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Interview of Fr. Guido Vergauwen, O.P.

Socius of the intellectual life of the Order

Interviewed by Fr. Angel F. Mendez, OP.

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Could you please tell us something about your background? How was that you became interested in the Order of Preachers?

First of all, I want to thank you for this interview.

Nothing very special or fantastic. As I was in the college, I was thinking about clarifying my vocation and my life after college. I thought about priesthood; but manly about looking for a life in community. I was searching for a more contemplative, even monastic way of life. And during the college time, we had a retreat preached by a Dominican friar, and I spoke to him. He said, "just come and visit us.... Because, precisely, Dominican life is what you are searching: a life of contemplation, community, and study." So, I went to see the Dominican friars. After some visit to the Dominicans, I finally decided to join the Order. I was 18 years old when I entered the Order. It was during the 1960's; a different world! During my novitiate, the big experience was the opening of the Vatican II Council. It was very exciting! And we were allowed, as novices, to watch the television's reports of the Council. Indeed, my religious life started with this fascinating time of a whole renewal of the church in the early 60's. It was wonderful to see how the Order participated in the renewal of Vatican II. Dominicans such as Congar and Schillebeeckx were crucial in the shaping of the theology of Vatican II. So we got our formation under the direct inspiration of this renewal.

Was it gradually that you started to move into the direction of the intellectual life?

From the very beginning of my formation, I was quite interested in philosophical studies. Philosophy was "my first love." They say that you should stick to your first love. I had incredible teachers of philosophy. The first one was a Dominican friar by the name of Dominique De Petter, who thought us metaphysics and anthropology during my time at the studium in Louvain. He had been also the teacher of Schillebeeckx. He was very involved with a movement of renewal of philosophy and theology during the 30's and the early 40's. He was decisive in shaping of Thomistic studies in the Order. He was also a little bit under suspicion because he was "too modern" for that time. And he taught us how to understand Saint Thomas Aquinas, not in an "essentialistic" way, but with the purpose of using Thomas in new creating way of thinking, as well as an instrument for facilitating the possibility of a renewal of modern thought. Fr. Dominique De Peter's main goal was to try finding a link between philosophical studies, Thomistic renewal, and modern philosophical disciplines - mainly phenomenology. So, he taught us to directly read Aquinas, but never forget to read as well Husserl, Heidegger, Marleau-Ponty, et all.

From the very beginning of my formation we were really confronted by these modern thinkers, and had the opportunity to enter into dialogue with them. Dominique De Petter was really my first teacher who made a great impression in my intellectual formation. Another influential professor I had was Emmanuel Levinas. I met him much later while I was studying at Freiburg, Switzerland. During that time, Levinas was came to teach at the university of Freiburg, as a result of his escaping of the French revolutionary movements of the late 60's. He taught every week philosophy. He was my second philosophical teacher. He taught us mainly phenomenology - Husserl, Heidegger... what he was publishing at that time. But he was also the one who introduced me to cabalistic thoughts. Levinas was a big discovery for me during the late 60's and beginning of the 70's.

I did my philosophical studies in Louvain, and my theological licentiate at Freiburg. Then I went to Tubingen in Germany to prepare my master's dissertation in Paul Tillich: "Philosophy of Culture." My doctoral dissertation was on the thoughts of Schelling; it was entitled "Freedom on the Early Works of Schelling."After finishing my doctoral dissertation, I was send to Zurich, Switzerland, to be in charge of the Institute for Adult's intellectual formation: this included theological, philosophical, political, and psychological formation. I stayed there for 10 years. We offered academic courses, but had also groups of catechesis, as well as worked with political and social groups. We had very diverse groups of people attending to this center: poor and rich, educated and uneducated, divorced people and married couples, and gay and straight. So this was an opportunity for me to use my philosophical and theological studies, but very down to earth, with the main concentration on praxis and helping people to solve many social problems.

After this experience, I moved back, in 1985, to Freiburg where I became a teacher in the chair of philosophical theology department. It was until the end of 1993 when Timothy Radcliffe appointed as a socius of the Intellectual Life of the Order. At that moment I had already a tenure at Freiburg, and that is why I asked Timothy to continue teaching and doing academic work while being his socius - because I think it is important for my position to keep connected to the academic and ministry contexts. This is hard some times because it takes a lot of energy and time to be working in the academic milieu, while at the same time being in charge of the Intellectual life of the Order and visiting many countries and provinces, as well as keeping with my ministerial responsibilities.

And in all these multiple visits to the brothers around the world, which would you consider the most nourishing and/or challenging experience you ever encountered?

It was the discovery of the Order as such. A discovery of a worldwide community of brothers and sisters. I am very grateful for this opportunity of witnessing the apostolic and intellectual life of the Order around the world. Certainly, I was most fascinated by my visit to Asia. Pakistan, for instance; there I experienced a reality of living in a very difficult situation of dialogue with Islam. It was also very fascinating to visit Vietnam and to see its tremendous possibilities of a province with lots of vocations. Very young church and very refreshing. Certainly Manila was another wonderful experience. University of Santo Thomas is outstanding. Really, visiting Asia was a great opportunity for me to discover the richness of different cultures, languages, and religions.

A difficult experience was certainly my visit to Africa, which I still continue discovering and re-discovering every time I go there. Africa is a forgotten continent... very rich humanly, but very poor in financial and economic resources. Africa is very close to my heart because my province had a mission there: in North East of Congo. Our missionary work has deeply touched me since early times of my formation. During their civil wars of independence, in the early 60's, we lost 20 brothers as martyrs from my province. It has been a learning experience for me to witness the terrible consequences of colonial past, and the sufferings that the Continent still carry as a result of the colonial oppression. But not all my experiences of Africa have been sad; I have also enjoyed the beauty and fascinating richness of ritual celebrations and dance, and variety of cultural expressions of their deep faith.

I also traveled to South America. I amvery much connected to the Institute Pedro de Cordova in Santiago de Chile. This institute is very interesting as well as fragile because of the problems they are facing. In spite of their problems and fragility, the Institute Pedro de Cordova is an important center of theological reflection upon church and social justice issues, particularly on regard to globalization.

Finally, very important experience of traveling around the world, has been my visits and discovery of Eastern Europe and all its richness, problems, and especially its renewals within Orthodoxy.

The report of the commission on the intellectual life of the Order points out that the purpose of our study life is not to create "intellectuals" but preachers of the Gospel to the multiple frontiers of the modern world. Could you please say more about this relationship between studying and preaching?

I think that one of the main intuitions in Saint Dominique was precisely, to found a religious Order in which studying and preaching are closely link. Study is a part of our preaching mission. Teaching is not just something that we do next to many other things, but an integral part of our Dominican vocation. Everybody at his or her level has to conceive that the Word of God can only be preached when it has gone through a process of "digestion" - using your own words. In our life we have to go through a process of digestion of what we study and contemplate and experience in our life as Dominicans.

This is really a process of "embodying" what we contemplate in order to give birth to our preaching. This relationship between study and preaching is crucial in the life of the Dominican tradition. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for instance, when he speaks about the different communities and life styles, he underlines this notion of contemplation as a dimension that involves an active mind which includes also the activity of being theoretically engaged and immersed into the mysteries of Divine reality and revelation. But this activity is only fully manifested when we bring to people the fruit of our contemplation; on behalf to the others... for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. So, for Saint Thomas, this relationship between contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere is a reflection of Jesus himself and his relationship with God and humanity. Therefore, our study and preaching should ultimately imitate Christ and the apostles.

Ultimately, this relationship between studying and preaching reflects the very dynamics of the Trinitarian relationship; the kenosis of God that opens self- to- other. Could you please expand your idea regarding God's kenosis as a model to our efforts to further develop the dialogical dimension of our study?

This is a notion that is very important for me. In a certain sense, this is also very much linked with our Dominican vocation. Everything we do and live has to be inspired by a deep experience of misericordia, compassion, and caring for those who are most needed. Also, this is very closely linked with the fact that we preach and teach a Word that is incarnate. Incarnate means becoming flesh, body, human being... which means entering into the fragility of our own existence. It is the profoundest ground for all our acts of solidarity and commitment. This is the core of our life as Dominicans. For us as preachers and teachers of an incarnate Word, a kenotic Word, means God's givenness to people: God becoming present in our own fragile humanity, our words, our acting. Present. That means that God is sacramentally present. That is the very condition of our Dominican life.

Consequently, whatever we do and say has already been touched by this divine presence; a divine presence that has already being embodied within our selves. Our preaching is, therefore, not only our entering into a relationship with God's people. But is even more. The "Face of the Other" - using Levinas' notion - is God's kenotic presence; the Other, in his/her fragility and vulnerability call us to care. We do not begin by "preaching" to the Other, but the first act of preaching arises from our awareness and serious listening to the Other who first call us to service.

The commission on the intellectual life of the Order reported 10 challenges in the area of the intellectual life. Among these challenges, which ones would you consider most urgent, and why?

There are two very urgent challenges, which are interrelated. I think that we must discover our passion for study -- the contemplative dimension of study. That is one of the most urgent challenges. This is a very counter-cultural model for today's world. The culture of today is more preoccupied with the immediate "product," and has no patience for developing a contemplative dimension.

The other challenge is our need to re-discover the importance and need of philosophy. Philosophy is a valuable and important mean of understanding of who we are as human beings and our relationship with one another and with God.

It was interesting to observe that the commission on the intellectual life did not mention anything in regard to the aesthetic (and the arts) dimension of study/contemplation. In your opinion, why is it so?

I am very glad you make this remark. As a matter of fact this should have been clearly mentioned in our report. I apologize for this blind spot in our report.

We have gone through two periods of our thinking. When I was in the studium, we were re-discovering the theoretical, hermeneutical, and epistemological dimension of our study. We were very influenced by Continental thinkers from the German school of idealism and the French phenomenology. But in the 70's and early 80's there was an important shift of thinking, which was among others influenced by Levinas. This shift challenged us to become more aware of the ethical dimension of intellectual life. This was a practical, ethical, understanding of philosophy.

Liberation theology results from this relevance of "praxis" in theoretical affairs. I think that we are approaching to a third stage of our philosophical and theological development which is quite absent in Levinas (and it is symptomatic). This third stage regards a new understanding of the place of arts in the way we understand the world, ourselves, and God. When I think of Schelling and Hegel, it was very important for them to integrate the aesthetic dimension of our intellectual understanding of reality. It is urgent that we recover this dimension of the arts, particularly in Christianity.

Theology should not just talk about truth at the mere epistemological level, but must integrate the level of the symbolic and poetic. Veritas is not only an epistemological and ethical reality, but it also includes "beauty..." an aesthetic dimension. This is the way in which the theologian enters into the whole "drama" of the mystery of faith and salvation. Balthasar, for instance, is another thinker who reminds us of the importance of the relationship between theology and aesthetics.

I was also influenced by a book written by Peter Weiss, entitled Aesthetics of Resistance, where the author talks about the importance of closely looking at the works of art through out history, and discover the complexity of realities that are expressed in the art form: who expresses and what is expressed is manifested in art. And such an expression often reveals a reality of "resistance" to the status quo and to many forms of oppression. This is a new hermeneutical key for our intellectual investigations. Aesthetics means learn how to see, feel, look, perceive, reality. In this sense, aesthetics is intimately link with the act of contemplation. Contemplation is a "sensual" activity, for it involves integrating the senses -- our whole selves is involved as we experience God and creation. Aesthetics is not only a fact of our need to renewal theology, but it is a way of preaching the Word in new, evocative, and inspiring ways: through dance, painting, poetry, sculpture, and many other forms of expression. This is part of our tradition as Dominicans, and we must recover this inheritance.

What are some of your near-future academic plans and dreams?

I will most probably continue for a while teaching, but will also love to take a sabbatical. I also would love to continue learning languages. At the moment I am learning Russian, and want to continue studying other languages. I would like to travel as well. I am also interested in doing more research on Postmodern thinkers and write on this topic. I want to continue as well my research on Levinas and would like to read more critics of his philosophy.

Thank you very much for your time and generosity in sharing with us your wonderful insights and talents to the Order at large. Many blessings in your future plans.

Thank you and God bless. puce


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