On 24 October 2009 the Dominican Lay Community in The Netherlands (DLN) celebrated its tenth anniversary. Lay Dominican Jan van Hooydonk offers a personal reflection: the foundation has been laid.
One of my bookshelves still exhibits the beautiful congratulation card sent by our Dominican sisters of ‘Voorschoten’ to each of the nineteen people who, on 24 October 1999, were the first to take their profession as members of the Dominican Lay Community in The Netherlands. The card has a text from St.John’s gospel (15,16): “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last”. Ten years later I can say with deep conviction: so far the journey has proved more than worth the effort, it has borne rich fruit. Rich fruit – first of all – for me personally, but also within the larger Dominican movement.
“When asked about the meaning of life”, Hungarian author György Konrád says, “each person tells his or her personal history”. Part of my personal history is that, studying at Nijmegen University in the middle of the seventies, I got into contact with the Dominicans who lived in the Albertinum monastery. As a ‘free bird’ I took intensive part in their community life. I got to know the Order in its majesty – in the beauty of its monasteries and churches, the wealth of its liturgy, the warmth of its brotherhood (later also its sisterhood), the liberating strength of its theological search for truth. But in those years I also got to know the Order in its limitations and poorness – for the Albertinum community lived in a too spacious building, was often torn apart by opposing views on religious life, and in many respects was at its last gasp. Then, from 1979 till 1987, I was a member of the Dominican community of the Parkstraat in Arnhem (DGA). This mixed community – professed and lay, women and men, straight and gay – in all respects became a school for life that still marks my existence. I am very fond of the people of this DGA. During the following five years I was a member of the Dominican community ‘M.- D. Chenu’ in Nijmegen: a period of fascinating exchanges and again new friendships. The Albertinum, the DGA and ‘Chenu’ do no longer exist. From 1992 onwards I have lived on my own.
In 1999 my relationship with the Dominican movement could best be qualified as ‘believing without belonging’. The Order still inspired me, I had many Dominican friends, I believed in the Order, but did not really belong to it. Until this 24 October of 1999, when I took my vows as a lay Dominican and member of the DLN. It felt like coming home. One of the rich fruits of a decade of membership is, in my experience, first of all that this real membership of the Order provided the language and the concepts with which to understand myself. Whoever commits oneself to the order is given an identity. When asked about the meaning of my life, my answer is: I am a (lay)Dominican.
For me profession means: I am no longer alone and relying on myself, I have handed myself over to – as an ancient Dominican formula has it – ‘the mercy of God and the mercy of my brothers and sisters’. Some contemporaries of mine call this creepy, and I admit it is sometimes like that. But for me the dependence we explicitly choose for at our profession is first of all a liberation. Our modern society sets high value to personal autonomy and self-determination, to ‘becoming yourself’ and ‘becoming somebody’. The tradition of the religious, which is also ours, offers a different perspective, a different way of looking at identity and experiencing it. It is a way of looking and experiencing which does not present self-determination and personal autonomy as the ultimate values, but takes its starting point in community. Community makes me who I am. To quote African theologian John Mbiti: “I am because we are”.
Identity and community: these are the two important fruits I could harvest in ten years of DLN membership. But there is more. DLN is a very variegate community – also as regards individual professional and intellectual competences. Sometimes for me the differences between members are checks or obstacles. But basically this variety is a great joy for me. As members of the DLN we are each others’ brothers and sisters. This was not our own choice, but because as sisters and brothers we were given to each other. For to each of us this applies: “You did not choose me, but I chose you”. Therefore: living for ten years in the DLN means being a pupil in a school which teaches me how to cope with differences, and not to see the difference between me and others primarily as a threat, but as a challenge and an enrichment. Being such a school, I assume, will remain the task of DLN for the years ahead. Fundamentally our vocation is to live out together what God said to Catharine of Siena: “I could easily have created mankind in such a way that everyone had everything, but I preferred giving different gifts to different people, so that they would all need each other”. And we might add: so that they would learn what love is.
Ten years of DLN did not only yield rich fruit for myself but, I am convinced, also for the Dominican movement as a whole. To start with, in these ten years the membership has grown from 19 to 53 professed people. The numbers as such are less important than the fact that the Dominican ideal as we experience it in the DLN proves to be attractive. At its start the DLN was mainly formed by people who knew the Dominican men and women, their monasteries and convents, their projects and chapels, but in 2009 our community increasingly recruits people who have no knowledge of this. They often live in places without any Dominican presence. Some of them are protestants. The new members sometimes found the DLN via surprising routes – often digital tracks (without the website religious life is unthinkable).
Ten years after its start the DLN turns out to have developed an attractiveness of its own. New and committed people are coming from unexpected corners and join the ranks. In their personal ways they, too, find their identities in living as lay Dominicans. We can indeed call this a rich fruit. But at the same time this is a challenge: to present our DLN and open it to people who are looking for authentic religious and Dominican life. The DLN has something to offer: ‘believing and belonging’.
Real Dominican life certainly includes: taking part in the Order’s mission. In various ways lay Dominicans lead preachers’ lives. First of all, of course, in the places where they are living and working and in the middle of the people with whom they live and work. They tell others that God is looking after people, that love is stronger than death, that openness and compassion are paramount virtues, that it makes sense to work for more justice and peace in our world. The good message carried by the Gospel is made visible by the lay Dominicans in the life with their partners and children, in friendships, in classrooms and editorial offices, in control centres and laboratories, in libraries, sheltered workshops and consultancy agencies, in parishes or wherever they are active. They spread this good message in preaching, writing, charity and care. ( I myself am chief editor of the ecumenical periodical VolZin and preach sermons in the Ecumenical City Pastorate in Nijmegen). As housemates, assistants, parishioners, musicians, sacristans, board members, editors and so on many lay Dominicans are closely engaged in the so-called Dominican projects, in religious houses and Dominican communities, often closely cooperating with brothers and sisters from other Dominican groups. This intensive participation in the Order’s mission ‘for the salvation of souls’ is clearly a rich fruit of the ten years of DLN. Hearing or reading what some DLN sisters and brothers are doing in the field of mission, I often feel a little boy. And at the same time I feel proud to be one of them. To vary the Gospel phrase: “I thank you, Lord, that I am like him or her….”.
THE FOUNDATION HAS BEEN LAID
As Dominicans we are members of a mendicant order. We live on what we are given. In the past ten years I, as a lay Dominican, and we as the DLN have been given rich fruits. It really was a blessed time. What this time has also certainly taught us, is that institutions like the DLN, with their statutes, rules and rituals, are vital both for the development of our personal religiosity and for the progress of the Dominican mission. Thanks to the establishment of the Dominican Lay Community of The Netherlands we, lay Dominicans, have outgrown the noncommittal phase.
Time goes on and our profession is for life. Nobody can foretell what the DLN will look like in about ten or twenty years. We can be sure we will be confronted with new and unknown challenges. Will we be able to meet them? In any case, the foundation has been laid. And for the rest: in the future, too, we will need God’s and each others’ mercy.
Jan van Hooydonk (1954) is a Dutch lay Dominican. He studied political science and theology and works as a journalist and editor. He lives at Nijmegen. (Translation: Ruud Bunnik)