"To paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ” -Fra Angelico
Several years ago, a young man who had come on a “Come and See” weekend to look at our province asked me, “Where does holiness arise from in your Order?” It is a natural question to ask when one thinks of the distinct charisms and spiritualities which animate the beatiful array of religious orders and congregations within the Church. The Jesuits have the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; Carmelites ascend Mt. Carmel through different stages of the interior life; Benedictine spirituality centers around the rhythm of prayer and work, ora et labora, where through personal lectio divina, communal liturgical prayer, and following the Rule of St. Benedict, the monks are led to sanctify every thought, word, and action as they seek total union with God. Defining “Dominican Spirituality” as such, however, has always posed somewhat of a problem. Dominicans do not really have “methods” of prayer that each friar follows in the same way, or specific tracks or plans to follow regarding our spiritual growth. Moreover, we are both contemplative and active friars; we perpetually stand on a threshold between the monastic-like structure of our common life which sets the conditions for our contemplation, and the outward-looking urgent demands of preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls.
My first thought, then, in response to the young man’s question, “Where does holiness arise from in your Order?” was “Well...from the Holy Spirit, where else?” This simple answer, of course, should not obscure the fact that the Holy Spirit is about His work in all the charisms of the Church’s congregations and orders. But it does say something unique about Dominican life.
“Dominican Spirituality” is, in one sense, hard to define precisely because it is so broad. It gives a great deal of freedom for individuals to grow in whatever direction the Holy Spirit leads, developing their unique gifts and putting them at the service of the Church and the gospel. We have the “four pillars” of our life which give an idea of our central ideals: prayer, study, preaching, common life. Our central mission is to “preach for the salvation of souls.” The grace, intellectual training, and zeal for this mission arise out of the conditions of our common life, structured as it is by common prayer, personal prayer, theological study, and the fraternity and charity developed in community. But if we had to choose one simple way of describing Dominican Spirituality, I believe we could do no better than begin with a phrase of Blessed Fra Angelico, the celebrated 14th century Dominican artist: “to paint the things of Christ one must live with Christ.”
St. Dominic’s life, Fra Angelico’s life, and the lives of the whole bright panoply of Dominican saints through the centuries, each shine forth with the Holy Spirit’s presence arising from that individual’s life with Christ. For Fra Angelico, this came through what John Paul II called “translating the eloquence of the word of God into color,” as in him “art became prayer.” For St. Martin de Porres, it was through taking on the humblest of tasks in his community, and constant attendance to the poor and sick. For Thomas Aquinas, it came through issuing forth the vast and wondrously articulated theology of the Summa Theologica (among many other works). And at the font of this Dominican family is St. Dominic himself, known for never speaking a word unless “to God or about God.”
St. Dominic himself, perhaps, is the best example of the way the Holy Spirit comes to life within the Dominican charism and spirituality. This “athlete of Christ,” as Dante called him, was well-read and intellectually trained, devoted to his brethren, and exceedingly devoted to the mission of preaching; but above all, his whole life emerged from a passionate, intimate, continual immersion in prayer to and with Jesus Christ. The “Nine Ways of Prayer” give an intimate portrait of our Holy Father using a variety of bodily postures, vocal and mental prayer, meditation on the scriptures, penitential practices, and books that incite contemplation, to maintain this deep and affectionate initmacy with his Savior. The “Nine Ways” are an example of how St. Dominic himself was led in prayer, but they were not adopted in a kind of rigorous or absolutely prescribed way for all Dominicans to follow: as the Holy Spirit led, so Dominic followed, and this alone would he fundamentally desire each of the brethren to do.
Fra Angelico, in fact, has a well-known fresco that depicts St. Dominic in prayer, which is also a good image for pinpointing Dominican spirituality: Dominic is seated in a calm posture with a book in his lap, one hand ready to turn the page of the book, the other positioned pensively below his chin, signifying a certain meditative but absorbed and thoughtful silence. This image, though often presented alone, is part of a larger fresco called “The Mocking of Christ,” where Our Lord is seated in a chair behind and above St. Dominic, blindfolded, receiving blows, spitting, and slaps from mysteriously placed hands, heads, and sticks. The Blessed Virgin weeps for her Son on the left side of the scene. Through the Sacred Scriptures, St. Dominic is encountering the Lord in this image, the Blessed Virgin mysteriously present with him; he is “living with Christ” in a most intimate way, a way that allows the Holy Spirit to shape his most interior thoughts and affections, which then forms the foundation of his whole spiritual life.
“Where does holiness arise within the Dominican Order?” From living with Christ, as our Holy Father Dominic did. And from this intimate, affectionate, deep, and constant union with Jesus, structured by common life, prayer, study, and the mission of preaching; from this foundation the Lord of the Harvest raises up souls after his own heart to save their own souls and bear much fruit for the Gospel. Each Dominican’s life, then, whether serving the poor, preaching missions, painting frescoes, or crafting mystical theology, becomes a kind of brushstroke of the Divine Artist, so that He may set forth the Beauty of His Son in the clearest, most marvelous light possible to the people of every age. St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. Fra Angelico, and all Dominican Saints, Pray for us!