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Radcliffe’s vision offers antidote to despair


By Timothy Radcliffe OP
Templegate Publishers, Springfield, ILL., 300 pages, $15.95


Timothy Radcliffe’s vocation as a Dominican priest was first questioned, then affirmed, by a Benedictine great-uncle. Radcliffe writes: “When I told him that I intended to become a Dominican, he looked hesitant and said: ‘Are you sure that is a good idea? Aren’t they supposed to be rather intelligent?’ Then he paused and said, ‘No, come to think of it, I have known lots of stupid Dominicans.’ ”

That kind of self-effacing charm runs through Sing A New Song, the latest book by the worldwide head of the Dominican order. Radcliffe’s vision of the Christian life offers a badly needed antidote to modern ideologies that promise more than they can deliver, especially to the young.

Radcliffe, 53, is young for top church figures. As master of the order, his main job has been to visit, listen to and encourage the members of the Dominican community spread over the world. In his first three years in office, he visited some 83 countries, and the first part of the book consists of five letters written to the order reflecting on questions distilled from his global travels.

As he addresses themes of vocation, hope, the importance of words and promises, the necessity of prayer, study and the value of living simply, chastely and responsibly, it becomes clear that Radcliffe’s message is applicable not just to Dominicans, or other vowed religious, but to anyone who has ever felt the call to go deeper, the challenge to live more authentically.

If millions of people in the world today feel disoriented and disconnected, Radcliffe believes, it is because the dominant story underlying much of modern culture has failed to create human community or satisfy a deep spiritual hunger to love and be loved. That failed story, in Radcliffe’s view, is Western market capitalism and its scientific justification, the idea of evolutionary progress through natural competition that selects the strong and eliminates the weak.

If this assessment seems familiar -- another way of pitting a culture of death against religious truth -- Radcliffe’s message is not just in the diagnosis but rather in the remedy, a convincing and irresistible presentation of an alternative story that promises life.

In a convent of Dominican nuns near Caracas, Venezuela, Radcliffe encounters this:

“The church was packed with young people. We lit the Paschal Candle and placed it on its stand. And a young nun with a guitar sang a love song to the candle. The song had all the harsh passion of Andadalusia. I confess that I was completely bowled over by this image, of a young nun singing a love song in the darkness to the new-born fire. This image suggested that we are caught up in another drama, another story.”

Religious life as an imitation of Christ proposes a stunning freedom from the desires and fears that control a person within the dominant culture. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience open up new choices for every Christian who seeks a lifestyle of simplicity, detachment and responsibility, and this conversion can liberate us to risk ourselves in service of others.

Such an ideal is easy to invoke, harder to embody. Religious life as Radcliffe envisions it is possible only in communities that act as fragile ecosystems of mutual support for idealists who are also flawed human beings.

In the letter titled “The Promise of Life,” Radcliffe addresses with candor the stage-by-stage struggles of those who must be lovers without sexual intimacy, mentors and nurturers without children of their own, self-directing but only within community, using but never possessing private resources.

He was asked by a group of Filipino Dominican students; “ ‘Timothy, have you ever fallen in love?’ ” And the second question was: “ ‘Was this before or after you joined the order?’ ” His response in the few pages that follow would make a fine encyclical for the whole church on responsible love and the deep risks of living wholeheartedly in our love-starved world, trusting that the kingdom of God is always at hand.

Image by image, mostly drawn from the scriptures but then woven into the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot, and the insights of Franz Kafka, Martin Buber and Nelson Mandela, Radcliffe builds up an enormously attractive portrait of Christian life at the start of the 21st century. It is an old idea whose time returns when the need is great. Bible and newspaper come together to articulate a familiar but surprisingly fresh call to authentic life. Timothy Radcliffe is a gift to the church in a time of profound need. One of six children born into one of Britain’s aristocratic families, Radcliffe joined the order in 1964, eager to embrace poverty and imagining himself in the streets begging for bread. Years of formation have given Radcliffe what he describes as just a few ideas, “a few coins to rattle around in his box ... like a beggar, which is what a Dominican is supposed to be.”

He writes of his visit to the Iraqi Dominican communities on the eve of the 1998 bombing season by the U.S. and British forces gathering in the Persian Gulf region. An Iraqi Dominican sister tells him: “We are ground down, exhausted by years of death. Since the Gulf War, 600,000 children have died of malnutrition and lack of medicine.”

In a bittersweet week, Radcliffe notes both terrible suffering and signs of hope. The brethren were building a new priory. Every Monday more than a thousand young people came to the theology classes offered in Baghdad. In Mosul, the sisters in a house of formation did not have the ingredients to make a cake, “so they performed a dance in which each one represented some element of the cake they would have liked to make, the cream, the almonds, the wheat that they did not have. Then they put on the traditional clothes of their villages, and we danced and sang until we were exhausted.”

Radcliffe visits the refugee camps in Burundi during the genocidal war accompanied by two Dominican friars, one a Tutsi and the other a Hutu. Their very presence together in a place of unimaginable loss is a first gesture of the possibility of reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. After visiting northern Rwanda, Radcliffe recalls:

“I had visited the refugee camp with 30,000 people and seen women trying to feed children who had just given up eating because they could not be bothered to live. I had visited the hospital run by the sisters and seen ward after ward of children and young people with their limbs blown off. I remember one child, 8 or 9, with both his legs blown off, and an arm and an eye, and his father sitting by the bed weeping. And we went back to the sisters’ house, and there was nothing to say. We could not find a single word. But we could celebrate the Eucharist, we could remember that Last Supper. It was the only thing to do, and which gave those sisters the courage to stay, and to belong.”

Lest such stories of dark and the light overwhelm us, Radcliffe also has joyful stories to share in his letters. A friar in Paris celebrates Christmas Midnight Mass on a cardboard box altar for thousands of tramps in a big tent. When he pulls the cork of the bottle of wine for the offertory, cheers go up from the congregation.

In the end, Sing a New Song moves the reader not just because of its lucid discussion of urgent contemporary issues or its unaffected erudition, but because of its charm. Radcliffe is not solely responsible for this; he comes from the same English province that gave the world Bede Jarret (1881-1934), once described as possessing a “remarkable genius for friendship,” and Gerald Vann (1906-1963), known to many American Catholics for his numerous books on spirituality and his frequent visits to the United States.

Still, Radcliffe’s most direct lineage is to Dominic, that cheerful man whose singing on the road was a source of hope to his brethren and the source of this book’s title. And if Timothy Radcliffe can claim, as St. Paul dared, to embody the message he so eloquently delivers, the real link is to Christ. Intimacy with Christ is the secret of the Christian life.

One hopes that Sing a New Song might find its way to the one audience most in need of and most disposed to recognize its many themes, today’s young people. Another generation of American youth was once deeply touched by a monk tucked away in a monastery in Kentucky. Thomas Merton would surely have loved and recommended Timothy Radcliffe’s book.

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s liturgical resource. He was a member of the Dominican order from 1964 to 1983.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999