Saint Dominic’s Mission: To Pray, To Preach, To Bless
“To Praise”: Saint Dominic and the Contemplative Style
We will focus soon enough on Saint Dominic as the foundational and ultimate Dominican doer, but this great saint was a first-rate thinker as well. His heart burned with zeal to preach the good news, and he knew that to do so most effectively he needed to know that message by heart.
Indeed, Brother John of Spain, the fifth sworn witness in his canonization process, would testify on August 10, 1233: “He always carried around with him the Gospel of Matthew and the letters of Paul, and he read them so often that he knew them by heart.”
Saint Catherine of Siena, a spiritual daughter of the next century, would write: “Of a truth Dominic and Francis were two columns of the holy Church. Francis with the poverty which was specially his own, as has been said, and Dominic with his learning.”
Dominic knew well that to do what is good we must know what is true. We see this strong intellectual tradition carried on in the Dominican motto of Veritas (Truth), and as Dominic knew so well and felt so powerfully, the truth (as well as the way and the life) is Christ Himself. Dominic was a lover of books; he studied diligently to become a priest and a canon attached to the cathedral at Osma, Spain . He recruited his novices especially from university settings and sent them to learn and to teach. In a few generations his spiritual sons would become the greatest of all professors in the world and theologians to the pope himself . Every Dominican convent would become a house of learning .
God has provided us with virtues to perfect our powers of thinking and contemplation . The three fundamental intellectual virtues of science (or knowledge — from sciere, “to know”), understanding, and wisdom may be found together in the Scriptures: “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches” (Prov . 24:3–4). These virtues were examined in depth by pagan philosophers, including Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, and raised to the heights of Christian understanding in the writings of a son of Saint Dominic, Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and within his own massive Summa Theologica.
Saint Dominic maintained a purity of body and mind that enabled him to see God reflected in His creation on earth, before he would see him face-to-face in heaven. The highest of the intellectual virtues is wisdom. Aristotle once wrote that it is better to know a little about sublime things than a lot about mean or trivial things, and that sublime things are the subject matter of wisdom. Dominic never focused on the mean or the trivial but wisely kept his sights on God. Many of the brothers who testified at his canonization reported that Dominic rarely talked except about God and the things of God, or to God in prayer, and he encouraged his brothers to do the same. “Let us think about our Savior,” he would frequently say, according to Brother Paul of Venice.
Dominic continually worked to build those intellectual virtues, the oars with which he rowed toward truth, but even more importantly, he was always receptive to the Holy Spirit’s corresponding gifts of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, powerful winds God put behind his sails. Saints Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, two of the greatest thinkers of all time, were particularly known for the ways in which they used their intellectual virtues and gifts to integrate or synthesize — to reconcile, put together, and make sense of abstract and difficult subject matter, and oftentimes of conflicting opinions and approaches to knowledge.
Some have noted that Dominic did not create novelties so much as he joined and brought together in new ways great traditions and lessons from the past. Here I will briefly highlight just a few of his greatest syntheses:
Matter and spirit: Dominic fought Albigensianism, a heresy in Southern France that sprang from Manichean roots that considered the material realm and the body as evil and only the realm of the spirit as good. Dominic was a champion of the goodness of all of creation and of the reality of Christ in His Incarnation. One of the earliest stories of his preaching successes was when he stayed up all night in conversation and won an Albigensian innkeeper back to the fullness of truth of the Church.
Body and soul: Dominic did not see us as souls trapped in bodies but as ensouled bodies, as mind-soul unities whose bodies and souls both are gifts from God. He knew by heart the words of Saint Paul: “Glorify God in your body” (1 Cor . 6:20), and he sought to praise God through his body. Those who knew him have detailed nine ways in which Dominic prayed using different bodily postures, including bowing, lying down, standing, stretching, reading, walking, and more. Even today, these nine ways can lead all of us to a greater harmony of body and soul for the greater glory of God.
Apostolic simplicity and the complex institutions of the medieval Catholic Church: Many people in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries believed that the Church in many ways had moved away from and contrary to the spirit of the gospel as it was lived in the time of Christ and His apostles. This paved the way for heretical movements that claimed to have reclaimed that old-time religion of apostolic simplicity by discarding the Catholic Church. Dominic understood there was need for reform, but he knew as well the indispensability and indestructibility of the Church that Christ had built on the rock that was Peter. (We’ll examine how he did this when we look at him as a doer.)
The contemplative and the active life: The order Saint Dominic founded created a synthesis between the contemplative and active lives, the life of prayer and study and the life of active evangelization, the life of secluded stability and the life of itinerant preachers, life in the country and life in the city . Dominic and his brethren would pray and study in order to preach the good news . Indeed, he would shorten certain prayers and lighten certain duties so that his Friars Preachers would not be unnecessarily hindered in their first and foremost calling to preach the news of Christ and to bring Christ’s salvation to the souls of their neighbors, even to the ends of the earth .
“To Preach”: Saint Dominic and the Apostolic Style
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). This was a message Saint Dominic took to heart all his life, and what did this consummate doer strive the most to do? In Christ’s words, to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). This was Saint Dominic’s burning objective, the salvation of souls, and his contemplative acts of prayerful study and teaching were the means to accomplish this apostolic end. This is where Dominic displayed that “energetic action and eager zeal to spread the faith” like few before him or since. To Saint Dominic, to be a doer was to become an apostle for Christ and to produce more disciples as zealous as he was.
Another masterful doer and tireless preacher, in many ways like Saint Dominic, Saint Patrick, the “Apostle to the Irish,” once wrote in his Confessio, “I preached and still preach to strengthen and confirm your faith. I wish you would all strive to do bigger and better things. This would be my glory for the wise son is his father’s glory.” Patrick gave birth to an entire island nation of saints, of holy sons and daughters who redounded upon his and God’s glory. Eight hundred years later and five hundred or so miles to the southeast, Dominic gave birth to a continent of his own saints, who soon spread around the world doing bigger and better things.
Doers engaged in the apostolic life must possess the moral cardinal virtues. These are the virtues that allow us to achieve the good, and Dominic possessed them to a heroic degree. His self-control, born of temperance, was remarkable — he wore the simplest of habits, had no room of his own, ate sparsely, remained chaste and sober throughout his life — yet he did not err on the side of deficiency in this virtue by failing to recognize that things of the body are inherently good in their proper measure. He was a temperate man, but certainly not a joyless one.
Dominic’s fortitude was also truly remarkable. Fortitude is the virtue that endures the difficult to achieve the good, and Dominic gladly faced any obstacles to bring to others the good of salvation. He traveled great distances on foot throughout Europe, often in bare feet over unyielding ground, preaching to all who would hear him along the way. If he would trip on a stone along the way, he’d call out in delight that he was doing penance, and he would not put his shoes back on until he arrived at his destination. He was so enduring in his prayer and preaching that he sometimes fell asleep at prayer late at night, even at dinner and even before the altar. He frequently expressed the willingness to be martyred for Christ as well, if that should be God’s plan for him.
Dominic also embodied the practical wisdom of prudence as he crafted the means to reach his holy goals. His Order of Preachers was established by papal bull on December 22, 1216, and by the end of his life, just five years later, he and his order were already fanning out in great numbers, preaching the gospel toward the end of the earth in their five established provinces, with six more in the works.
To encapsulate Dominic’s work as a doer in one word, that word would certainly be . . . preacher, and moving to our last cardinal virtue, here we see Saint Dominic’s love for justice embodied in his zeal for preaching. Justice renders to each person his rightful due. Dominic believed all men and women had a right to learn the pathway to their salvation, and he had an obligation to make darn sure that they knew it! His grace of preaching was so powerful and his zeal to preach so intense that witnesses report that he often wept while he preached and made his listeners do the same.
“To Bless”: Saint Dominic and the Charitable Style
Although classified as a doer, there was no doubt in the mind of anyone who knew him that Saint Dominic was also the most fervent of lovers. Saint Thomas, among others, has compared love to a furnace, and the more powerful the furnace, the further will its heat extend. Dominic strove to bring that white-hot love to the very ends of the earth. He sought to bring Christ to the pagan Cumans of modern-day Hungary and to the Muslim Saracens. The furnace of his love reached so far that it is said he wept even for the damned.
Thomas called charity a friendship with God, and we see friendship cherished and displayed in the actions of Saint Dominic. Consider how he sent his preachers out in twos, so that they might support and buttress each other . Ancient Greek thinkers described true friendship as “two hearts within one breast.” A loving Christian is empathetic to the needs of his friend, attentive to ways he might reach out to serve him in a proactive way. Christ told us, after all, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, not just to react to them.
Psychotherapist Alfred Adler used to say in reference to therapy clients that empathetic therapists “see with their eyes and hear with their ears.” Well, Dominic was the most empathetic friend and comforter, seeing with his friends’ eyes, hearing with their ears, and feeling with their hearts. In a true story both amazing and amusing, one Brother Stephen of Spain reported that one evening after he had confessed his sins to Dominic, he was eating dinner with some friends when two men came to tell him that Dominic said he was to come and see him. He told them to go away and that he’d come after dinner. They told him that Dominic said he was supposed to come now! He got up from the table and went with the two men, only to find the church of Saint Nicholas full of many Dominicans . Dominic told them to show Stephen how to do a venia because Dominic had decided to admit him that night to the order. Dominic clothed him in the habit, saying: “I am giving you arms with which you will be able to fight the devil all the days of your life.”
Oddly enough, Stephen did not recall that he had ever spoken with Dominic about joining the order! It was not that Stephen was complaining, though, since he said he thought Dominic must have received some kind of divine revelation or inspiration about the matter. Stephen’s testimony was made fifteen years after the event as the seventh witness in Dominic’s canonization process, and Stephen had become, by the time of his testimony, the Dominican provincial in charge of Lombardy.
There are also many stories of Saint Dominic’s caring tenderness in the simple, small things in life, as when Blessed Sister Cecilia reported that when he came home to Bologna from Spain, he brought for each of the Sisters a wooden spoon that the Sisters would forever cherish.
There was also a very special way that Saint Dominic was a lover, and that was in his role as a father of an order and of a family of saints. We are told to honor our fathers and our mothers, and we honor Dominic as a great spiritual father. Indeed, his very order would thrive partly because of the way it honored the great Church Fathers. It was said of Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, that he so honored the Fathers of the Church, that he, in a way, inherited the intellect of them all.
Dominic’s love for his brothers can be seen in his humble desire to be buried under their feet, as he was in Bologna, at the age of fifty-one, after a period of illness. In a way, all Dominicans are his children and the fruits of his contemplation.
Dominic wrote little, and we don’t have much more than one of his brief letters to Sisters in Madrid. In it he told them he was delighted with their way of life and thanked God for them. He exhorted them, saying, “May you make progress every day!” Countless Dominicans have progressed in countless ways in the third of a million days since he wrote those words.