The Order of Preachers has no fixed methodological ‘mental prayer’ or theory of mystical progress with regard to the ‘inner life’. Although there is no spirituality of St Dominic in the sense of an original method of reaching perfection, the Order retains a mission, spirit and a means to holiness clearly defined by Dominic himself. These are aptly described by the apostle St Paul:
‘Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time will come when people will not endure sound teaching but, having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry’ (2 Tim 4: 2-5).
Dominic had urged his brothers to be ‘true preachers of the gospel, following in the footsteps of their saviour; not speaking except with God or about God, whether amongst themselves or for the benefit of their neighbour.’ This is the essence of Dominican life: to speak with God and about God – the intimate combination of the contemplative life and active apostolate.
‘To speak with God’
The life of the preacher requires constant conversion. Conversion must take place not simply because of a fear of hell or the desire to be pleasing to God, but primarily to accompany and imitate Jesus the poor preacher. Conversion is to be conformed to Christ. Conversion is to seek the salvation of others and one’s own. In Dominic, this was aided by his gift of compunction: repentance, compassion and sorrow because of sins.
Whilst celebrating Mass Dominic shed tears so copiously ‘that one drop did not wait for the next’. He was also known to weep greatly during the chanting of the Office, and in his private prayer. Both in and out of his priory ‘he often wept while preaching and moved his hearers to tears’.
Dominic welcomed penance for the expiation of his own sins, and also as a reparation for those of others. By penance he desired to unite himself to the crucified Christ. Indeed, he often meditated on the crucifix, ‘the book of the art of divine love’. He would often proclaim to his brothers, ‘Beloved, trust in the Lord that we shall obtain the victory, for our sins have already been washed away in blood.’ His contemporaries noted Dominic’s great joy in accepting penance: the stones wounding his bare feet, being badly received, scoffed at, ill-treated by his enemies, and threatened with death. He bore all this gladly because that was how Jesus had been treated.
A very important penitential act for Dominic was silence. He valued it so highly that he had it explicitly mentioned in the Order’s constitutions. By this he desired to live totally and intensely in the presence of God. He observed it everywhere; in the convent and equally while travelling, where he made the brethren respect it from evening till morning. He was accustomed to walk with his eyes lowered, in order to preserve his sense of God’s presence.
3. Common life
It is the vow of obedience that binds a friar to community life. Obedience is a safeguard to fraternal communion. While Dominic insisted on obedience, he was himself obedient to the decisions of the general chapter. ‘Dominic did not follow his own wishes, but those of the brethren who were with him.’
Common life involves living the religious life as prescribed by the Rule, the Constitutions and the family customs of the Order. Living together provides great scope for human and Christian growth: in charity for neighbour and in chastity and fraternal love. This ideal of common life is biblical: ‘The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul: no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common’ (Acts 4: 32), and in the Dominican rule: ‘The following things, then, we direct you, who live in the monastery, to observe: First, that you dwell together in unity in the house and be of one mind and heart in God, remembering that this is the end for which you are collected here’.
To this Dominic included the notion of dispensation, not so much as a concession to weakness, but as a means of promoting the work of preaching, a principle of adaptability. ‘Let the superior be given the power to dispense the brethren in his convent whatever he deems it fitting, principally in regard to whatever might hinder study, preaching or the good of souls.’ Our rules do not oblige us under pain of sin. Dominic did not want his Order to olive through fear of breaking its laws, but by grace.
Dominic believed in the sense of and love for community: Common life is the setting for study and for prayer. Community prayer, especially conventual Mass (celebrating the Eucharist together as a priory), is at the heart of Dominican life. Praying together we are reminded that we do not make our way to God in solitary isolation; we support each other in our prayer, our life and our work.
If striving after God is not to degenerate into fantasy it must be grounded in truth. Dominic believed firmly that the brothers must know and love what they are talking about; that they must be well-educated. To that end, Dominicans must study.
Study must be pursued ‘by day, by night, at home and on the road’, based on love for truth. Dominic urged ‘Always study!’ Dominicans must not fear asking awkward questions, but desire eagerly to learn. We are called to be students for life, whatever our intellectual ability. A Dominican must be a life-long listener and learner.
Primarily, Dominicans study the Scriptures, to know God better, so as to love him better and make him better known and loved by others. Study is also fed by our prayer. Prayerful meditation and systematic study nourish each other and are inextricably linked. It is this emphasis on study for the purposes of preaching and the salvation of souls that has led to the unique Dominican style in liturgy. Dominic laid down that ‘all Hours should be said in the church in a brisk and succinct manner so that the brethren should not lose their devotion and so that their studies should not be hindered.’
Study is Dominican asceticism. But it has its rewards as well. St Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican renowned for his study and writings, encourages a brother to be admitted to the cella (i.e. wine cellar) only if he studies well in his own cella (i.e. cell or room).
Study, prayer and contemplation are all linked. Study and prayer feeds contemplation, which in turn fuels preaching. As one of our mottos says, the substance of our preaching is the ‘fruits of our contemplation’.
Dominic would say to his brothers, ‘Let us think about our Saviour’. Deeply contemplative, he was known to pray ceaselessly and is frequently depicted in art as contemplating the Scriptures or a crucifix, as he often did in life.
‘To speak about God’
1. Love for souls
Dominic founded the Order to preach the true faith in the face of deep ignorance and misunderstanding about what Christians should believe. He had great compassion for people of all walks of life, especially those who were lost. He would often exclaim in prayer, ‘Lord have pity on your people. What will become of sinners?’
It was Dominic’s deep love for people that made him ardently desire ‘to hand on what one has contemplated’. As a student at Palencia, in a time of famine Dominic sold his books and furniture to feed the poor, saying, ‘I will not read dead skins while people are dying of hunger.’ Twice he offered himself as a slave to ransom men held captive.
In his love for all, ‘the poor as well as the rich, Jews, heretics and pagans’, Dominic lived by the words of the Scriptures: ‘I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings’ (1 Cor 9: 22-23).
2. Mendicant preachers
The Dominican is called to preach to people of every walk of life and degree of intelligence. ‘How will they have a preacher unless one is sent?’ (Rom 10: 15). Dominic realised the daunting task of preaching. Dominicans, being human after all, will fail to live up to the gospel they proclaim, yet it must be proclaimed! Preaching requires honesty and humility, and foremost to oneself. Humbert of Romans said, ‘The grace of preaching transcends one’s sinfulness. Through this grace the Word will ring out clearly above all human ineptitude’. As mendicants, Dominicans need to rely on the charity of others – in the sense of alms and in the sense of forgiving their shortcomings.
Nevertheless, Dominic wanted his brothers to preach ‘by word and example’ and to be instruments of divine grace. He himself refuted the heretics by his words and the example of his holy life with ‘tireless zeal in promoting faith and peace, never fearing to expose himself to numerous perils for this aim’.
3. The Incarnation
Dominican preaching focuses on the wonder of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Dominic had struggled against a heresy that believed spirit to be good and the body evil. The Order was founded particularly to combat this dualism.
Dominicans reject any spirituality which speaks of despising and escaping from the things of this world. God loves and blesses the world he made and calls it ‘very good’ (cf. Gen 1: 31). Likewise we reject the opposite extreme of materialism and any wallowing in physicality and sensuality. Any such dissociation between spiritual and material in human beings is an evil. For Dominicans, the following words of the gospel are key: ‘The Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1: 14).
The Order is very devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Because of Mary, we know that Christ is true God and true man. Mary is the disciple who pre-eminently heard the word of God and kept it. She is the model and patroness of the Order of Preachers. Her own mission has become the mission of Dominican preachers: to work with God to make his Word come alive in the world today. Dominicans have popularised the rosary as a way of praying and contemplating the wonder of God becoming man. Through the rosary we also ask Our Lady to join her prayers with ours. Although there were quite a few rosaries and chaplets in the Middle Ages, the one that has become the most popular today is the ‘rosary of St Dominic’.
4. Mobile soldiers of the Church
Dominic was firmly against clerical pride and ambition, but his spirituality was clerical. His Order was then only one of its time expressly founded as an Order of clerics. Dominic conceived of it as striving for perfection by means of fidelity to the clerical vocation: the devout celebration of the Mass, zeal for reconciliation and the recitation of the Divine Office, and a devotion to assimilating, spreading, and defending truth. As a cleric, Dominic felt keenly a sense of responsibility for each human being: ‘When any man is made to fall, I am tortured’.
Preaching is not an isolated activity. It is rooted in the liturgy and inaugurates a conversion of life that must be nourished by the Church’s sacraments. For that reason, it is appropriate for the preacher to be a cleric who can provide both the word of God and the sacraments. Nevertheless, the Order includes lay brothers: friars who do not train for the life of a cleric-preacher. They support common life and the common work of preaching through a vocation of service and conversion that is an eloquent preaching in itself.
Following the examples of St Dominic and St Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican should take seriously the objections of those with whom he disagrees. Dominicans should have respect for other people’s views together with the desire to build on the truth. The People of God always have need for preachers to explain and defend the true Faith. Pope Honorius III was ‘convinced that the brothers of your Order will be champions of the Faith and true lights of the world’.
5. Jesus, the goal of life
Dominicans focus on following Christ, the wandering preacher, who sent his disciples out in pairs to prepare for his coming. This was the model Dominic himself followed. He was intensely devoted to Christ, especially to Christ crucified. His brothers were to be ‘men of the gospel, following in the footsteps of their Saviour.’ Jesus is the centre of human history, and apart from him ‘there is salvation in no other name’ (Acts 4: 12). Both truly God and truly man, Jesus reveals to us the truth about God and man. Only Jesus can save us from sin, suffering and death, drawing us into the life of God himself.
The immediate model for Dominicans is, of course, St Dominic himself: ‘Dominic was a humble man, sweet, patient, benevolent, tranquil, peaceful, sober, modest, pious, mature in word and deed; the consoler of all, especially his brethren, remarkably zealous for regular observance, an incomparable lover of poverty in his own food and clothing and that of the brethren of his Order.’
From ‘Dominican Spirituality’, Blackfriars, 64 St Giles, Oxford OX1 3LY, England; tel: 01865-278400 or http://english.op.org
A book that we highly recommend for the flavour of the Dominicans is Paul Murray O.P., The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality (Continuum, 2006):
A prayer to St. Dominic
O glorious Holy Father Dominic, you who were the untiring preacher of the faith by word and even more so by purity of life and ardour of charity: by the tears, vigils and the austere and lasting penances which merited for you the grace to lead sinners and heretics back to God.
Obtain for us the grace by which we too, in the apostolate of preaching and teaching as well as the example of a holy life, may bring back to Christ's Church those persons who, while dear to us, have separated themselves from us, including those among our brethren who have gone astray in error and guilt, so that sharing in your merits here on earth, we may be judged worthy to sharing in your heavenly glory.