Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Dominican Brother: 3 Brother Angel F. Méndez Montoya

Movement, and pioneering new frontiers, is written into the life story and faith journey of Br Angel Méndez Montoya OP. A professional dancer by training, a professor of theology, and a son of the Province of St Martin de Porres in the USA, Br Angel is very much at the forefront of breaking new ground for the Dominican vocation as a co-operator brother.

Br Angel was born in Baja California into a family for whom Catholicism was part of their cultural heritage but who were "not particularly fervent". From his childhood, Angel loved reading and had a thirst for study and learning. He first moved to Mexico City, where he now lives and works, to study philosophy at university. However while he was there, he began to study contemporary dance and this became very important in his life, alongside philosophy. His natural talent attracted the attention of a professional dance company in Mexico City who invited him to join them. For a time, he danced professionally under the guidance of the company's award-winning choreographer, while at the same time studying, but eventually he decided to put aside academia and pursue a career in dance as he was still young and agile enough to do so. Angel says this was a "painful decision but I realised that I could come back to study".

While performing in Austin with this dance company, he was talent spotted again, and the director of the dance department at the University of Texas (UT) invited him to move to Austin and pursue a degree in dance. He says: "It was hard for me to leave my dance company, but I took the risk, learned English while taking up a new life in dance at the University of Texas in Austin". Full of energy, he combined language studies with his liberal arts course in dance and dancing professionally with the Sharir Dance Company, hosted by UT. He would rehearse every evening and perform during the weekends.

Br Angel says that already then he "had an intuition of a vocation, a desire to give of himself to other people". During these years in Austin, he came across the work of the Dominican painter, Fra Angelico, which resonated with his interest in the arts as an expression of God's beauty and he became very interested in a spirituality of the arts. He was very attracted by the idea of Fra Angelico as a religious person who was also an artist, and so Angel dreamt that he would one day follow in Angelico's footsteps and integrate his art with his faith and preaching. So, Angel began looking for religious orders in Austin and he discovered a small community of Dominican friars, and since Fra Angelico was also a Dominican, he decided to acquaint himself with them.

This community of friars hosted what Angel calls a kind of postulancy or lay community in which students could live alongside the friars and share their life. In this welcoming community, Angel learnt about St Dominic and the Order without any pressure to join. He also learnt to cook as a form of self-giving to the community. Cooking was to become one of Angel's other passions in life.

Just as Angel had taken a risk in moving from Mexico to Texas, so he decided to trust in the Lord and take a risk of trying his vocation with the Dominicans and he joined the Southern Province of the USA in 1993. He was particularly encouraged by the Vocation Director, who was open to Angel's dream, and when fr Timothy Radcliffe came visiting as Master of the Order, Angel was greatly encouraged by Timothy to pursue his vocation as a dancer and a friar. Moreover, Timothy's letters which spoke highly of the co-operator brothers' vocation moved Angel to consider this vocation rather than the life of a clerical Dominican brother. These formation years were busy: Angel studied for a triple Masters in Divinity, Theology and Philosophy at St Louis University, he was a guest artist at Washington University where he taught and danced, and he engaged in pastoral work with migrant communities. At this time he also began to experiment with integrating dance with theology.

Angel was very much inspired by St Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer and he says: "With dance, the body is the instrument of self-expression. United with prayer, the body is the means of uniting with God. We don't put aside our body when praying for prayer is intensely somatic (bodily)". He found that in praying with his body through dance, he was no longer performing on a stage, as he was accustomed to, but rather he experienced "moving beyond the ego ... praying and praising God with the body".

He acknowledges that his dream of combining dance and prayer, and indeed to preach through dance has sometimes met with great suspicion and opposition. In 2000 he danced during Vespers on St Dominic's Day during the General Chapter of the Order. He recalls that "some were scandalised and walked out ... but many liked it and some were moved to tears". Angel notes that before the Enlightenment, the present day dichotomy of body and soul did not exist, and his studies led to the discovery of a tradition of liturgical dance that dated to the Patristic age. He argues that "the post-modern discourse now criticises the hegemony of reason and wants to return to the body", thus his work and preaching through dance is "an opportunity to recover the the body-soul mutual constitution".

Apart from his interest in dance, Br Angel has pursued his passion for food, and with the encouragement of Fergus Kerr OP, he embarked on a PhD in philosophical theology under John Milbank. Unusually for a co-operator brother, he obtained permission to pursue academia at this high level and won a scholarship from the Hispanic Theological Initiative, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. His PhD took him from Virginia to Cambridge, where he finished writing up while resident in the Dominican priory in Cambridge. There he was Scholar in Residence at the University's faculty of divinity. While in Cambridge he worked in Fisher House with a Bible Study group exploring food in the Bible. Angel says he learned a lot from his students, and his group was a great success. A Cambridge undergraduate who joined this group is now a Dominican brother studying in Oxford. Angel reflects on his time in Cambridge: "the Priory was a beautiful place for writing because of the chance to celebrate the daily Eucharist in community and also to cook for the community and to observe others cooking as an act of self-gift". Upon completion of his doctoral dissertation, Angel was invited to teach philosophy and theology at the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Jesuit-run university in Mexico City. He has been a professor there since 2007. Angel's dissertation was also unanimously accepted without content corrections for publication by Blackwell Publishing, and he recently gave a talk based on this book in a colloquium on food at Blackfriars Hall.

Finally, Br Angel offers some reflections on his vocation: "Normally a lay brother has domestic tasks, so people were negative about the idea of a lay brother who was an intellectual and an academic. But the life of the lay brother is centred on preaching; this is the heart of the charism. It should be preaching in any way, whatever one’s gifts are. We should not pigeonhole a lay brother’s vocation and role but allow it to develop one’s gifts - whether through administration or housekeeping or study or arts etc. The lay brother's vocation is very flexible and this should be preserved.

Often the fear is that there is no programme or model for the lay brother's vocation but this is a strength in so far as the brother serves the Order and the Church. The main difference with the priestly vocation is the sacramental life of the clerical brothers. In the General Chapter in Krakow (2004) it was stated that all Dominican brothers are equal; what unites us is our vows and profession. If a friar is called to reach out beyond the boundaries of sacramental life, so he should think of becoming a lay brother. Some brothers have expressed that they became priests because of the prestige or because of the fear of not being recognised.

I really hope and have this faith that what I do now will have some benefit for the future of the lay brothers' vocation. Someone has opened the bridges, and shown that it can be done. I believe I am sowing seeds for the future and I know I may not live to see the fruit".

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what an inspiration! dance is a wonderful metaphor for the way in which the Divine community relates to each other and humanity - the movement and dynamism - if you get the chance to sit it out or dance - I hope you dance

14/2/10 3:48 pm  
Blogger Cynthia Winton-Henry said...

I share a similar vocation and am grateful to hear of Br. Angel's work. My work, InterPlay, grew out of Body and Soul Dance Company and the THeology and the Arts movement at Pacific School of Religion. Dance is to me not only prayer but a form of collective spiritual empowerment or Eucharist in the most embodied sense. Thank You!

31/7/11 12:07 am  

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