The Canons Regular of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary (O.Dorm.) are that rarity, an enclosed, purely contemplative order of men. While they naturally hide from the world, some description of their unique vocation, according to the Regula Patrum Soporificum, may be of interest.
(The Order ought not be confused with the Assumptionist Fathers, who follow the Augustinian Rule, and are named for Our Lady's transferral body and soul into heavenly bliss. The Falling Asleep (dormitio, koimêsis) of the Blessed Virgin is the older name, common to East and West, for Holy Mary's sacred and everlasting repose in the Lord.)
Their charism? to be harbingers of the eschatological state of eternal rest proper to the saints ("to sleep the sleep of the just"). As St Dominic pioneered the principle of dispensation – that is, any and all observances may be dispensed by the superior, that the overriding goal of his Order of Preachers be achieved – so the Dormitionists likewise adopted the same wise and prudent policy: insofar as human frailty permit, the minutiæ of the R.P.S. may be dispensed, that the brethren commit ever more whole-heartedly to their most high calling.
Did not our Lord ask, "Could ye not stay awake with me one hour?" (cf. S. Matthew xxvi, 40 & parallels) – signifying that he wished his disciples to sleep for the other 23 hours. It is the humble glory of the Dormitionists that they, even above and beyond the secular clergy, aspire to the fulfilment of this evangelical counsel.
The habit of the canons regular, supplemented with monastic scapular, as worn by the Order has been refined over time, to now appear as the sacred counterpart to white pyjamas (alone worn in the cell) and black dressing gown and slippers (worn in addition outside the cell). (Since the Dormitionist vocation is exclusively contemplative, and the Office is mainly said, if at all, individually in the cell, the use of the rochet has fallen into desuetude.)
There is something Carthusian in the manner that their (black) scapular from the first had two bands of cloth joining back and front at the waist, tho' over time this vesture has diminished in size to but a single band, now knotted at the front, and worn over the (black) cappa: hence the "dressing gown" effect. Similarly the tunic, under the influence of Teutonic fashion, bifurcated, to resemble shirt and trousers. The simple heavy fabric of the tunic, peculiar to this Order, resembles that of flannel – hence the apparent resemblance to pyjamas; tho' no outsider would ever behold one of the brethren in such a state outside the cell; indeed, no one ever does behold a Dormitionist, this being contrary to their Rule.
To sleep in the Lord (Acts vii, 59) is the noble aim of the O.Dorm.'s: or, as their three mottoes have it: Requies – rest – is the goal; Dormire, Requiescere, Somniare ("to sleep, perchance to dream"); and Dormire est orare. As the Royal Prophet foretold, Si dormiatis inter medios cleros, pennæ columbæ deargentatæ, et posteriora dorsi ejus in pallore auri (Ps 67:14): "If ye sleep among the midst of clerics, ye shall be as the wings of a dove a-silvered, and as the hinder parts of her back with the pallor of gold". How blessed he who aspires to this state, compared in Holy Writ to most precious metals!
Again, the Holy Ghost proclaims plainly, Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere (Ps 126:2a) – "Vain 'tis for ye to arise before the light" – while Dederit dilectis suis somnum (Ps 126:2c): "He shall give sleep to His beloved'. Worldlings, hasting to run into action, may scoff, but the Dormitionists know that they, bound to quiet contemplation, in all humility and truth, are among the Lord's beloved. For this reason, rigid in their observance of Scriptural tenets, they never feign holiness by arising early (strange corruption!), nor ever answer the telephone or doorbell.
Therefore, before giving themselves over to God's will for them, they cry, In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam (Ps 4:9) – "In peace in the selfsame I will sleep and I will rest" – and while sleeping in the Lord as it were they confess with happy soul, beloved of Christ (even exteriorly, should they have the gift of somniloquy), Ego dormio, et cor meum vigilat (Cant. v, 2) – "I sleep, and my heart watcheth". Arising, as a cruel necessity of fallen nature in this mortal vale of darkness, sighing and tears, at least the brethren may declare, Ego dormivi, et soporatus sum (Ps 3:6) – "I have slept and taken my rest".
Sacred leisure is a precious gift and grace. Among the virtues especially beloved of the Order are detachment from worldly things (e.g. alarm clocks), abstractedness at community exercises (tending to the higher things), sleepiness (somnulentia), dreaminess (a mystic state), somnambulism (to be as it were asleep even while perforce attending to necessities), somniloquence (to speak, nay, even to preach, while asleep), and hibernation. Cats, and, in northern climes, bears, are kept as pets suitably exemplifying these qualities, and are often seen in Dormitionist art.
"To sleep in the Lord" – the Rule expands upon this central focus, specifying that the brethren do so in honour and imitation of the following great exemplars:
- God's eternal changelessness, peace, and tranquillitas ordinis (hence their alternative name of Ordo tranquillitatis);
- Our Lord's Three Days' Burial, and His Holy Sepulchre;
- Our Lord asleep in the boat (a figure of the Church);
- Christus Somnifer (Christ the Bringer of Sacred Sleep and Holy Dreams);
- The Dormition of Our Lady (her peerless falling asleep in the Lord), under the which title she is Patroness of the Order;
- The Four Days' Burial of St Lazarus, secondary Patron of the Order (it is piously held by Domitionists that this was from Monday to Thursday, so that, as Our Lord Himself rested in the tomb from Friday to Sunday, all days have been and are to be sanctified by sleep);
- The Saints' falling asleep in the Lord, and their eternal rest (as is written of St Stephen in Acts vii, 59);
- The Saints receiving God's communications to them in their dreams – e.g. Jacob (Gen. xxviii, 11-18), Joseph "the Dreamer" (Gen. xxxvii; xl-xlii), the Magi (S. Matthew ii, 12) and St Joseph (S. Matthew i, 19-24; ii, 13-14, 19-21, 22);
- All the just, having the peace of a good conscience (to be achieved thro' frequent confession to one's soporific father, and an entire acceptance of the soporific state).
The feast of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (27th July) is kept with solemnity in the Order, of which they also are secondary patrons, together with St Lazarus (whose feast falls on the 17th of December). For did they not disperse their property to the poor (cf. Ps 111:8) and retire into a sealed cave, there to rest and theirs to rest in the Lord, in peace, for centuries? There they would pray and prepare for death, so as to enter into eternal rest evermore. (The many varying lists of their names happily supply all needful religious names for the brethren.) A practised member of the Dormitionists is sometimes styled a "seven-sleeper"; which usage has passed into several European languages (siebenschläfer, syvsover, hétalvó).
Within each Dorter, that is, Dormitory (as the houses of the Order are denominated), the novice and student dormitors are trained up by the Somnifers ("dream-bringers" – their respectful term for formators and professors; for as the Spirit testifies in both testaments (Joel ii, 28; Acts ii, 17), seniores vestri somnia somniabunt, "your seniors shall dream dreams"). Those more proficient in the charism of the O.Dorm.'s are styled Somniators; while the superior of each Dormitory (chosen for his model adherence to the Rule of the Soporific Fathers) is of course the Somniac.
In imitation of the holy behaviour of Christ and His Apostles, and of the whole body of the Primitive Church, the brethren always recline at table. While sorrowing at their weakness, they needs must be awake at least some of the time, yet as if not awake at all (this is the sad curse of insomnia). As the Dormitionist prayer has it, Requiem æternam dona nobis, Domine. Requiescamus in pace. Amen. (Eternal rest grant unto us, O Lord. May we rest in peace. Amen.) The brethren only ever venture outside to visit their own cemetery (koimêtêrion, sleeping-place), that, inspired, they the better aspire to that everlasting rest which is their entire goal.
For utterly the same reason meditation, and lectio divina, together with study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, is undertaken while lying down. As the Imitatio Christi avers, "the cell, continually dwelt in, groweth sweet"; how much more so the bed therein, place of rest foreshadowing that rest which, please God, shall prove eternal! As an aid to this, the Mediatrix of all graces is invoked: the brethren are much enamoured of Our Lady's somniferous Rosary; recited in bed, with much drowsiness.
At the Eucharistic Sacrifice (always Low, even if conventual, by indult – as with the Capuchins), the brethren prostrate in prayer throughout the whole sacred mutter of the Mass. The Dormitionist claim to have maintained unbroken the apostolic custom of evening Mass, long before its present Church-wide revival, is of keen interest to liturgiologists. The Order has also maintained the French custom of Prône.
Of especial delight to the Dormitionist brethren is that most soporific of the Hours, Compline. While the Office is customarily prayed in the cell, if not dispensed from, Compline alongside Mass is prayed in church. Their proper Nunc dimittis anthem is instructive:
Salva nos, Domine, custodi nos dormientes in Christo, ut requiescamus in pace.
(Save us, Lord, protect us, the sleepers-in-Christ, that we may rest in peace.)
[Many thanks to Reverend Fathers Christopher and Bernard for their input into this article.]