Topic: St. Dominic

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Painting the Things of Christ

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"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.<--break->  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!

Br. Ambrose Sigman, O.P.'s picture

Homily from the Feast of Saint Dominic

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Yesterday, for the feast of Saint Dominic, the prior and superior of Saint Albert's, Fr. Reginald Martin, OP, said and preached the mass. The following is the homily he gave. While this is not from a student brother, it might be considered one of the examples of preaching to which we aspire:

In the last couple of weeks, Fr. Augustine Thompson and I had the chance to visit a number of fabled cities built on hills. I confess, to my embarrassment, that I had hitherto, appreciated them for their scenic beauty, but this go-round Fr. Augustine’s scholarship helped me realize the immense responsibility citizens must be willing to embrace when they undertake to build their city on a hill.

The strategic advantages are obvious, of course, but once your life cannot be hidden, you must make all sorts of provisions and take all sorts of precautions that your more secluded neighbors don’t have to worry about. Noblesse oblige, after all, or – as we learned when we were growing up, beauty is, as beauty does.

Which is why no one lights a lamp to hide it. We may take light for granted, but it was extremely valuable – and costly – for Jesus and his contemporaries. It’s no wonder the ancients should have considered light an ordering principle, or that God should have created it first.

Physicists can tell us what light is, but we don’t need to be scientists to know what light does; it makes things safe and it makes them warm. But it does so by making them bright. When the Albigensians let their ears be tickled by a dualist fable that denied the Incarnation, St. Dominic countered with the light of his study. He got the Albigensians’ attention by studying their doctrine to understand it well enough to point out its errors.

The dictionary defines “study” as “the application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge…by reading, investigation, or reflection….” St. Dominic didn’t invent study, but he invested it with a purpose that was wholly his own. Benedictines study a great deal. They may become smart along the way, but Benedictines study to become holy.

The Franciscans have produced great scholars, but legends say that St. Francis himself was suspicious of school. Fr. Augustine’s book will probably deny this, so let’s repeat it one last time. St. Francis is reported to have said,

The Lord told me that He would have me poor and foolish in this world and that He willed not to lead us by any way other than that.

A Dominican’s study is an act of piety ordered to an end outside of us. It may not make us holy, but it ought to make us smart – at least smart enough to cause the people we preach to, to think – and to call them to God. Study is our obligation, and everyone we preach to has the right to expect it of us.

How beautiful, Isaiah tells us, are the feet of the one who brings Good News. Notice, it’s the preacher’s feet that are beautiful, not the shoes. The light of Christ equips us to look beneath the surface of things, to penetrate to the truth. As St. Dominic did when the Albignesians said that matter and spirit are so opposed that God could never be united with something so fallen as this flesh, or reveal Himself in anything so corrupt as food and drink.

We are the light of the world, Our Savior tells us – a light that makes things bright, keeps them safe and makes them warm. Warmth may not be a quality we immediately associate with St. Dominic, but one of his peers wrote,

... the tranquil composure of the inner man was revealed outwardly by the kindliness and cheerfulness of his expression [which] easily won the love of everybody. Without difficulty he found his way into people’s hearts as soon as they saw him.

“As soon as they saw him.” Like that city on a hill. The life of our founder, no less than the example from the gospel, warns us, if we’re going to enjoy the prominence, we must be prepared to embrace the responsibility.

Br. Ambrose Sigman, O.P.'s picture

Feast of our Holy Father Dominic

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On the evening of August 6th, 1221, the founder of the Order of Preachers, Dominic de Guzman, lay dying. Surrounded by the brothers of the priory of Saint Nicholas in Bologna, Dominic ordered them to begin the prayers for the commendation of his soul. As the brethren were singing the words “Come to his aid, saints of God. Hasten, angels of the Lord. Receive his soul and offer it before the face of the Most High,” Saint Dominic breathed his last. Today, August 8th, the Universal Church celebrates the feast of our Holy Father Dominic.<--break->

The Dominican Order has never had the same cult of personality surrounding its founder as has some other religious orders, such as the Franciscans, a fact made painfully aware to anyone who knows the story of the canonization process of our founder. Instead, Saint Dominic left something much more valuable than his personal example, as noble and fitting as that example was. Saint Dominic left to his children a dream, a vision of a way of life dedicated to a simple purpose, to preach and to defend the Truth, who is Jesus Christ. For 800 years this need, this desire, has continued to inspire generation after generation.

The beauty of this vision, whose relevance never fades (the world always needs the Truth), has sustained Saint Dominic’s order for eight centuries. We have endured much, suffered much, for the sake of that vision. We have seen ourselves grow at tremendous rates and found great success in our work, yet we have also come face to face with the possibility of our own extinction on more than one occasion. We stand on the shoulders of giants who have forged paths for us through the wildernesses of our mind, our soul, and our world (how many still remember the Unifying Friars of Saint Gregory the Illuminator from Armenia, the Fratres Unitores?). Even though his current sons and daughters may, on occasion, seem like a lesser breed than those who came before, yet we continue to work just as tirelessly, and pray that, by the grace of God, Saint Dominic’s vision may become a reality.

As Saint Dominic lay dying, surrounded by the brethren, he turned to them and said, “Do not weep. I shall be more use to you and bear more fruit for you after death than I ever did in life.” The past 800 years have proven the truth of these words.

V. Ora pro nobis, beate Pater Dominice.

R. Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.