis the very contemplation and action mentioned above that had become and often remains separated in people’s minds.
The first description of Christian life – common prayer, unity of mind and heart in God, and the sharing of material goods – were, originally, intimately bound together with bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 4: 32). It is this vision that St Dominic solidified anew and symbolized in the two main branches of the Order – the friars and the nuns.
I believe we Dominicans are unique among all the Orders of the Church in that very relationship uniting the friars and the nuns. Many Orders have male and female branches – we can think of Carmelites, Benedictines, Franciscans, even Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and others. But none display the uniqueness of what St Dominic established in creating the Order of Preachers.
St Dominic was an innovator in many ways, too many to mention here.
He was a synthesizer. It was his grace to stand at a crossroads of human history, a time of great cultural and social change, and a time of religious upheaval as well. Standing at that moment in time, he was able – as the wise householder of the Gospel – to bring forth from his store things both new and old.
He preserved the ancient monastic tradition of the past while at the same time propelling it forward into an entirely new form of religious life.
Photo Credit: the Dominican Nuns of Farmington Hills, MI.
Photo taken during the Solemn Profession of Sr. Dominic Marie, O.P. at the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament in Farmington Hills, MI.
Who was St Dominic?
He was a Canon Regular, attached to the Cathedral Church of Osma in Spain. His main duty was prayer and worship. His was the same monastic life he bequeathed to his daughters – his first born, as it were – as it was his own first love; a love that never died.
The fire of his love for God was kindled in the daily round of his contemplative existence until he came face to face with others who did not know the Truth, the Goodness, the Beauty of the God he worshiped; men and women who did not realize the same Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that is our human destiny. And that fire within burst into a flame that could not be extinguished. And so he went forth to preach the Truth – but without abandoning the monastic roots upon which the tree was built.
So who are the nuns?
To us belongs the honor of being, as we say, the first-born of St Dominic’s many sons and daughters. Although, as I continue to think about it, and even as I have also basked in the privilege of saying that we nuns are the ‘first born,’ I do not believe it to be accurate.
Rather, I believe the friars and the nuns were born simultaneously in the very unique gestation period of the nine years between 1206 and 1216 that we call Prouilhe.
It is not by chance that the Dominican Order is comprised of the Friars and the Nuns. Nor was it a product of logical thought. St Dominic did not sit down and think it through – that it would be a good idea to have a group of nuns praying for the preaching mission.
No, it was rather a specific design of Providence, God’s marvelous plan, and a witness to the Truth of what our Order was to become.
Among St Dominic’s first converts were nine women – women who once they accepted the truth of the Gospel message had nowhere to go. They lost their means of support. They could not return to their families. They were now outsiders, disowned, heretics to their former way of life. St Dominic was – in a sense – ‘saddled’ with them and he tried to find a place for them among the Cistercians. But that plan failed.
The beauty of St Dominic was to trust God’s plan in whatever circumstances life placed before him. So, because he had to care for these women, he put aside his busy life of preaching in order to find housing for them. That is the origin of Prouilhe.
It was an act of mercy and compassion on the part of Dominic, as well as an ordering of God’s Providence: a home for these converted women which then became the cradle of the Order of Preachers.
St Mary of Prouilhe was a double convent: it was a preaching base for the friars as well as a home for the sisters; a place where the friars could return after their long missionary journeys for rest and prayer, for companionship and study; and be inspired by the fidelity of the sisters who maintained the monastic rhythm of prayer. The sisters were included in the preaching mission. They themselves were converts; they cared passionately about the friars’ missionary work. They shared the joys of their brothers’ successes; their sorrow and pain when their labors had only discouraging results.
The brothers in turn were comforted by the unceasing prayer of the sisters and touched by their goodness and the fervor of their lives, by their devotion and their eagerness to hear the Word of God.
They saw in the sisters the fruits of their labors and the grace of God at work. They were an example to them, a beacon of hope, a continual inspiration.
In these first 10 years from 1206-1216 a great friendship was born. It was the gestation period of the Order of Preachers. This was the tiny seed which contained in germ the full grown plant of the Order of Preachers.
It was here that the relationship of mutual support, of friendship, and caring was formed. Later as the preaching mission expanded and grew and put down roots in other places St Dominic always wanted a house of sisters nearby. And this pattern has continued to this day. It is true, along the centuries there have been times when the friars wanted to be rid of the nuns.
They felt they were a burden to them – and sometimes they probably were – but it never happened. The bond was never broken; threatened sometimes but never broken.
The nuns and the friars together are the Order of Preachers. You cannot have one without the other. We share the same preaching mission although in distinctly different ways. We share the same three mottoes and profess the same love for the Word of God. Ours is the same spirituality.
The difference is in how we go about it and that in itself is a witness, a preaching. The friars, the apostolic sisters, and the laity go out to preach the Word of God. We the nuns remain behind to keep the fires burning. Ours instead is to pray, to intercede, to celebrate the Word, and to ponder it in our hearts. It belongs to the Order’s identity – breathing in/breathing out. Speaking to God in prayer; speaking about God in proclaiming the message to others.
It is not that the nuns contemplate and the friars give to others; no that is not the message. We all contemplate – friars as well as nuns; sisters and laity too. And we all preach – but again in different ways, reciprocal ways, mutually supportive ways.
We the nuns preach by silently witnessing to the Truth; by pointing always to the one thing necessary; by proclaiming from the housetops of our silence that God exists; that creation exists for the glory of God; that happiness is grace, not possessions; not power or prestige; not pleasure, but grace. And the other members of the Order also contemplate, each in their own rhythm of breathing in the Word of God in prayer, breathing it out in service to others.
So, who are the nuns? And what is our place in the Order of Preachers? I would say, we are the Order of Preachers, equal partners alongside our brothers, the friars, in the common mission of proclaiming the Truth of God.
We symbolize and make visible and ensure the inner strength of what makes all preaching effective. This is the vision of St Dominic as it unfolded before him and this is the grace that has been passed on to us through the centuries: “Contemplate; and give that very contemplation to others.”
Written by Sr. Emmanuella, O.P.
Novice Mistress | Dominican Nuns | Springfield, IL
Dominican Friars of St. Louis, MO
The Dominican Friars living at St. Dominic Priory in St. Louis, MO are members of both the Central U.S. Province and the Southern U.S. Province. Our student friars go through their formation together at the St. Louis Studium, otherwise known as the House of Studies.