Patricia Madigan OP
The Dominican way has at times been described as a “Wayless Way” since in Dominican tradition there seems no particular method or technique – such as the Ignatian Exercises – that is constitutive of being Dominican. Yet, in the lives of many Dominicans throughout history, I find several attributes which can be seen as characteristic of Dominican theology.
The Dominican guides who have most shaped my understanding of how to do theology as a Dominican are Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart and Bartolomé de Las Casas, as well as Dominic himself. I also value the contribution that feminist and liberation theologies make to deepening that understanding.
In the person of Dominic I see a “working theology” shaped through a life of prayer, community, and the study of divine Truth in scripture and the book of life. Poverty of spirit, the primacy of Truth, and contemplation expressed in active ministry are also important Dominican values. Dominican theology is dialogical, contextual, and engaged.
In Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) we see how his scholarly work both fed into and was nourished by his mysticism. The course of Thomas’s life led him to the known frontiers of the intellectual world of his time where he came into contact with the works of Greek, Arab, and Jewish scholars, and engaged with the newly influential writings of an ancient philosopher, Aristotle. The result was a dialogue with the entire corpus of Christian teaching in such a way that a new theological methodology and outlook were born. At times it still has a brilliant clarity to shine on today’s questions although, as is to be expected, its categories and assumptions share some of the limitations of those current in medieval times.
In a busy life engaged in pastoral and scholarly activity, which included teaching, providing spiritual guidance for nuns and Beguines, while holding a number of important positions in the Dominican Order, the life of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) exemplifies “being led into God” the Dominican way in which action and contemplation are ultimately one. From Eckhart one learns that God cannot be grasped by the senses, nor by the logical abstracting mind. Eckhart’s theology is rich, many-sided and paradoxical and he stretches the borders of linguistic expression to the utmost. At the same time he resonates with modern minds in his vision of the spiritual life as a tension of opposites.
I have always been fascinated by the theology of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), deeply embedded in and developed within the Sienese social context and Roman ecclesial politics. Catherine reminds us that theology is always done in a political, sociological as well as economic context. As a woman she also crossed religious, political and social frontiers in a way that continues to make her religious expression fresh and novel even today. Her early life of isolation and solitude blossomed into one of unparalleled engagement. She grapples with immense issues – born of the confrontation between truth and untruth, courage and cowardice, self and others, church and world. Her mysticism became not only integrated with, but inseparable from her life of ministry as a woman at the very heart of the world loved by God. Her theology is experiential and relational, attributes which continue to be recognized as characteristic of feminist and liberation theology today.
The life of Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) is inextricably connected with the discovery of the New World. As a slave-owner in the early years of colonisation of the Americas he gradually came to understand that the theologians of the Empire, while basing their arguments on a theology of saving the indigenous people from their idolatrous beliefs, were really justifying a gospel in the service of material wealth. In asking the questions “Who is the Indian?” and “What means are justifiably used for his or her conversion?”, Las Casas found himself on the frontiers of the political and religious struggles of his age. His mystical and evangelical intuition was that the Indian was a member of the body of Christ. Later, as Dominican friar and bishop, he used his authority to uphold the human rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In this he was an early forerunner of the modern human rights movement.
I have learnt from these, as well as from many contemporary Dominicans, how to engage theologically as an Australian Dominican with the questions and issues of my own time and place.