August 8th is the Feast Day of St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers and my Favorite Saint after Mary and Joseph. In the 12th canto of the Paradiso, the poet Dante speaks of the legacy of St. Dominic to the Catholic Church: “Then with both learning and zeal and with the apostolic office, he went forth like a torrent driven from a high spring.” For 800 years the friars, nuns and sisters of this order have been serving the Church in a multitude of capacities, ranging from teachers, preachers and missionaries to caregivers for the sick — all the while, trying to pursue their active works motivated by a spirit of contemplation. In this they reflect the temperament and life of the founder.
Born from Spanish nobility, Dominic committed himself early on to prayer, learning, and charity. He used to stay up all night in prayer. He is said to have spoken only to or about God. Though he was intensely committed to learning, he sold his valuable books as a student during a famine to feed the hungry. He longed also to sacrifice his own life to convert heretics and pagans.
As a member of the Augustinian order in Osma, Spain, he was considered such a valuable and talented individual that he was sent with his bishop on a diplomatic mission to Denmark by the king. While on this trip, he encountered the Albigensian heresy in southern France, which taught that matter was evil and only spirit was good. He was so distressed by the obvious destructive results of this teaching that he and his bishop both decided to preach to the Albigensians in order to convert them.
The Catholic preachers sent by the Pope hadn’t been successful to this point, partially because of their lavish lifestyle and also their lack of learning. Dominic and his bishop chose to remedy this by following the life of the apostles: going two by two, begging their bread and basing their preaching on sound doctrine. Eventually the bishop returned to Spain and died, but Dominic remained with the preachers who had come to join them.
Sister Cecilia, an early convert and religious of the convent he found, testified that he was a joyful man and “a kind of radiance shown from his brow, inspiring love and reverence in all.” She also testified that he said there was only one beauty, “beauty of soul.” This beauty of soul was demonstrated in his decision, because of the failure of the Albigensian mission, to disperse his little community to large cities and universities throughout Europe. He so recognized the importance of education and sound philosophy for the formation of good itinerant preachers that study was a religious observance equal to the choral office in Dominican houses, and the friars sought chairs of theology in the budding European universities. This emphasis on education culminated in St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Dominican order has striven through plague, reformation, revolution, war and persecution to carry the spirit of this unique and wonderful man to the whole world. His was a spirit born of grace and prayer, and so the order has a number of characteristics: the spirit and life of the apostles, regular life and fraternal charity and openness to expressing the truth to the people of every age and culture in a way that takes account of their openness to receiving it.
The first quality has always entailed a respect for and defense of the pope, whose direct intervention led to the founding of the order. Apostolic spirit also means not only a commitment for the truth of the Catholic faith, but a kind of itinerancy and pursuit of holy poverty. Regular life incorporates certain religious observances common to monastic communities since the early days of the Church: habit, cloister, community life and common prayer centered on the Mass and the Divine Office chanted in choir.
Though the order has pursued a rigorous formation, a unique element is that each member has always been encouraged to develop his or her individual personality. When one has met one Dominican, one doesn’t necessarily have a clue what the next one will be like. This makes it much easier to meet people where they are and not where we would like them to be. Dominicans, together with the Franciscans, were zealous to encourage frequent Confession in mass settings, and so were accomplished confessors.
Every historical period and culture stands in need of clear, doctrinal teaching about the Catholic faith taught in a human and joyful way. The witness of the Dominican contemplative apostle is as urgent now as it was in the 13th century, indeed in any century. Dominic and his sons and daughters have always exhibited a knack for what Gilbert and Sullivan call: “gilding the philosophic pill.” Dominic was convinced — and we should be too — that one cannot check one’s brain at the door when one is baptized. Further, the assiduous study of sacred truth is our only hope in a jaded, dangerous and relativistic age.
The story goes that St. Dominic had a vision of St. Peter, who gave him a staff for guiding others, and St. Paul, who gave him a book to do so by truth. When they did this, they said, expressing the aspirations of all of the friars, nuns and sisters in the order: “Go and preach, for you are chosen by God to do that occupation and ministry.”