The benefit of joining a lay order

When was the last time you sought out a challenge? Maybe it was learning to bake that complicated sourdough braid, or running a marathon, or reading a thick classic novel, or even walking into an intimidating interview. Do you remember the feeling you got when you finished the challenge? It’s that strange combination of victory and desire — excitement at seeing what you’ve done, mixed with a newfound desire to do more, or to do better. We need that, as humans; we need to be challenged every now and then, or else we lose sight of our incredible potential.

In the spiritual life, it’s the same way. We often shy away from a spiritual challenge; we stick in the same rut, or think that the same old practices will make us saints. But every now and then, God or your own self-knowledge makes you realize there’s a challenge he wants you to face, something that will make you grow in new and dynamic ways.

After college, I found myself in a bit of a dead zone. I no longer had the context of rigorous intellectual training and human formation, or the constant encouragement of new things to learn — deeper and more beautiful vistas of truth to discover. At young adult book studies or parish adult faith formation, I ended up teaching others what I knew, but I wasn’t being fed myself. I had a regular prayer life (well, mostly regular), but it felt disjointed. And so, I stagnated, yearning for something I couldn’t identify.

My first job was working for and with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. As I got to know the sisters, I began to love them; the fun they had as a religious family, the incredible conversations we could have, the spiritual formation they gave me directly and indirectly. I discovered the Dominican charism (more on that later). Many Sunday nights, I’d go to Vespers with the sisters and find myself in tears, yearning for the prayerful, purpose-driven community life they had while knowing I wasn’t called to religious life.

Then, in October of 2016, I attended my coworker’s final profession as a Lay Dominican. I watched half a dozen people receive the Dominican cross that marked them as a member, for life, of the Dominican Order, living out its charism in their homes and families. I went to congratulate my coworker, but I ended by asking the formation director how I could learn more about being a Lay Dominican. That day I started to get an inkling: This is what I’ve been searching for. This is what I need.

So I went to the next meeting. I walked into a room full of people who, besides being instantly welcoming, also provided living examples of the Dominican charism. It didn’t take long, as I listened to the conversation and discussion, to realize that here was a group of people who were deeply prayerful, passionate about understanding and living out the Faith, and committed to a generous, fruitful community life. Here was the spiritual and intellectual challenge I’d been yearning for! I officially entered formation, and after a year and a half made my first (temporary) profession. I have another year and a half before I make the lifetime commitment, and I can’t wait!

The easiest way to explain what it means to be a Lay Dominican is to combine our mottos with the four pillars of our life. The Dominican Order, officially known as the Order of Preachers, has three mottos: Veritas (truth), Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (To contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of one’s contemplation) and Laudare, benedicere, praedicare (To praise, to bless, to preach). In other words, to come to an intimate knowledge and love of Christ, who is truth incarnate, and bring him through preaching to each soul we come in contact with. We do that through the four pillars: prayer, study, community and apostolate. In prayer, we come to know our beloved, Truth himself. In study, we learn what he has revealed to us through natural and supernatural means. In community, both our monthly meetings and our email communications, we are formed and supported by others. In our preaching apostolate, whatever that might be in each of our lives, we bring others to an encounter with Christ.

For me, there’s a challenge in each of those pillars. Obedience to the requirement of the Liturgy of the Hours (Morning and Evening Prayer) keeps me from slacking off in my prayer life. I’m a lifelong bookworm, but now I’m embracing the invitation to study; I always learn something from every book we read in formation or as a group. My fellow chapter members bring an intellectual challenge to the table, always sharing new insights and inspiring me to go deeper. Community life pushes me to step outside of my comfort zone and make friends across a variety of ages, careers and experiences. In my apostolate — my day job as a book editor for OSV — I have to approach my work as a preacher of truth, not just as an employee.

Entering the lay branch of a religious order isn’t something I knew a lot about before my encounter with the Lay Dominicans, and I’ll bet you don’t either. It isn’t something we encounter very often today. But most religious orders have a lay branch. Lay Dominicans, Secular Franciscans, Lay Missionaries of Charity, Third-Order Carmelites … you name it, it exists. And no, you don’t have to live a celibate lifestyle to join!

Discovering whether you’re called to a lay order can be a little more difficult, but it starts with getting to know the desires of your heart. What are you yearning for? Do you feel called to grow deeper? Where do you sense a need to grow as a person? What religious orders have attracted you in the past, and what saints do you find inspiration in? Look inside, and then look outside — ask around in your parish, search online, even call up the nearest community in that religious order. And pray! Ask the Lord to direct your heart and your search toward the challenge he wants for you, and in time you’ll find what you’re looking for.

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