STUDYING VIRTUE. Dominican Sister John Dominic with students, studying Life of Christ. Courtesy of Sister John Dominic
Dominican Sister John Dominic, a foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich., has been involved in Catholic education for 30 years, working with catechesis and developing curriculum.
Her newest work is the Life of Christ: A Lectio Divina Journal, a companion book that amplifies the highly successful and much-used interactive virtue program she created called The Disciple of Christ: Education in Virtue.
Catholic schools, as well as home-schooling communities around the country, have been using the virtues program quite effectively. So has the family of NFL quarterback Philip Rivers.
Her work fits right into the Dominican tradition of education, as the order celebrates its 800th anniversary this year.
“In keeping with the charism of the Dominican order, our apostolate includes teaching and preaching,” she explained. “For centuries, Dominicans have furthered the teachings on the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Disciple of Christ: Education in Virtue draws upon these teachings and provides the language and resources needed to make it accessible/understandable for educators. It is developed to be organized and practical for anyone to use.”
The virtues program was developed after Sister John Dominic noticed a need for teaching young people how to live virtuously from a Catholic-Christian perspective.
She looked at St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on the virtues for “a way we can take this body of information and beautiful teaching, the foundation of moral theology, and make that practical, first in the way teachers and parents can understand it, and then impact the children,” she explained, “[in order to] understand the moral and theology virtues, then also live them practically — to see how virtue looks and what it sounds like. The beautiful thing in our Catholic faith is that we have saints, and one of the first things looked for in [examining] the lives of the saints is heroic virtue.”
That leads to: “What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?”
For Teens and Adults
This new journal continues to answer the first question and expand on the second. Sister John Dominic wrote Life of Christ: A Lectio Divina Journal to help cultivate an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ using beautiful artwork and selections of Scripture. The journal is recommended for junior-high students, high-school students and adults.
Sister John Dominic explained how the new journal continues as part of the 800-year-old Dominican education legacy. “Fra Angelico painted a beautiful fresco of St. Dominic pondering the word of God,” she noted. “This captures the motto of contemplating and giving to others the fruits of one’s contemplation. Lectio divina is the praying of the Scriptures — an encounter with the word to know all God has revealed to us. To live virtuously as a disciple of Christ, one must first know him,” because this relationship gives life purpose and meaning.
“The doctrines are what we believe — and why do we believe it? — and virtues are about how we live this out,” Sister John Dominic said. “How do we live out the Incarnation? How do we live to be a disciple of Christ? That’s what Christian virtue is.”
Despite the secular culture dismissing Christian virtues like temperance, fortitude, justice and courage, or replacing them with the bland “being nice,” the virtues are essential and important.
“They are so much a part of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching,” Sister John Dominic observed. “You’re formed in goodness and have this interior disposition to do what is good. This habit of thinking and acting becomes natural. We need temperance, prudence, fortitude, justice.”
Just as one can work hard to memorize the multiplication tables, so that it becomes natural to do such mathematics, “you learn the language of virtues” and then “think more positively in your mind as you approach a situation and use the language of virtue.”
For example, if you’re jealous, work on kindness; if selfish, work on generosity; if ungrateful, learn the words “thank you,” she explained.
Companions for Virtue
How does the new Life of Christ journal go hand in hand with the already successful Education in Virtue program?
Sister John Dominic said learning to be a disciple of Christ hinges on cultivating one’s relationship with Jesus: “When you know him and begin to know his life, you want to be his disciple.”
“It’s a conversation: You’re talking to Jesus, and then you listen and ponder like the Blessed Mother said she would ponder the words — keep in your heart the word of God,” she added.
Sister John Dominic purposely used art in the journal. She put Christ’s life in sequence and included religious images to go with each passage. “There’s so much in our culture, so many images coming up for our kids,” she said, adding that much is negative and addicting.
“We have to bring them out of this acedia — the spiritual sloth — and be creative to reach them,” she said. “The hope is that they look at this beautiful religious art, and with the Scripture, their minds can start taking on true beauty and goodness. Beauty feeds the mind. Even as I find myself reading a passage [of Scripture], that passage becomes very much visual.”
The purpose is for students to realize: “Now I can see by meditating on the Scripture passage how I can apply a virtue to that and weave it into my life.”
Children Catch On
Sister John Dominic has seen the fruit of this learning in various situations at Spiritus Sanctus Academy in Ann Arbor, where she serves as principal.
For example, if students are sent to her office after making a “bad decision” that results in bad behavior, she puts saints’ cards from the virtue program in front of them and tells them to consider self-control, circumspection and foresight. Then she asks which one they should have practiced to avoid doing what they did.
“I let them decide,” she said. “They surprise me and pick out circumspection, and they own it. It helps the conversation.”
Generally with the older students, she would say, “I know you know to respect your teacher. What is it you really need to do to not act up in class? They will say to me, ‘I need fortitude and courage to do the right thing.’ They also realize they need foresight not to sit next to other students they get into trouble with while in the classroom.”
The result? “They not only begin to learn the virtues, but to apply them,” Sister John Dominic said.
Speaking at an award ceremony in Ann Arbor last March, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, a Catholic, spoke of the impact the virtues program had upon his family, as he and his wife, Tiffany, do the program at home with their children. He spoke about the skit the children put on while studying the virtues of patience and perseverance and called the virtues program “really awesome.”
And this latest addition has received praise and an imprimatur from Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich.: “More than a textbook, it introduces young people to a prayerful reading and understanding of the life of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. It provides them an opportunity to know Jesus in a personal way, to listen to his voice as they reflect and pray, and to respond to his invitation to follow him through resolutions and the practice of the virtues.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.