Dominican musicians are instruments of God’s love

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The hum of good-natured joking and laughter harmonized with the sound of instruments being tuned, creating a fitting prelude to a rehearsal filled with toe-tapping rhythm and contagious joy.

It was the weekly gathering of the Hillbilly Thomists, a musical group at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington that fosters fraternity among its members and shares the Gospel message in an unconventional way.

Clad in white tunics dangling with rosaries, six Dominican brothers and one priest sat in a semicircle Jan. 14 to practice a blend of bluegrass, Irish-American and Scottish folk, Americana spirituals - and a touch of reggae.

The group plays after ordinations and vow professions at the Dominican House, which provides intellectual, pastoral and spiritual formation to Dominican student brothers. Priests, other religious orders and laypeople study there as well.

The brothers also recently performed following a Holy Hour at Capuchin College, just up the street from the Dominicans.

Several times a year, though, the brothers gather their instruments and ride the Metro to the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop. There, the habit-wearing musicians stand on a patch of sidewalk and perform, while a few of the brothers speak to passers-by who are drawn to the music.

Dominicans, also known as the Order of Preachers, have a mission to share the truth of the Gospel, and the city singing is part of that.

"We want to make clear to people that God exists, that God loves them, that God has a plan for them," said Brother Justin Bolger after the rehearsal. "But our age is a bit resistant to formal exposition - like, 'Let me tell you Aquinas' five ways of how we can prove God's existence.' That doesn't appeal to a lot of people, especially when you're trying to show them who God is. A lot of people don't think God exists … or that He wants to communicate with us."

Beauty, in this case in the form of melody and lyrics, is a way to reach people. "It's an indirect way to open someone's heart," he said. And it's more effective than going up to someone and launching into a talk about Jesus.

"Music allows people the space where they can say, 'OK, I appreciate what's happening in front of me; I don't understand it, it's mysterious, but I'm connecting to the transcendent somehow,'" said Brother Justin.

The group began about four years ago when two brothers started meeting weekly to play Irish music together at the Dominican House. The Dominican duo gradually attracted more members, with each new addition adding musical depth.

"As we've gone along it has really developed and blossomed in repertoire, in style, in the musical instruments involved," said Brother Innocent Smith. "It's really a synthesis of the talents and backgrounds of the brothers."

The number of members fluctuates, but the current eight includes several music majors and one former professional musician.

The name "Hillbilly Thomists" pays tribute to St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, and to the Catholic author and Georgia native Flannery O'Connor, who was a student of Aquinas and refers to herself in a letter as a "Hillbilly Thomist."

The connection to St. Thomas and the folk ethos of the term made the name a good fit, said Brother Innocent.

At last week's rehearsal, the men began a cappella, adding instruments as they sang their way through, among other pieces, "The Jolly Beggarman," "Ain't Gonna Study War No More," "I'll Fly Away," "Sober Men and Plenty" and a Bob Marley medley.

Many Marley songs have biblical themes or focus on freedom, "so the lyrics are appropriate for the group," said Brother Justin.

The song selection tends toward folk because it's versatile and goes back generations with stories of the human heart. "Folk also has something gritty that sticks with you," said Brother Innocent.

Alongside a guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and flute, Brother Innocent played the concertina, which resembles a small accordion, and Brother Joseph Hagan kept rhythm on two kinds of drums - an African djembe and the Irish bodhran.

In addition to evangelization, the Hillbilly Thomists supports fellowship among its members, said the Irish-born Father Colm Mannion, who shared his rich accent along with his fiddling skills. "It's good for us to spend time together doing something that we all enjoy."

Be it on city streets or gathered for a rehearsal between dinner and evening prayer, the Dominican musicians said the music is about expressing and sharing joy.

"Music," said Brother Innocent, "lets your joy overflow."    

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015