by Donald J. Goergen, OP
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
St. Dominic: The Story of a preaching Friar is the first serious English language biography of St. Dominic to be published since 1924. One fateful night in 1203, Dominic and his bishop stopped at an inn in an area infected with the Cathar heresy. Engaging in a conversation with the Cathar innkeeper, Dominic stayed up all night and converted the man back to the true faith. Thus was ignited the passion for preaching that informed the life of the founder of the Order of Preachers. Assembling a band of followers whom he sent out to preach the gospel wherever the Good News needed to be heard, Dominic revolutionized religious life by founding an order of friars who were to live and preach in the world instead of living an enclosed monastic life.
What did Dominic mean when he wanted his order to be an order of preachers? What was he doing when he and his bishop, Diego, “preached” in southern France? What did he understand when he would sign a document praedicationis humilis minister (humble servant of preaching?)? How was his desire to present the truth of the Catholic faith to Cathars, the heretical movement that arose in the Church in the eleventh century preaching? It had something to do with truth, another motto of the order “veritas”. It also had to do with a boldness or fearlessness in engaging others in that quest for truth. It was not simply something confined to a pulpit, although it could take place there as well: or, as a friend of mine has said, the Order is an order of preachers, not an order of homilists. Dominic’s preaching had everything to do with Jesus Christ, “to proclaim Christ Jesus and Him crucified,“ as St. Paul the preacher and Apostle said (1Cor 1:23, 2:2)
Dominic’s mission became more and more apostolic or evangelical. One might say it required the kind of life lived by the apostles (the vita Apoltolica). It was grounded in the gospel (the evangelium) and put at the service of those needing a saving word in their lives and seeking salvation. To be a preacher was to mediate God’s Word in human words: a word of love, mercy and compassion. Mercy, truth, and brotherhood, or the vita communis (the common life) were all sacred words for Dominic, that man of the Lord who was filled with God. He became known as a praedicator gratiae, a preacher of grace and a grace-filled preacher. The story has also been handed on how Dominic, while a young student in Palencia, when there was a famine in the region, sold his parchments or manuscripts that he so dearly treasured in order to provide some funding for the poor and the hungry. He said, “I will not study on dead skins when living skins are dying of hunger.” Evidently, we find the rudiments of Dominic’s character manifest early in his life, whether it was in response to a hinder for food or thirst for truth, our preaching friar was there. The time has come to take a closer look at the man.
Obedience is the only vow that Dominicans profess. On the other hand, since he was a mendicant, voluntary poverty was close to Dominic’s heart. If we think of chastity as the capacity for relationships, Dominic was well schooled in the art of friendship. Too often we tend to define or understand religious life in contrast to marriage. But this does a disservice to both. Christian sacramental marriage is an incredible way of giving oneself to another and to Christ. It is a sacrament, but we don’t contrast it with the sacrament of Orders. Indeed it is possible for someone to be married and a priest. Marriage has to be understood in and of itself. Likewise religious life is a distinct. It is not intrinsically related to priesthood, although some orders of men are clerical such as the Dominican. In Dominic’s time the call to preach required priesthood, although much lay preaching also took place. Men and women in religious life are called to a special way of loving, of giving themselves to others, a distinct way of turning one’s life over to God. The vows are not seen as restrictive but as paths to holiness and for Dominic, central to the Holy Preaching. From a spiritual point of view, which is always the starting point for any of the vows, it is a question of conforming one’s life to Christ something laid out by St. Paul in his letters: it involves the asceticism of blending one’s will with that of Christ, , so that the two shall be one. As Jesus himself modeled in his petition to his heavenly Father, “Not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36). At the heart of the vow is the brother’s desire to conform his will to that of Christ’s through the power of the Holy Spirit who has been given us. It is a question of becoming an unobstructed channel of the Spirit just as Dominic himself became as the twists and turns of his life unfolded. What he became and was called to do was not what he would have expected when he left Calenuega to study n Palencia, not when he joined the cathedral chapter in Osmam nor when he even first began to preach with Diego. Providence has ways of its own. Any reader will take away from this book a better understanding of St. Dominic and, it is hoped, a renewed obedience, that is, a contemplative listening to the grace of God at work in all of us.”