Principles and Practice
THE DOMINICAN LIFE is the
IMAGE OF ST. DOMINIC
The Christian can most effectively learn how to live in holiness by studying the life of Christ, the Founder of Christianity. The Dominican can best learn how to live as a saintly religious by studying the ideas and life of St. Dominic, the Founder of the Order of Friars Preachers. In his life the Friar Preacher can find the elements of the Order’s spirituality, either explicitly or implicitly. Pope Pius XI emphasized the importance of studying a Founder’s life in his Apostolic letter Unigenitus:
Above all we exhort religious to take as their model their own founder, their fatherly lawgiver, if they wish to have a sure and certain share in the graces which flow from their vocation. When the founder created his Order, what did he do but obey the divine inspiration? Therefore, the character which each one strove to impress upon his society must be retained by all its members if they are to remain faithful to his original ideal. As a good son, let each one devote himself heart and soul to honor his father and law-giver, to observe his commands and to drink in his spirit.
The Dominican must not only catch the spirit of St. Dominic, but, since he is seeking to learn the spirituality of a living organism, must also turn to the Rule of St. Augustine, the Constitutions, and the Order’s history.
The Source of Dominican Spirituality
Everything positive in the Order’s spiritual life traces back to St. Dominic, just as everything positive in the Church traces back to Christ. The present elements of Dominican spirituality are either the manifest intention of St. Dominic or valid developments of his ideas and plans. The doctrinal growth of the Order, brought about by Saints Albert and Thomas with the encouragement of Humbert of Romans in mid-thirteenth century, is an example of such a development. These holy men, basing themselves on the ideas and actions of St. Dominic, taught by word and example how an intense intellectuality, pursued for the love of Christ, can serve Christian truth and the spiritual life of the Dominican scholar.
Members of the Order should be well acquainted with St. Dominic and happy in his company, realizing how much he loves them. As their founder, he devoted the last precious years of his life to establishing the Order, visiting the first priories and monasteries, supervising, directing, encouraging, and teaching the friars and nuns. Divine Providence blessed him with a sympathetic heart and endowed him with the gift of directing his sons and guiding his daughters.
Most precious in learning the mind and spirituality of St. Dominic are the Acts of his canonization process, The Little Book of the Origins of the Friars Preachers by Jordan of Saxony (a brief history of the founder’s life and the beginnings of the Order), and the primitive Constitutions. The first section of the Dominican Constitutions was borrowed by Dominic from the Constitutions of the Premonstratentians which he adapted by dropping passages, adding words, phrases, sentences, chapters, and especially a statement of purpose, to make them exactly suited to the Order’s aims.
The witnesses in the canonization process of St. Dominic are divided into two groups. The larger numbered about three hundred men and women of the Toulouse region who had known him during the years before he founded the Order; the second group counted only nine friars who had been intimately associated with him during the last few years of his life. The relationship of these nine with the saint had been extremely close. All of them were part of the community at Bologna, his headquarters during his closing years, and they had been his traveling companions. They had every opportunity to see how he lived, prayed, ate, slept, did penance and suffered. They were the immediate objects of his solicitude and benefitted at first hand from his expert spiritual instruction. Their testimony gives us the best and the most detailed information about Dominic’s heroic life. Both they and Jordan of Saxony had walked with him, prayed with him, nursed him in sickness, buried him, worked for his canonization, and first celebrated his feast. They captured Dominic’s spirit, understood what he wanted for his Order, knew from his words and example how a friar preacher was to sanctify himself. We shall constantly quote these witnesses and let them tell us what they know about Dominic and the Order’s genius and spirit.
The witnesses in southern France are somewhat disappointing. Though their evidence dovetails with that of the priests at Bologna, it is poor in detail. In one particular way, however, what they say surpasses what the men of Bologna said. Among the three hundred were three women. These ladies gave information that the male witnesses of both places never thought to give.
Willelma, the wife of Elias Martin, said she had known Dominic very well. She had made hairshirts for him and fed him more than two hundred times during those years in France. When he stopped at her house, she prepared lunch for him. At these times she noticed that he never ate more than a little bread and what would amount to the yolks of two eggs, or the fourth part of a fish. When he took wine, he drank from a glass that contained three-fourths water. Willelma gives us precious details, therefore, about his penitential diet.
Nogueza confirmed what Willelma had said. She never provided food for St. Dominic, but she also had made hairshirts for him. Beceda, who was a nun of the Holy Cross when she gave her testimony, likewise had sewn hairshirts for the Saint and had given him lunch. She described the same eating habits as Willelma. But she tells us something more. Often she provided a place of rest for Dominic. Always, the next morning, the bed was exactly as she had made it, undisturbed and unrumpled. It had not been slept in. When Dominic stayed in her house, she would peep into his room and see him standing or kneeling in prayer. When he did sleep he would lay on the floor, and then she would tiptoe in and throw a blanket over him. A short time later she would look again, and he would be standing or kneeling in prayer once again. The solicitude of these three ladies for the holy man, the way they took care of him, demonstrated their love for him. He possessed a quality that won the confidence of women. They loved and trusted him.
Important information about St. Dominic also comes to us from a little treatise entitled: The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic. It was written by an anonymous author, probably at Bologna, sometime between 1260 and 1280. He had not known Dominic personally but culled his information from people who had reliable information about the Saint, among them probably Sister Cecilia who had received the Dominican habit from him at Rome in 1221. Later Jordan of Saxony had transferred her to the monastery of St. Agnes, Bologna, so that she could help train the community of Bl. Diana in the Order’s life. The Nine Ways testifies to the eminent holiness of the Saint, showing something of his intimate life and intense love for God.
Sister Cecilia was indirectly responsible for another document called The Miracles of Sister Cecilia (though it is the miracles of St. Dominic that it records). In the community at Bologna, she often entertained the sisters with her reminiscences about the founder. Another sister wrote down these memories just as they fell from her lips. Therefore they lack the coherence of a biography, pay little attention to chronology, and are at times faulty in detail. But quite unconsciously Cecilia had woven into her narrative little details that tell us much about the traits of the Saint. It is these asides, as it were, that are very valuable. We see how Dominic began the monastery at San Sisto, how he prepared it for the occupancy of the nuns, how he persuaded them to transfer to it, to adopt a stricter way of life, and to take the vows of the Order of Preachers. After he had enclosed them and fixed the grill, he went every evening with a group of friars from Santa Sabina, a half-hour’s walk, to instruct and form the nuns. These nightly conferences, spoken after he had ended a busy day of preaching and working in the city, bear witness to his abiding concern for his daughters. There is also an unsuspected side to his zeal. As he makes his apostolic rounds of Rome, we see him visiting, encouraging, and instructing the women recluses who at that time lived solitary lives in little cells built here and there into the city walls.
St. Dominic’s Physical Features
Of all those who knew the founder, Sister Cecilia alone describes his physical characteristics and appearance. At the very end of The Miracles there is a fine verbal portrait of St. Dominic. Modern information helps to substantiate what she said. After World War II, Pope Pius XII authorized the Dominicans of Bologna to have the relics of the founder examined. During the war they had dismantled the tomb and placed it with the wooden casket containing the relics deep in the basement and covered them over with sandbags. After the war, with the Pope’s permission, the Provincial of Lombardy had the relics examined by X-ray. He was not permitted to open the casket, but photographs from many angles were taken. Almost all the bones are still there after more than seven hundred years. Doctors and anthropologists were able to study them and give an accurate description of the skeleton and physical characteristics of St. Dominic. The Pope was so pleased with the results that he allowed the opening of the separate reliquary containing the head of the Saint so it could be examined more carefully.
For a long time historians did not think very highly of Sister Cecilia’s memoirs. Their reasoning was that she was too old when she dictated them; she must have exaggerated all that she said; much of what she said seemed far-fetched; she must have given her imagination free play. But the study of the relics gave the lie to these doubts, at least so far as what she said about St. Dominic’s appearance. Her description is proved reliable by the scientific examination. She said he was of medium height — the measurements show that he was five feet six inches tall. She said, “his figure was supple; his face handsome and somewhat ruddy; his hair and beard blond with a reddish tinge. He was not a bit bald, though here and there in his hair there was a touch of gray.” At the bottom of the reliquary, the examiners found some shreds of St. Dominic’s hair. It was exactly the color that Cecilia had said it was. “From his brow and eyes,” she continued, “there came a radiant splendor which won the respect and admiration of all; his eyes were large and beautiful.” St. Dominic’s remains show large eye-sockets that are widely placed, confirming the physical description of Cecilia. With the scientific measurements and Cecilia’s description an artist has reconstructed an image of St. Dominic. At least in size, shape, and proportion it conforms to life. Cecilia added: “His hands were long and handsome and his voice powerful and sonorous, and he was always joyous and smiling, except when moved with compassion at the affliction of his neighbors.” There are very few saints of so long ago whose personal appearance is so well described.
His Spiritual Characteristics
However, we are more interested in St. Dominic’s spiritual characteristics. Here also we are very fortunate. One of his outstanding characteristics was his priestliness. He manifests this trait at every moment of his life; we are almost tempted to say he was born a priest. As a boy of seven he began his formal education under the tutelage of an uncle who was a priest. His education was not that of a boy who would some day take up the sword and ride off to war; from the first, it was a priestly education. He learned Latin, chant, and liturgy. Then he enrolled at the cathedral school of Palencia. Here Dominic’s ardent love for the teachings of the Church manifested itself. He could not study them enough. After a solid course in philosophy, he hastened on to theology and spent four years learning it. This is usual for priests today, but five centuries ago four years of theology was exceptional. He could not learn the doctrines of the faith fast enough to suit himself. He studied long into the night. In the margins of his books were the many notes he had written.
As canon of the cathedral chapter at Osma, where he made profession soon after his ordination to the priesthood, Dominic continued his studies. But now they were more the study of the contemplative priest, lovingly seeking to penetrate the truths of the faith with the assistance of the gifts of wisdom and understanding, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The doctrines of revelation had penetrated to the very core of Dominic’s spiritual fibre before he became an apostle. When he was ready for this next step in his life, divine guidance carried him to southern France where he spent twelve years of his life, from 1205 to 1217, defending and preaching the faith. It is not surprising that when he founded his Order he made ample provision for his friars to learn and to love the doctrine they were to preach.
St. Dominic’s love for the truths of the faith nourished in him a deep love for Our Divine Lord, the Image of God the Father, the Wisdom of God, the personification of all the mysteries and doctrines of the Church. We cannot love our faith without loving Christ. The famous Dominican mystic, Bl. Henry Suso, whose Little Book of Holy Wisdom is one of the finest pieces of western mysticism, constantly refers to Our Lord as the Holy Wisdom.
St. Dominic’s love for Christ appears in his prayer. According to Jordan of Saxony, “he gave the day to his neighbor, the nights to God.” He spent all night in church, praying. There he found the altar and the Blessed Sacrament. If Dominic grew weary, Jordan tells us, he would lean against the altar; against his Lord, represented by the altar.
The founder had a profound devotion to the Mass, celebrating it every day; when possible, singing it. Invariably he was so moved by the sacred mystery taking place before him, that the tears flowed down his cheeks. Little wonder that he made the Order of Preachers a liturgical order. One of the great means he set for the realization of the Order’s end is the solemn chanting of the Divine Office; for lay brothers, Sisters and tertiaries, the Little Office of the Blessed Mother. The Office flows from the Mass, the climax of the liturgy. The Mass is the diamond, the Office is its setting. The hours of the Office lead to the Mass and follow from the Mass; preparing for it and bringing us its fruits the rest of the day.
Because he loved Christ, St. Dominic constantly carried the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul. We, with our compact New Testaments, might be tempted to say, “Well, that was not much of a feat, why didn’t he carry the whole Bible?” We can do that without any trouble, but it was a different problem in those days of handwritten books. Manuscripts were bulky and expensive. If they were small, the handwriting had to be almost microscopic. Dominic carried the books he loved best, the ones that spoke most clearly to him of Our Divine Savior. Jordan of Saxony says that he read these works so much that he practically knew them by heart.
Dominic’s devotion to Our Lord carried his soul into the depths of the mystery of the Passion. Many of the witnesses, both at Toulouse and Bologna, testify that he spent almost all the night in prayer. During this prayer, he was so moved that he often prayed aloud. “How do you know this?” some of the witnesses were asked. Rudolph of Faenza replied: “Well, I know it because I wanted to see what he did in the church at night, so I hid myself in the church behind a pillar and I heard him.” He was praying and making reparation for sinners: “O Lord, have mercy on Thy people . . . what is to become of sinners?” His soul, writes Jordan, “was a sanctuary of compassion” where “he offered God all human misery.” He would interrupt his petitions to take the discipline.
His desire for reparation dictated a scanty menu. When the brethren had two courses for dinner, he was satisfied with one. He would always finish eating before the others, and then, as he listened to the reader, would often be overcome by fatigue and doze. Besides his scanty food, his sleepless nights, his use of the hairshirt, Dominic wore a chain around his waist. Rudolph of Faenza found it at his death and gave it to Jordan. These austerities were prompted by his desire to participate in the Passion of Christ, to contribute his share to the redemption of souls. How he loved souls. They were members of the Mystical Body of Christ, redeemed by his Precious Blood. It is impossible to love Christ deeply without loving souls. If we do not love them, we cannot work for their salvation and our love for Christ will be superficial and shallow. St. Dominic knew that, in the words of Mary at Fatima, “Many souls were going to hell because there was no one to make sacrifices for them.” The founder kept solemn and solitary nightly vigils, praying for the success of the apostolate which he zealously and vigorously pursued during the day.
St. Dominic wanted to become a missionary, seeking for the salvation of souls. During his last years, after he had founded the Order, he was always talking about going to preach to the pagans. When he first left Spain in the company of the Bishop of Osma, going to Denmark to escort to Spain a princess who was destined to marry the King’s son, they reached the North at a time when the Archbishop of Lund was organizing an intense missionary endeavor in the Baltic area. Dominic and his bishop learned about the pagan peoples of Prussia, Lithuania, and Esthonia from the reports coming back to Denmark from the East. Dominic never forgot these pagans. He remembered also the Moors in his native Spain, the Cuman Tartars in Hungary. He promised William of Montferrat, a young disciple, that they would go together to the missions after the Order was well organized. He began to grow a beard with this in mind. Organizing the Order took longer than Dominic expected, and he was never able to become a missionary. But he communicated his zeal to his children. William of Montferrat was one of the first friars to preach to the Saracens of Palestine. Our Order has always been a great missionary Order. Today about twenty percent of its members are in the foreign mission field.
Those who knew Dominic tell us that he wanted to give his life for souls, if necessary. With courage he traveled through the Albigensian country. At times he knew his enemies were planning to kill him, yet he continued on his way. Once they took him, but seeing that he offered no resistance, they asked: “What would you have done, had we carried out our plans?” “I would have begged you to put me to death in the slowest possible way, to cut me to pieces bit by bit so my martyrdom would be prolonged for the good of souls.” Realizing how much he wanted martyrdom, they did not kill him. He was a martyr by desire.
Dominic’s compassion for people made him willing, as a student at Palencia, to sell his books to feed the hungry. When he first came into Toulouse on his way to Denmark, he lodged with an innkeeper who was a heretic. Though Dominic had traveled all day long across an unfamiliar country, he spent his first night in that new land persuading and converting his host. Finally, after years of work in the Albigensian lands, he realized he could not save all these souls alone. The idea of founding an order of preachers gradually grew in his mind.
As a good priest, St. Dominic was firm in correcting. This might seem a peculiar illustration of priestliness, but correction is a great charity to an erring soul. Rudolph of Faenza describes this quality of Dominic:
He was always cheerful and pleasant, a comforter of the brethren. He was patient, merciful, and kind. If he saw a brother breaking any rule, he would pass by as though he had not seen it. But afterward he would, with a mild expression and kind word, say, “Brother, you must confess your fault.” With his gentle words he induced all to confess and repent.
He rigorously punished transgressors, but they went away consoled because of his humble attitude. He made the necessary correction with firmness, with an adequate penance, but knowing how delicately a soul must be treated, he did not break the man’s spirit. Paul of Venice testified:
He rigidly and perfectly kept the rule himself and exhorted and commanded the brethren to do the same, and he strictly punished offenders. Yet he reproved them with such patience and kindness that no one was ever upset or rebellious because of the correction.
As a saintly priest, St. Dominic excelled in giving advice, in counselling and consoling. The sources mention this many times. Stephen of Spain, who was still a student at the University when Dominic first came to Bologna and clothed him in the habit can testify for all:
Both the brethren and others found Brother Dominic to be the best possible comforter when they were troubled with temptations. He knew this fact because when he first entered religion and was a novice he had many temptations. But he was put completely at ease by the preaching and counselling of St. Dominic. Many other novices told him that they had had the same experience with Dominic. The witness never saw any man who was more zealous to strengthen the Order, to preserve the Rule, and to comfort the brethren. He did not think Dominic would ever have a comparable successor in these qualities.
The secret source of Dominic’s priestly strength was his great reliance on Divine Providence. His years of work among the Albigenses were apparently, by human standards, not very fruitful. There were conversions, but there is no record of mass conversions. They did not come by the thousands and the tens of thousands, as some of the older lives say. Trusting in Divine Providence Dominic was willing to continue for many years in the face of a very difficult apostolate. He kept working and hoping for the harvest. It did not come in southern France, but he gathered it when he founded the Order. His Order is still reaping the benefit of his trust. When Dominic had only sixteen brethren, he scattered them, contrary to the advice of the Bishop of Toulouse and Count Simon de Montfort. He sent them to Paris, Spain, and Rome, despite the human prudence of his friends. They thought he was tearing down what he had laboriously built, destroying the Order he had just founded. But he had the supernatural prudence that comes from the Holy Spirit. “Seed rots when it is hoarded, bears fruit when it is sown.” When he came to Paris, just two years later, instead of the original eight, he found thirty. A few years more and his disciples were counted by the thousands.
The very fact that Dominic was willing to found a Mendicant Order, one that owned no property and had no revenues, indicates his mighty trust in Divine Providence. He relied on the free-will offerings the faithful would give him. He so believed in God’s help, that he did not want the brethren to store up more food than they needed for a day, That is why they sometimes went hungry. But his faith was rewarded, more than once, by the miracle of the loaves. Both in Bologna and in Rome there were days when the early friars, unknown newcomers, did not get enough from their begging tours. Then they found a bare refectory. There was nothing to place before them. But the Founder had them offer the grace and take their places just the same. At Rome the angels came and distributed a loaf of bread to each friar. This was the answer of Providence to Dominic’s trust. Some twenty years after his death, the Order made the law less severe. The friars were now allowed to store up enough for a year. Did the friars lack the trust of their Father? Or had the Order grown too large all of a sudden? By the end of the thirteenth century, too, the charity of the people had grown noticeably cooler.
The Imitation of St. Dominic
St. Dominic’s priestliness shines in his love for the doctrines of the Church, his personal love for Our Lord in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, his penances in imitation of the Suffering Christ, his love for souls, his ability to give advice and counsel, his trust in Divine Providence. Priestliness is his chief characteristic. Dominican laybrothers, nuns, sisters, and ternaries might say, “How can we follow him in this?” “How can we imitate his priestliness?” Baptism stamped the Christian character on their souls, the character of Christ, the Eternal Priest. It is a sharing in His priesthood, enabling them to share in the priestly worship of the Church. In this sense all Dominicans can live their lives in a priestly manner, imitating the priestliness of their Founder — his love for the doctrines of the Church, for the suffering Christ, for the Mass and Blessed Sacrament, for souls, and his reliance on Providence.
All Dominicans should nourish a tender devotion to their founder. It does not matter that they find another saint more effective in answering prayers. We do not pray, primarily, to get answers, at least, not material answers. From St. Dominic we shall receive spiritual answers: the ability to understand the Dominican life, to live it well and to be zealous for souls.
Dominicans should go to Dominic because he is a priest and remains one for all eternity. In heaven, he keeps the priestly outlook, still wants to help souls, can still counsel and give advice. When we are troubled, we go to the priest. Dominicans! go to Dominic, the priest. Go to him because he is also your father. Parents in heaven see their children on earth, know their needs and difficulties, and can help them. A spiritual relationship binds St. Dominic to his children. The vows of the religious and the promise of the tertiary make them his sons and daughters. Having a claim on him, they should remind him of that fact. They should go to him, asking for spiritual blessings, for the grace of contemplation, for the grace to live their Dominican life in a holy way. They should remind him that he promised to answer. When the friars came sorrowfully to his deathbed, recommending themselves to his prayers, his reassuring words were: “Where I am going, I will be of more use to you than I have ever been on earth.” Fulfill, O Father, what thou hast said . . . . .