A couple weeks ago I had to face one of the more difficult aspects of our Dominican life: begging—or, to use the traditional term, “mendicancy.” I was sent to our parishes in Somerset, Ohio to give the annual financial appeal at all the masses, asking the good people of St. Joseph’s and Holy Trinity to support the student brothers here in Washington, DC. While I have found much joy in our life of poverty and am profoundly grateful to all those who support us, the prospect of asking people for money in these difficult times was a bit daunting. It’s hard to beg, I found, and one of the reasons for this was brought home to me by St. Thomas’ treatment of gratitude in the Summa Theologiae.
St. Thomas says that gratitude, as a virtue, is part of the cardinal virtue of justice, by which we give to others what is due to them. In exercising gratitude a beneficiary not only recognizes the favor bestowed by a benefactor as a favor, but also seeks to repay the benefactor in some way. In fact gratitude pushes him to seek to be gracious in return, not simply just, so he seeks, as far as possible, to repay more than what he has received, going beyond strict justice.
This is a troubling thought. For, although I am extremely grateful to our generous benefactors, particularly those in Somerset, what do I have to offer in return, besides a smile and a thank you? Sure, some day I or one of my brothers might end up serving as a priest there, but right now that seems like such a distant and tentative return.
Reflecting on this problem, I was reminded of one of the much beloved stories of the early days of the Order. At that time—the early thirteenth century—the brethren would beg for their food on a day-to-day basis. Whether at home or on the road, they were completely dependent on the generosity of their neighbors. Accordingly, the story goes that Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the second Master of the Order, was traveling with a group of the brethren, and he sent them out to beg for their breakfast. After reconvening at a nearby fountain, they found they barely had half as much bread as they needed. At this point, contrary to all expectation, Jordan began singing for joy—he was so full of gratitude for what they had received. The others joined in, making such a racket that a nearby woman rebuked them, saying, “Are you not all religious men? Whence comes it that you are merry-making at this early hour?” Upon realizing their elation was over such a paltry amount of food, she was so edified that she went home and brought them an abundance of bread, wine, and cheese. In return, she only asked that they remember her in their prayers.
Using this story in my appeal in Somerset, I focused on the thankful and joyous disposition of the friars themselves; but the pastor there made a comment that caused me to think more fully about the woman in the story, and especially her request for prayers. Although I had already underestimated the value of a thank you and the promise of future pastoral service, I had completely forgotten one part of the equation. Right then and there, I had the opportunity to pray for those benefactors and to promise that my prayers would continue. Of course, it’s silly to try to calculate the value of prayer—as if a Hail Mary had a going market price—but suddenly I felt much more confident about my ability to give back more than I had received.
In retrospect, it seems I should have recognized this basic truth about Dominican life much earlier. After all, we pray communally for our benefactors, living and deceased, quite often, even going beyond the regimen of Masses and prayers that is mandated by the Constitutions of our Order and the Statutes of our Province. In addition, there are the private prayers of individual friars. Thus, even though my prayers are not as efficacious as those of someone as holy as Blessed Jordan of Saxony, I do not have to worry; I do not have to repay my debt of gratitude alone. Rather, my debt is linked to that of the whole Order, which takes on the responsibility corporately and wholeheartedly.
A few days after I had returned from Somerset, one my brothers made a comment that brought home to me just how inadequately I had understood the Order’s relationship to its benefactors. He pointed out, indirectly, that the woman in the story was not just a helpful reminder of the importance of prayer, but also someone I had in fact been praying for daily since entering the Novitiate! For nearly eight hundred years, Dominicans have been unleashing a continuous stream of prayers for her and all our other generous benefactors. Thus, to the people of St. Joseph’s, I was promising not just my prayers and the prayers of all my brothers, but also the prayers of every future Dominican for as long as God deigns to preserve our Order. Ultimately, then, it seems that kind woman got much more than she could have expected from some bread, wine, and cheese.
Image: Fr. Adrian L. Dionne, O.P., then Prior of the Dominican community at St. Joseph Church in Somerset, stands next to a model of the original log cabin church on the occasion of St. Joseph’s sesquicentennial (1968). St. Joseph, established by the Dominican Friars in 1818, was the first Catholic church in Ohio. The log cabin church was replaced by a second church in 1829, and the present church (click thumbnail for image) was erected in 1843, then rebuilt after a fire in 1864.