Vacating Ottawa

I used to visit Ottawa often, back when my “media” employers’ office was there (in a building located just where you’d expect to find the airport). I didn’t like visiting, for I was usually in trouble with my employer, but I had friends who were pleasant to see.

One place to “crash” – after I had become a Catholic, and was sometimes in town to defend myself before some politically-correct tribunal – was inside the stone fortress of the Dominican University College.

The college grounds – which have included the Saint-Jean Baptiste Convent, a substantial church of the same name, and a beautiful walled garden – had become increasingly empty, and the College was renting rooms to travelers at $50 a night.

I am a veteran of the cheap hotel life, who especially appreciates monastic silence, and a chapel where the Liturgy of the Hours may be prayed. The “DUC” was decidedly a better crash than a Best Western motel, I thought.

But my welcome did not last long. My reputation as a “controversial” writer had spread through the town. When I tried to book, under my own name, I was now told, rather rudely I thought, that the college was full. There “would be” no place to put me.

I puzzled over this, knowing whole wings of the college were in fact unoccupied. But, you know, whatever.

Much of the garbage one experiences as a “traditional” Catholic comes from the Church herself; it is a penance that one should accept as a penance, during Lent and Advent. The Mother of God, herself, could not book a room in Bethlehem when she was pregnant; her husband, Joseph, gallantly found a stable.

Imagine my non-surprise, approaching Christmas this year, to find that the Dominican College would be closing, entirely, at the end of the spring term, and that its fine building would go on the property market.

From a well-placed friend I discover that the library will be shipped by sea – in multiple lots of 10,000 books – to Vietnam, where there are still some five hundred Dominicans (mostly young) who can at least pretend to want them.

Some of those books go back to the XVIth century. Many are associated with superb Catholic teachers, who, notably, were posted here from France. I was intrigued, for instance, with the career of M.- D. Chenu – who, with Etienne Gilson of “PIMS” (the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies) gave Canada a so-richly undeserved reputation in medieval scholarship. Books they once owned and had donated would be among the extravagant gifts.

I pray these books will not instead be deposited, en route. The Mariana Trench, for instance, could accommodate a quite formidable Dominican library. In Rome, they say that God loves to surprise us, and such recycling instructions would astonish at least me.

That Catholicism might be stone-dead in the vicinity of formerly-Catholic French Canada, but vividly alive in presently-Communist Vietnam, is the sort of surprise I am more used to.

Bust of Albertus Magnus by Vincenzo Onofri, c. 1493 [ Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, Italy]

The Catholic Church has contributed the buildings for some of the finest condominiums around Ottawa, and in all the major towns of Quebec.

Because the Dominicans slightly jumped the gun on the sale of their college, before a government conservation policy was scheduled to come off, the buildings retain heritage status, so probably won’t be demolished as otherwise, to make way for high-rises, or other ticky-tack.

There is no accounting for what is lost, except in frankly material terms. In the Dominican tradition, of St. Albert, St. Thomas, and St. Dominic himself, material calculations are not determinative: it was, and arguably is, a mendicant order.

I think especially of Albertus Magnus, who, in Cologne – a city much smaller than Ottawa is today, whose Dominican studium was modest in extent – was re-incorporating Aristotle into the intellectual tradition of the West.

He was episcopus cum bottis – Boots the Bishop – for his rough clothing and heavy footgear, and for never riding on his donkey. Instead he loaded his books and packed treasures upon it, for he was a natural scientist, cut from the same cloth as Aristotle. He strode about seventeen thousand nautical miles on foot, during more than eighty years of tireless hunting – not for game, but for clues to God’s ordering of the world.

A celibate priest, who despised worldly glory, St. Albert inspired many pupils, and launched that extraordinary “Dumb Ox”: the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Dominicans founded institutions but were, from their beginnings, walking institutions in themselves. They had to beg for their bread, back when there was less of it. To the present day, this apostolate remembers vows, proclaiming the Divine for no gold nor silver.

But more, they embody an extraordinary tradition of open-mindedness. One returns to St. Albert for the key to modern science, and to an attitude, inherited from Greece, that examined the world in a spirit of Godly freedom. The power of reason was thus resurrected, from Aristotle, together with his Greek genius for discerning structure in the cosmos.

Albert’s insight into purpose, into teleology, put him in some respects in advance of scientists who are alive today, who exalt nothing.

Where the contemporary investigator imagines science as the replacement for philosophy, Albert was incapable of separating these pursuits. He did not doubt that Christian faith and free inquiry were compatible.

That is how science came to be, in the Christian West, rather than elsewhere.

Albert’s attachment to the “O.P.” – to the “Order of Preachers” – was among his more spontaneous acts. He simply understood why they were. It was like his migration to the University at Padua as a young man. For that was the place where real things were studied.

It was like his informal lecturing at Dominican houses in Cologne, Freiburg, Strasbourg, Hildesheim, Regensburg. . .Paris.

Ottawa must do now without the echo of Albertus Magnus. But what Ottawa loses, Vietnam may gain. The future of science and the Christian religion is being moved away.


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David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: