Dominic was a man who pursued his dream and who remained faithful to his calling even when he found himself in the midst of failure. T
Simon Roche O.P. portrays St Dominic as a man who pursued his dream and who remained faithful to his calling even when he found himself in the midst of failure. The image (to the right) shows Fra Angelico’s St Dominic at study.
Dominic’s life was shaped by his experience, at home, as a student in Palencia and by his journeys north of the Pyrenees. All his family were in some way affected by his mother’s concern for the poor, a source of gentle admonishment by her husband. Her eldest son, Anthony, devoted his life to the care of the poor in a house of hospitality for tramps, pilgrims and scholars.
We see it in Dominic as a young student in Palencia. It takes little to imagine the panic in the city as famine spread and the hungry streamed into the city. Food and grain were hoarded, the pleas of the poor knocking on the door were ignored, then fear and guilt as people began to die. The response of the young student was immediate: he sold all his belongings, even his books, establishing a centre for almsgiving. Our wildest acts of generosity never go beyond a certain prudence; we make some provision for the future. He sold everything but he didn’t give the money away in one dramatic gesture; rather, he started a charity, a place both to collect and channel help to the victims of famine. Others joined him and years later, lonely and abandoned in the south of France he appealed to members of this group to join him. They are numbered among his first companions.
Having completed his studies, he joined the cathedral chapter at Osma and in 1203 accompanied his friend and bishop, Diego, to northern Europe. Crossing the Pyrenees they came in contact with the Albigensians. Dominic spent his first night in Toulouse arguing with an Albigensian inn-keeper. Later, contact with the people of northern Europe sparked the desire to be a missionary; a desire that was never fulfilled but one that never died. He confided his intention to William of Montferrat, a young student of theology; they planned to go together when he had finished organising the Order. Dominic began to grow a beard but he never made it to the mission field; others would fulfil his dream.
The Montpellier event
One evening in June 1206 Bishop Diego and Dominic entered the walled city of Montpellier. Here they met dispirited papal legates preaching to the Albigensians. Far from consoling them, Diego shocked them with a proposal, which to them smacked of novelty.
The greatest asset that the Albigensians possessed was their evangelical fervour. If the legates were to have any credibility, they, like the Albigensians, must imitate the life style of the apostles, preaching on foot in poverty. It was more than they could stomach. The legates suggested that Diego might lead them. Diego and Dominic chose to do just that and the enterprise known as the preaching or the Preaching of Jesus Christ began. Then, suddenly, disaster struck. In September 1207 Bishop Diego visited Spain to settle his affairs and died. It threw the mission into confusion. All the missionaries went back to their homes. Dominic was the only one to carry on the preaching.
As he stood on the little promontory, the Signadou (sign from God) in Fanjeaux high above the surrounding countryside in the south of France, he could look down to the plains and the Albigensian lands stretching to the horizon. If he turned, there were the snow covered peeks of the Pyrenees, Spain and home. The thought must have crossed his mind, should he too leave? He remained, and continued to play upon the original inspiration. The Montpellier event was to occupy the rest of his life.
Faithful in failure
If legend asserts his early preaching was successful the facts speak otherwise. Fr Vicaire suggests the most painful trial Dominic experienced in southern France was the fewness of conversions which were sometimes the outcome of fear. Abandoned and alone he knew the taste of failure, but remained faithful to his initial inspiration, preaching throughout the region. He worked on in the conviction that in the Lord’s time the tide would turn. Fidelity in the midst of failure is not the least of Dominic’s legacies.
It was not until 1215, that the dream finally began to come true. To safeguard the continuity of ‘the preaching, the Order was born. First, there was the foundation of the nuns at Prouille in 1206. By 1214 he had gathered a small group of men who shared his life. (The image above and by on the right Greco shows St Dominic at prayer )
The project was preaching on the pattern of the apostles. One of the weaknesses of the popular evangelical movements of the time was a lack of learning. Dominic recognised this and from the beginning insisted on the need for study in the service of preaching. Jordan of Saxony, his successor and biographer records a seemingly unimportant detail about the living quarters at the church of St. Romanus in Toulouse. A cloister was soon built, with cells above it suitable for studying and sleeping in. It marked a revolution in religious life. For each member of a community to have a cell where they might study and sleep was unusual if not unheard of. In the summer of 1215, he took his companions to the course of studies offered by Alexander Stavensby, an Englishman at that time lecturing in Toulouse.
The man and his spirit
The most important gift that a founder transmits is a share in his spirit. What characterised Dominic’s spirit? He was a man of great charm and breath of vision, extraordinary compassion, an incredible zeal for souls, in deep union with God, an organisational genius.
Contrary to the previous tradition of religious life, Dominic believed in the virtue of laughter. (S. Tugwell, Prayer, Veritas Publications, Dublin 1974, Vol.1, p.138). Jordan of Saxony, his successor and biographer wrote: ‘His face was always radiant with cheerfulness… and through his cheerfulness… found his way into people’s hearts as soon as they saw him.’ (Jordan of Saxony, On the Beginnings of the Order of Preachers. Ed. and Tr. by S. Tugwell, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1982. p.26, no. 103). If he wept he also knew how to laugh. Dominic was one of a new type of saint who appeared at the end of the eleventh century for whom joyousness of heart was felt to be a gospel characteristic. The Dominican spirit is a joyous spirit that affirms the goodness of created things with faith in the absolute priority of God’s grace in any human action. There is no cramped concern with self but rather trust in God. Failure or adversity might cloud but not diminish inner peace. Such was the tranquil and joyous spirit Dominic communicated to his family.
The evidence of the witnesses at the process of his canonization has preserved the sudden spontaneity of his ways, his quick vivid phrases. It is significant that they have been echoed, often unconsciously among his followers for seven hundred years… Spontaneity was to remain a note of Dominican spirituality and perhaps the primary characteristic of its school of prayer. (G. Mathew, Dominican Spirituality, Blackfriars, Oxford, 1956, p. 653). His immediate response to opposition was joy: ‘now we can hope for victory.’ Frequently on the road he would turn to his companion and say: ‘Go on ahead, let us think of the Saviour.’ Then he would fall behind to be alone in prayer.
When he heard the bell of a monastery or church, he changed direction to join the praying community. When requests for preaching could not be met, he sent a novice. ‘Go confidently, the Lord will be with you.’ When a woman asked him to visit her sick daughter his immediate reply was: ‘Go home, I will pray for her.’ When there was a shortage of food he would say: ‘Go and pray; the Lord will provide.’ He expected the same spontaneous response in others. Stephen, a student at the university in Bologna recalled an evening when Dominic sent for him. He was at supper with his friends when the knock came at the door. ‘Brother Dominic says that you are to come to him immediately.’ ‘I will come when I have eaten.’ ‘No! You must come right now.’ When he reached St. Nicholas’, Dominic was waiting for him. ‘He clothed me in the habit!’ Stephen reported. If his spontaneity owed something to his Spanish temperament, it was rooted, also, in a keen listening to the Spirit.
Present to God: present to the world
To be present to God and to be present to the world are the qualities that distinguish Dominic and his spirit. Always among people, he had a deep companionship with God. John of Spain, rebel and critic, furious at Dominic’s decision to disperse the first brothers from Toulouse in 1216 was the first to give evidence at the process of canonisation. He speaks movingly of the time he spent in Dominic’s company. He prayed more persistently than all the brothers… He nearly always spent the night in the church. I saw him by the light in the Church. I sometimes went and prayed with him and saw in him a fervour of prayer such as I have never seen the like of.’ He loved choral prayer. His personal prayer was a source of fascination to the brothers. In the Nine ways of prayer of St Dominic there is a moving portrait: ‘After the office or a meal he would quickly go and sit down in a place by himself to read or pray. . . open a book letting what he read touch his mind, as if he actually heard the Lord speaking to him… It was as if he were discussing something with a friend. .. At other times, he listened quietly, discussing and arguing, then he would laugh and weep all at once and fix his gaze and bow his head.’
They watched him, even imitated him. He was noisy and groaned; they began to groan! Vicaire suggests Dominic composed the section in the Dominican Constitutions on the role of the novice master. With great humour it reads: ‘he should teach the novices to pray quietly so that they do not disturb others with their roaring!’ He had the rare gift of being able to laugh at himself.
Then, there was his respect for the uniqueness of each person, and so the Dominican spirit has always been marked by individual variety. The saints and the blessed of the Order have achieved sanctity in very different settings: in houses of study, in sisters’ monasteries and convents, in parish houses, as missionaries, as lay Dominicans or in the itinerant life of the preacher (cf. Matthew, p.656).
A ‘Jesus spirituality’
Another characteristic is Dominic’s utter concentration upon the personal following of Christ that was to dwarf all other devotions in the Order, the desire to spend himself for others as Christ had spent himself on the Cross. That same desire was to drive the greatest missionaries among us, across the boundaries of the known world – east to Central Asia and later west across the Atlantic and south into the Asia-Pacific area.
Dominic gave the Order its ‘Jesus Spirituality,’ its devotion to the humanity of Christ that has so characterised the lives of men and women like Alben the Great, Margaret of Hungary, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Rose of Lima, and so many others. Inseparable horn this was devotion to Mary, mother of God.
Open to new ideas
Another quality was his openness to new charisms, to new ideas, to truth from whatever source it came. He lived during a time of great social change, when the very structures of society were being scrutinised and questioned. He read the signs of his time and committed himself to the future. He saw the need for structures that did not close doors. With his practical genius for organisation he made a commitment to structures that were democratic and flexible, adapted to new and emerging charisms. As if to say, ‘If there is no need for change today, let us remain open to possible change tomorrow’. He conceived of the Constitutions not as static pieces of legislation but rather as laws which must be constantly tested and reappraised.
Cardinal Villot in a letter to the Order in 1970 described Dominic as ‘stupefyingly free’. For Dominic, freedom of spirit was not an accident but a deliberate choice, an apostolic tool. Dominican spirituality is incarnational, enmeshed in the human condition and the Cross of Jesus. It does not flee the world, rather the world is a friend, if a wounded friend. Dominic’s itinerant life style, his insistence on mobility, a democratic system of government, the supremacy of the General Chapter in the Order, the submission of his opinions to others, the law of dispensation, a simplified liturgy, the simplicity of Dominican buildings, his openness to new ideas and new charisms – all of these are aspects of his conviction of the need of apostolic freedom. His very spontaneity was a fruit of this apostolic freedom which he wished to inspire in his followers: the freedom to preach. There is nothing that frightens us more than freedom and the responsibility it imposes, but for Dominicans, as for others, it is not a matter of choice. It is an essential ingredient of Dominic’s spirit. We have not always been faithful to it.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (Sept-Oct 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.