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A friar's summer

Friday, August 23, 2019

It all began in Llandudno. As a matter of fact we stopped off at Shrewsbury on the way, which is pretty (it has walls and a cathedral), but Llandudno was where it really began. The summer, that is.

The student brothers one and all packed their bags and took some time together, for prayer and rest, at a house lent to us in the seaside town of Llandudno (Hlan-deth-nor, is sort of how it’s meant to be pronounced, I am told). Llandudno, for those who don’t know, is like the Southend-on-Sea of North Wales, although it also attracts a lot of tourists from The North [sc. of England]. This pleasant seaside town is enclosed on both sides by two Worms, or Ormes in the local lingo, and these Horns are one of them tall and lanky, the other one short and stout. Being a poetical spirit, I would have called them the Pinnacle and the Teapot, personally, but more prosaic types label them the Little Orme (tall and lanky) and the Great Orme (short and stout). Our house was not far from the Pinnacle Horn.

Itinerancy makes harsh demands of a friar, particularly in respect of laundry. For on returning from Llandudno, I had scarcely twenty-four hours before I was to be off again, this time to somewhere on the Mediterranean seaside, Valencia. Not for a holiday, alas, but to improve my Spanish. In any case, I needed a clean habit so as to make a good impression on the friars there: “This man may be too dull to speak Spanish,” they could think, “but at least he looks presentable.”

Valencia is no Southend-on-Sea. The city is famous for its cultural scene, museums of art and history and science and all sorts, and is adorned with fine examples of architecture from several periods – a Gothic guild-hall, modernist marketplaces, a rococo family palace... In size it in not an insignificant city, but it is smaller than the metropoleis of Barcelona and Madrid and retains more of the feel of its own proper character: it is not a generic big-city. In evidently poorer parts of the city, interspersed with uninhabitably-decayed buildings, there stand houses with mosaicked or painted exteriors, in narrow street formations that would become typical of the colonial style in central American countries; families sit outside in deck-chairs or groups of older men huddle around talking between drags on their cigarettes while children run about playing. That part of the city lies not far from the beach which is, by comparison with any beach I have seen in the UK, humongous.

Each day I traipsed to morning lessons, before returning for lunch and the mandatory siesta. (Spain too was undergoing a heatwave throughout July, so that many days the temperature was in excess of 40 C during the middle of the day.) The later part of the afternoon could be spent completing homework, exploring the city, or taking a constitutional in the Turia, a large park in the centre of Valencia, which occupies the bed of a now-diverted river. (The diversion was made after terribly destructive flooding in the ’50s; the ‘City of Arts and Sciences’, the major cultural quarter, grew out of the redevelopment of this area.)

Faced with no choice but to communicate in another language, one very soon picks it up. Necessity, the mother of invention, is the tiger-mother of vocabulary-acquisition. The weeks I spent in Valencia were not only valuable for the Spanish I learnt, however. One of the great blessings belonging to an international Order, is that one learns a lot about one’s own vocation by seeing it lived in different ways in different settings and according to different needs. Many of the friars in Valencia are student-brothers from quite recently-established provinces in Latin America – covering countries including Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba and Nicaragua; and their consciousness of the Order’s mission is shaped accordingly. When the Holy Father says that priests should have the smell of the sheep, for them that means going to the city-slums or the far-out villages, where there is no sewage system and utilities are unreliable.

It is for experience of another community and another perspective on Dominican life that I am spending August at our parish in Leicester. Leicester unfortunately has no beach, although there is a river and a big park with a model railway. (For those who don’t know, the city most notably is home to King Richard III, who died in a car park here after losing his horse, and is not far from Melton Mowbray, home of pork pies.) Silliness aside, it is a great encouragement to spend time in different priories getting to know the province we intend to serve and the brothers who are our co-workers in the mission.

In one of his letters as Master of the Order (1254-1263), Bl Humbert of Romans noted two particular dangers he noticed to the mission of friars preachers: an unwillingness to learn foreign languages, and excessive fondness for settling down in one place. The experiences of this summer, I hope, have done a little to remove me from those temptations.

Br Bede Mullens O.P.


Anonymous commented on 26-Aug-2019 02:05 PM
A very enjoyable read - thank you!

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