The Dominican Hearts of Real-Live Dominicans
In the first part of this article, I attempted to answer the question that was to be the subject of my talk, “What is the Dominican heart?”, by delving a bit into the field cardiology, looking at the structure and functions of the human heart and how they might relate to the four great Dominican pillars of study, prayer, study, preaching, and community, and their three greatest callings, “To Praise, To Bless, To Preach!” Now I’ll move from the physiological and the metaphorical to nitty-gritty realities as I examine how, as a child, I was first shown the Dominican heart by several real-live Dominicans, praising, blessing, and preaching, through their vocation of teaching.
Second Grade and the Habit of Joy
My earliest specific memory of the Dominican sisters comes from second grade in the late 1960s at St. Agnes School in Springfield, Illinois. Our Dominican sister teacher was very young, vibrant, and beautiful. All of us students, (especially the girls), were intrigued by her habit and wanted her to take off her veil so we could see if she had hair underneath. Though she never once did that for us, everyday she encouraged us all in the habit of the cheer and the joy of the Dominican heart.
Third Grade and Specific Spiritual Works of Mercy
One day the next year, as our third grade teacher prepared to briefly visit the second grade teacher, she asked us to be quiet and well-behaved while she was gone. The class observed in reverent silence as she strode across the library, and as soon as that second grade door was shut tight, all sorts of rowdy banter and mayhem ensued. Ebullient, but ever vigilant, the moment that door reopened the room fell instantly silent as all sat with good posture for Sister’s return. Now, I was sitting in front of the classroom that day, and when Sister returned, I told her that as soon as the second grade door shut, everybody started talking out loud. Her response to me was “Kevin, don’t be a tattle-tale!” It is a lesson I’ve held onto until this day. (In fact, at my office, when our “suggestion box” items turn in to anonymous reports of co-worker’s exceedingly minor transgressions, I’ll tell my own staff that the writer of the note obvious did not have Sister in third grade!)
On another day, while instructing us on the respiratory system, Sister told us we should never hold our breath as long as we can because it could make us pass out. Well, apparently the skeptical scientist was strong in me that day, for as she called for recess I held my breath as we lined up to leave and did indeed pass out in the center of the library. So newsworthy was the event among the third-graders that a friend who was out sick that day called me at home that night to get all the fascinating details. (You would almost have thought I threw up on my desk or something of similar magnitude!)
M third grade teacher showed me that the Dominican heart is well versed in the spiritual works of mercy, which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, are actually “acts of charity through the medium of mercy.” In my case, Sister displayed her Dominican heart of loving charity to me especially through the spiritual works of mercy numbers 4 and 1: “reproving the sinner” and “instructing the ignorant!”
Fourth Grade and the Gift of Musical Fortitude
A highlight of the Dominican heart from fourth grade involved our music teacher. I was very shy by nature, but one day when our music teacher asked us our favorite song, I couldn’t hold back and had to reveal that I loved this new song that was out at the time, namely, B.J. Thomas’s Raindrops Keep Falling in My Head. The next thing I knew, to my horror, I was called to the front of the class to sing it: “Raindrops keep falling on my head, but that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red, crying’s not for me, ‘cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining” and all. Though I do not sing solos in public to this day, Sister did give me an experience I could draw on to master the less daunting art of public speaking someday.
Sixth Grade: Sister Stretch Stretches My Potentials (And My Brother’s Too)
Our sixth-grade teacher was a Dominican sister of unusual height and brilliance. The students called her not “Sister Brains,” but “Sister Stretch.” In a way it was doubly accurate, for she had the kind of Dominican heart that could see what lies within the hearts and minds of her students to stretch them to reach their potentials. In a parent-teacher conference, she told my mother I had unusual academic ability and potential that I was responsible to fully develop. She even dangled before mom the carrot that I should strive for the boy’s academic scholarship at the end of eighth grade that paid for the first year’s tuition at the Catholic boy’s high school.
That caught mom’s attention, and Sister caught her attention again the very next year. My brother had not been the most enthusiastic scholar and mom often spent long hours doing his homework with (or for) him. Sister told her that he was a bright boy quite capable of doing his own work. Mom’s jaw dropped, but she found that Sister was right when she backed off on the aid and let him take over the reins of his own schoolwork. For decades she’d retell the story.
Seventh Grade and the Caped Crusader on the Fire Escape
Seventh grade was a tumultuous year. Our small school had only one class of students per grade, so by that year of the burgeoning of our unruly adolescence, we knew and loved each other like brothers and sisters – and felt free to scrap like them too. Our unfortunate young lay teacher could hardly show a film without a screen plastered by spitballs, and one of the boys’ favorite pastimes was to crawl around the floor with scissors, sneaking up and cutting off unsuspecting victims’ shoelaces. Well, this kind of routine chaos instantly abated whenever someone saw a powerful caped crusader of sorts perched on the fire escape outside our windows. It was the Sister who was our principal, all 4’10” and 80-some pounds of her, she instilled in us both servile and filial fears, for we knew she could deal out real punishment, but we respected and loved her and did not want her disappointed in us either.
Eighth-Grade: The Dominican Heart in the Most Unlikely of Places
That Sister worked out a master plan to contain and to educate us in our last year at her school. She herself would teach us in the morning subjects like English and religion. I recall one morning when a boy I’ll identify only as “D” did his oral book report on Brian’s Song, the story of two Chicago Bears football players, one of whom died of cancer. He started saying something to the effect that “This was the story of two men, one black, one white, one the picture of health, one dying, and of their powerful friendship,” or something to that effect. Sister asked him to bring the book up to her when he’d finished. She flipped the book over, smiled, and said, “This is the story of two men, one black, one white…” reading directly from the back cover, as she knew that “D” had done. You weren’t going to pull one over on Sister, and she addressed the situation in a humorous and most memorable way.
But Sister herself was only one half of her plan for us, for she called in an outside enforcer, a round-faced, square-shouldered young man of sturdy German stock, studying, in fact, to become a Lutheran minister. Mr. J. would come each afternoon to teach us things like science and math. He was a master of the Vulcan neck pinch, that placement of the thumb and fingers over a person’s trapezius muscles with gentle increase of pressure as might be needed. When two boys got riled up at each other he’d come over with a smile and apply to each that friendly vice until the boys had cooled down. There were no bruised muscles or anything of the sort, and we appreciated his gentle, but manly correction.
And Mr. J. was funny too. A lover of corny jokes, he would often personalize them for us. Here is one I recall (at least in part). Sitting on his desk he said one day, “Did you hear Joe’s dad bought a new car the other day? Oh yes, and as he drove home, the bullfrogs on the side of the road croaked out, ‘Bu-ick! Bu-ick! Bu-ick!’ Bryan’s dad bought one too, and as he drove home a rooster cried out “Chev-ro-let! Chev-ro-let! Chev-ro-let!” Well, I bought one too, and it was a … (here he named a less expensive popular brand of the time that I will not name, lest any readers might be driving one), and all the little birds chirped ‘Cheap! Cheap! Cheap!’”
Sister knew what she was doing in hiring Mr. J. Through his contagious respect for science and learning and for his compassionate concern for each and every one of us, Mr. J. also shared with us the Dominican heart – perhaps no small feat for a Lutheran!
Next time, I will conclude by peering into the Dominican hearts of the great Dominican saints who hold lessons for all of us, those “hounds of the Lord” whose bark is in their preaching.
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three part series. You can read part one here. Also, you can find out more about the Dominican Order in Dr. Vost’s latest book, Hounds of the Lord, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.