Feast of Saint Dominic
Stories Seldom Heard
By Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P.
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome those who were on the eight day silent retreat at Vallombrosa Center, Menlo Park, CA.
The last few months we have been focusing on the Acts of the Apostles. Hopefully you have had time to include the Acts as part of your summer reading. If you haven’t, there still is time!
We, however, for this month of August will change our focus because August 8th is the Feast of St Dominic. As I have mentioned before, we Dominicans have invited you to participate in our 800th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Order.
But if you have not been able to attend a specific Dominican celebration, you can share our joy through this brief account of Dominic’s story. Certainly, Dominic’s story is one of the Stories Seldom Heard.
Dominic was a man who listened to the Word of God, was formed by it and followed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When he was a young man he, like us, had no idea what God was going to ask of him. He had no inkling that he would found an Order of Preachers that was first known as the “Holy Preaching.”
Dominic de Guzman was born in Caleruega, a small village in the region of Castile in Spain. His mother was Blessed Jane d’Aza, his father Blessed Felix. A few years after Dominic was ordained, Bishop Diego asked Dominic to travel with him to Denmark to find a wife for the son of the King of Castile. At least that’s what Bishop Diego and Dominic thought the goal of their journey was, but like our lives, the project they embarked on became more complex. As they traveled into southern France, Dominic was shocked. Barbarians were pillaging small villages. Land was stolen from those who did not have armies to protect themselves. Poverty was stripping people of their humanity. The countryside was seeded with heresy. The religious institutions were divided and the laity disillusioned by the scandalous lifestyle of the clergy and the paucity of good preaching.
Faced with these realities, Dominic and Diego decided to extend their mission and began preaching in southern France in the Land of Languedoc, the country of the Cathars. (Even today they have modern signs posted on the roadsides saying, “Entering the Land of the Cathars.”) Sadly, Bishop Diego died soon after they began their preaching. Even though this was a tremendous loss to Dominic it did not deter him because in the area of Toulouse and Prouilhe, the Cathar heresy was spreading . It was led by local Cathar clergy who were not well educated in theology. The heresy is rather complex because it has both political and religious aspects to it. Stated simply, those who followed the teaching of the Cathars believed in a god of evil and a god of good. They taught that everything that was of matter, even our own bodies, was considered evil. On the other hand, they taught that everything spiritual was good. Thus, the less a person relied on matter and things of the flesh, the holier the person was.
The Cathars lived very austere lives. No one could fault them for having anything that was unnecessary or frivolous. They promised to live by the simplicity of the gospel and they lived it to the letter of the law. Dominic matched their simplicity of life and austerity, but he preached a different, truer interpretation of the gospel. He preached that all of God’s creation is sacred and holy. This theme is a major thread that runs through Dominican spirituality and preaching even to this day. Dominic’s love and appreciation of the created world was derived from his study of scripture. He read the world with biblical eyes that enabled him to see in the world what was already there: the sacredness of creation. What he heard in scripture influenced both his preaching and the way he lived his everyday life.
This insight concerning the goodness of creation and its power to reveal God’s self continued to influence Dominic’s followers. While reflecting on the revelatory power of creation, Meister Eckhart, a 13th c. Dominican author and mystic, said “Every creature is a word of God,” and, “If we could have known God without the created world God would never have created the universe.” Following this same line of thinking, another Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, said, “There are two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.” This theological perspective is especially important to us in our modern time because it reminds us that our ecological crisis is not just a secular concern, but also a theological/religious issue. Pope Francis’ Laudato Is not only deepens our understanding of this issue, but also helps us understand that our ecological crisis affects our understanding of God and our spiritual lives of prayer.
As Dominic preached many people heard the Word of God in a new way and were converted. This, however, caused some practical problems. Because of their new religious beliefs, many converts were rejected by their families. It was during this time that nine Cathar women converts came to Dominic because they had nowhere else to go. It must have been a time of great fear and confusion for all of them. Yet this first group of nine women, whom Dominic named the “Holy Preaching,” helped Dominic understand what God was asking of him. As Dominic prayed and listened to the Word of God in community with the women, Dominic found a place of strength and grace. Through their presence and prayers together, Dominic began envisioning a new way of living his life as a priest and preacher. Slowly out of the hard work and chaos of each day Dominic’s plan for a band of preachers began to take shape.
Dominic realized that he didn’t have all of the answers. For Dominic this realization was a grace. Listening to and respecting other people’s insights became a way of life for Dominic and later for the Order. Each person, whether lay or ordained, woman or man, had gifts to contribute to the mission of preaching: a preaching that began at home. Community life, common prayer, meditation, study of scripture and the needs of the world fueled Dominic’s passion for preaching the truth of God’s love. Soon other like-minded people were drawn to his vision.
The politics of the early 13th century influenced Dominic’s decisions. He dispersed the preachers from Toulouse for fear that Toulouse might once again come under the control of the Cathars. The brethren were sent to the great universities and cities of Europe: Paris, Madrid and Bologna. As the numbers of preachers grew, Dominic continued sending the preachers forth two by two scattering of the seeds of truth throughout Europe.
Throughout the centuries, trusting and appreciating the gifts of each person has continued to be an essential element of Dominican life. We hear this underscored in our Dominican sister Catherine of Siena’s writings. In her Dialogue, God is speaking to Catherine and says: “For I could have well supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from God to one another.” This appreciation is not just for vowed Dominicans. The gospel reminds us that this is a practice that extends far beyond the church doors. Acknowledging and promoting the gifts of others is an essential aspect of our Christian life. It encourages the unique gifts God has given each person so that the common good of all will be served and strengthened.
Another characteristic of Dominic’s preaching that is especially celebrated during this Year of Mercy was his extraordinary compassion for those who suffered. Because of this Dominic became known as the preacher of Gospel Mercy: a mercy that reflects the motherly tenderness of God’s concern for us. In scripture God says I am a “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in mercy and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). God’s kindness lasts for a thousand generations (Deut 5:9). Meister Eckhart, reflecting on the importance of mercy in our lives put it this way: “The end of all prayer is compassion.”
By 1216 Dominic’s unique vision of an Order of Preachers had received approval from Pope Honorius III. Dominic’s vision was a huge shift from what religious life looked like at that time. The Dominicans did not live in monasteries. They were itinerant preachers. They were mendicants who traveled without money and begged for their food. In 1217 Pope Honorius confirmed that preaching was the reason for the Order. In 1218 Pope Honorius not only reinforced the understanding that bishops were to preach, but also instructed the bishops to accept the Order of Preachers. (1)
From the very beginning, Dominican life had four formative values. Common life from the beginning meant simplicity of life style and the sharing of material goods. Common life also implies an openness of heart and mind and a willingness to share one’s faith and doubts with other community members. Common and personal prayer and meditation, listening to the Word, is an essential daily practice. Assiduous study of scripture, theology and of the cultural milieus in which one lives helps the preacher contemporize the truth of the gospel. Silence is the time that preachers use to craft the words and wisdom that have come to them as a result of their common life, prayer and study. There are other aspects of Dominican life that identify the Order of Preachers. Dominic supported a democratic style of governance. Each person’s voice was important and respected. The Rule that Dominic chose did not bind under sin as some of the other Rules did at that time. Dispensations were given according to each person’s needs.
There is certainly much more that could be said about Dominic and the Order of Preachers. There are many ways of living out our religious lives. Centuries later St. Ignatius said, “Suppose that I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” (2) But Ignatius was called to a different style of life.
Most of the great saints did not perform miracles or offer their bodies to be burned. Most of them were ordinary people like us. They were people who prayed, meditated, shared their wisdom with others and preached the gospel through their every day actions. The month of August is the last month of the summer. So it’s a good time to take advantage of the slower pace of these “school-less” days and reflect on our lives because as Jesus’ disciples we too are called to preach the gospel. We too are the “Holy Preaching.”
- Donald Goergen , O.P., St. Dominic: The Story of a Preaching Friar, Paulist Press, New York, 2016. P. 61,62
- Ibid, p. 75
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael,California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “firstname.lastname@example.org“.