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Dominican House of Studies:
A Simple Life

By Marianne Kyriakos
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1993

A voice pierced the early morning stillness at the Dominican monastery in Northeast Washington: "Where are my Milano cookies? Someone stole my cookies! I'm really steamed," said the Rev. John McGovern, who was rummaging around in the kitchen of the community's Gothic-style complex.

Life in the 88-year-old Dominican House of Studies is governed by the principles of chastity, poverty and self-discipline. None of which means the assemblage lacks spirit. Home to 65 brothers, or friars, it is the Washington center of a cloistered religious colony that espouses the common life.

The Dominicans are probably the fourth- or fifth-largest religious community in the world, according to the Rev. Mark Heath. There are about 1,000 brothers in the United States and 8,000 in the world.

On that day, McGovern was not the only one up early. The community was celebrating the Feast Day of Saint Dominic de Guzman, the son of Spanish nobles and founder of the 700-year-old order. Along a windowed cloister walk, three visiting Benedictine monks and several Dominican brothers were returning from Mass, hands clasped. Someone was watering pots of African violets in the sun-drenched dining room. Carlos Lopez, the Guatemalan cook, was already at work on a special feast-day dinner.

McGovern described the cloistered existence to a visitor. "You know, the sad part of it is, people get the wrong idea, with all these crazy movies. They get a false impression of the lifestyle we live. We are just as human and as regular as anybody else. A cloister means there is a certain sense of privacy. It's not a jail.

"In other words, where we live is not like a hotel, with people walking around all day long," he said.

At the heart of the Dominican ideal of community, Heath explained, is the description of the common life of the disciples in Acts 2 of the New Testament: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common. ..."

The spirit of the order calls for study, prayer and poverty. "We live in just plain rooms," said Heath. "There are no sinks in the rooms, and they have tall ceilings, of course, because there was no air conditioning in those days."

Study is supposed to center the life of the brothers on God. Each day begins at 7 a.m. with morning prayers. Following is a simple breakfast served help-yourself style from a counter in the dining roomócold cereal and toast, usually, with tea or coffee. A dozen jars of Trappist Monk preserves are lined up above the toaster, "because we had Trappists living here at one time, and they got us into it," Heath said.

After breakfast, those friars who are ordained priests go off to help local parishes that are short-staffed, or to their studies. Glass cabinets in the library hold wood- and leather-bound books from the 14th century, including Dominican Thomas Aquinas's writings on the goodness of creation. "We don't move around in the outer world the way a parish priest would," said the Rev. William Hill, who has lived in the house for 46 years, longer than anyone else.

Hill teaches theology at Catholic University. He said friars are active, unlike monks, who live a life of penitence. "[Monks] remain cloistered and stay there, whereas friars go out and teach or they work in social programs for the poor."

A mythical story explains a Dominican mealtime tradition dating back to the early 1220s. One day, it is said, Saint Dominic and his followers found themselves with no food. Out of trust in God's providence, Saint Dominic gathered everyone to the table anyway. Angels appeared and fed the people, beginning with the youngest.

"We still serve the youngest first," Hill said. "The brothers here wait on tables, and take turns with cleanup."

For this day's special occasion, the menu promised shrimp salad, London broil with sauteed mushrooms, asparagus spears, baked potatoes and chocolate truffle mousse cake. The fare is usually much simpler. For centuries, Dominicans ate their meals in silence. In the 1970s, the Vatican council agreed that a meal was a social activity, and conversation became common.

Cloister residents have arrangements to use gym facilities at nearby Catholic University. The brothers also swim, run and play tennis. Several friars have green thumbs, and flowers bloom in ordered rows in the central courtyard.

Heath graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1940. He is writing a book on the history of the Washington Theological Consortium, an association of 10 independent theological schools in the area.

A Belgian-born Dominican architect built the order's Washington home in 1905.

"It's kind of Flemish in its feeling," Heath said.

The complex is owned by the incorporated order. "It was paid off at the very beginning," Heath said. "We haven't had any internal debt or external debt forever."

Financial gifts, legacies and stipends from the provincialate headquarters in New York ensure that the budget gets balanced each year. Dominican brothers receive no pay.

The brothers cherish the calm air of their urban oasis.

"I think a cloistered life is intended to be a little countercultural," Heath said. "For the vast majority of us, there is a happy mixture of prayer and community and ministry."

McGovern said it is a vocation. "We take the fruits of our contemplation and give it to others.

"If I was a car mechanic, I couldn't tell you anything about an automobile if I didn't study about cars first. You can't give away what you don't have yourself."

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