Dominican Life

The chief aim of every religious, regardless of what institute he or she may belong to, is the attainment of personal holiness, of union with God in charity. Many orders use the same general means to reach this end, namely, the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. However, each order has a specific end and therefore, in addition to the three vows, there will be a specific means of reaching this end.

What, then, is the specific end of the Dominican order, and what are our means?

Our constitutions tell us that: The special end for which the Dominican Order has been brought into being by the Providence of God, within the […] Church is the salvation of souls by the ministry of teaching and preaching.

Our holy Father St Dominic, in direct imitation of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, breathed love for souls. Indeed, he was so aflame with love for souls that he would often be seen to weep in prayer and to be heard crying out, “What shall become of sinners?”

Throughout history we can see that the successive emergence of the various religious orders has always been in response to a particular need or crisis of the time. The age in which it is born permanently impresses a mark or moulds the character of each great religious institute. An obvious example of this is the institution of the Society of St Pius X. It was formed in response to a specific crisis of the time and its purpose is specific – to from holy priests who will continue to celebrate the Mass of all time. To understand the Dominican Order or Dominican life, we need then to think about the time when the Order was born and see what the need or crisis was at that time.

The reason for this particular end and means

In St Dominic’s time, at the close of the twelfth century and the dawn of the thirteenth, souls everywhere were in danger: outside the church and, worst of all, within the Church herself. Heresy, running rampant, was loosing its evils on society and leading Christians to perdition. The two main sects responsible were the Cathari or Albigensians, who made strongholds in Southern France and Northern Italy, and the Waldenses.

Although these heretical groups had different teachings they often made joint attacks upon the Church – criticising the clergy, their morals, their wealth, and their ignorance. The heretics would contrast the austerity and detachment of their own lives, in imitation of the apostles, with the lax conduct of the Catholic clergy, who were weighed down and obliged to be concerned with material interests by the temporal administration of the property with which the feudal regime had endowed the churches.

The unfortunate thing about the whole matter was that the heretics had, in some cases, uttered some truths: throughout all levels of the Roman Catholic clergy there was a spirit of worldliness, a lack of zeal and an inadequate knowledge of theology, many having received little solid instruction. The bishops, who by their office were responsible for the defence of the faith, the reform of morals, and the religious instruction of priests and people, were often concerned with business affairs and the administration of property. The priests were often similarly absorbed in temporal business, leading to the neglect of their priestly duties, and the subsequent adoption of a way of life that was materialistic and lacking in morals.

Many of them showed unconcern regarding the condition of the Church or were disinterested in mounting any response to the crisis and, in Southern France, some were even suspected of encouraging heresy. Only here and there could a zealous prelate or edifying pastor be found – but they were like rare stars in a dark night.

Now this was indeed a great shame for, notwithstanding the condition of the Church, the ordinary man of those times was, at heart, deeply religious, quick in mind and soul, and thirsting for true light and spiritual consolations. However, in many important centres of Christendom, the clergy who should have sought to alleviate this spiritual hunger, instead permitted heretical sects to supply for the people’s want. Devout people listened gladly to these new apostles of heresy, who were ever ready to instruct their hearers and to denounce the corruption of the Roman Church.

Appearance and growth of the order 

With the ominous task of regaining these souls for Christ, St Dominic set out preaching – the only way of reaching a people who were mostly illiterate. Some very few others had tried before him, failed and been discouraged. Many judged St Dominic’s mission as near impossible, and yet, within but a few years of its institution, the Order of Preachers had spread to the distant frontiers of Europe.

As the order grew rapidly, St Dominic had less time to give to the apostolic ministry of preaching, absorbed as he was with the foundation of new convents, the instruction of the friars and their religious training in continually growing communities, and the organisation of bands of missionaries for the far ends of Europe. What an expenditure of energy this must have required, and well may we ask: from where or from what source did all this energy demanded of St Dominic come?

The double spirit of the Order

His companions and disciples have told us over and over again: from an almost uninterrupted union with God. Either he was speaking to God, they say, or about God. Frequently he would go aside from his companions and engage in that divine communication from which issued his great strength and its continual renewal, and by which his desire for the conquest of souls was rekindled.

We thus see that the foundation of all Dominican activity must be contemplation, which is summed up in one of the Dominican mottos: Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere – that is, to contemplate and to give to others the fruit of contemplation. Looking at the example of St Dominic (who was but imitating the example of OurLord in the Gospels), we see that the spirit of his order is in fact a double one of contemplation and action.

So, to summarise, the general end of the Dominican Order is the sanctification of its members through contemplation, and it special end is the salvation of souls through preaching. These two ends are not contradictory; in fact, they are one. The second implies the first. Preaching is the fruit of the life of prayer. Through contemplation the Dominican loves God so much that he must love his neighbour and become an apostle. He cannot rest until he proclaims God’s glory to the whole world.

Characteristics of the Order

Pope Honorius III, in his solemn bull approving the institution of the Order of Preachers, stated that the brethren of the Order were to be “champions of the faith and the true lights of the world” – pugiles fidei et vera mundi lumina. He intended that St Dominic’s brethren were not just called to be preachers, but champions of the faith, invincible athletes of Christ; his hope was not merely for educated clerics in an age when such were rare, but for those who would be luminaries of Christendom. Luminaries not only by word but by example. Hence the necessity not only for study, but for prayer, penance and poverty. Next we shall  examine these characteristics of Dominican life more closely.

Dominican life is Liturgical

We have already mentioned the role of contemplation in the life of the Dominican. We ought also to mention that the Order of Preachers was, from the very beginning, a priestly order, in comparison with many other institutes of its time that were usually comprised of laymen. Years before founding the Order of Preachers, St Dominic had made profession as canon regular. Hence, he was a priest whose chief duty was to carry out the sacred liturgy in the cathedral of Osma. His life centred around the Divine Office, for he was obliged by his duty of state to participate daily in chanting the canonical hours. We also know from accounts of St Dominic’s companions that his devotion for the Holy Sacrifice was such that he was always moved to tears during the Canon of the Mass. Even on his extended journeys he attempted to celebrate Mass each day, which may not seem significant in this day and age, but which was certainly regarded as notable feat in the 13th century. The Mass was truly his life. Hence, a love for the liturgy is a precious heritage that Dominicans owe to their Founder.

As Sisters, we can assist at the Mass but, thereafter, our chief exercise of prayer and our special means of achieving the end of our Order is the solemn recitation of the Divine Office. As Dominicans, we cherish this official prayer of the Church and, like St Dominic, possess a zeal for its devout recitation, not only because of its intrinsic excellence, but also knowing that almighty God will bless more abundantly the external works of those whom He sees devoted to the work of His praise.

The Rosary; Prayers

The other devotion also regarded as a treasured heritage in the Dominican Order, and one the most powerful weapons in the spiritual warfare, is the Rosary. Let us recall that the conquering of the Albigensian heresy was in great part due to the Rosary that Our Lady had asked St Dominic to pray and to make known. This was but the first of many victories that Our Lady would obtain via the Rosary.

We must understand however, that the prayers of the Preachers were not just at set times throughout the day or merely to ensure the success of their external works. More than that, it was necessary that their own lives be constantly permeated with the spirit of prayer, that their souls be continually elevated to God, that they themselves should become holy. Honorius III had called for true lights of the world, luminaries of Christendom. How could they draw others out of the darkness of heresy, sin and immorality, how could they set fire to the world, how could they draw others to true holiness unless they themselves were holy, unless they themselves were true lights and not only lights, but flaming torches.

Dominican life is Penitential

Besides prayer, there are also two other characteristics of the Dominican Order – penance and poverty. At the time of St Dominic, the common people were particularly scandalised by the lack of holiness, or even immorality, of the clergy and the manner in which many of them were absorbed in the administration of temporal properties and goods. The people were far more willing to listen to and follow the heretics who, besides being more zealous, seemingly appeared to lead a mortified life.

What the Church needed was a virtuous and zealous clergy, detached from the goods of this life and conformed to the evangelical ideal. Hence, St Dominic decided that although the Order could receive revenues, it would not possess property, firstly because the administration of property would hinder the friars in the exercise of their apostolic mission, but equally because the example of their detachment from the goods of earth was a condition for the efficacy of their preaching.

Likewise, in addition to the practice of poverty, our holy Father St Dominic commended the practice of penance to his children, not merely by word, but by his own radiant example. Although ever joyful and ready to smile, we know from the comments of his close companions that our holy Father’s own life was replete with austerities of every kind and that he bore suffering in a spirit of faith and with serenity of soul.

Dominicans must therefore look upon penance as an essential in their own lives. On them, as on all, presses the obligation of daily self-denial. The apostolic spirit, also, will urge them to seek added efficacy for their work by uniting themselves with the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence why they are zealous in sustaining the austerities commanded by their rule and constitutions: silence and enclosure, early rising, fasting, abstinence, community life, and other observances.

The necessity of silence

While silence is one of our means of penance, it is simultaneously an important element of Dominican life for several other reasons. We have already mentioned the necessity of contemplation as the foundation for all Dominican activity, and also the importance of maintaining a spirit of prayer or recollection throughout the day. Both of these things demand an atmosphere of silence. Furthermore, the needs of study also require the rigorous observance of silence within the enclosure.

Dominican life is Doctrinal

We have just mentioned study, and perhaps we should have dealt with it earlier, since it is a distinguishing mark of the Dominican order. We know that at the time of St Dominic, the secular clergy were not only lacking in zeal and morals, but also in solid theological training, and that this too was greatly to blame for the growth of heresy, for, wanting in learning as they were, the clergy were often unable to refute the claims of the heretics, and unable to instruct the straying faithful with the truth.

St Dominic realised that he needed to strike at the root of the evil of heresy by raising up learned priests, strong in the faith. These he sent out to centres all over Europe, to zealously defend the faith and preach the truth – Veritas, our motto; some of these preachers later became teachers of sacred science in schools for the clergy.

But exactly how was this accomplished? How were the Preachers to become champions of the faith and true lights of the world? By means of intense study. In drawing up their Customary, St Dominic and his companions insisted that the preachers “were to apply themselves to study, day and night, at home and abroad”, and they even left the religious free to prolong their night vigils for the purposes of study. The rule of dispensation was introduced to facilitate the exercise of study, and it was also dictated that the choral office should be recited rapidly in order not to detain the brethren from study. Hence we see that intense study has always been of particular importance to the Dominicans for, while it is true that study is not the aim of the Order, it is necessary for the attainment of our special end. As St Thomas Aquinas says: we cannot give what we do not have. We cannot instruct others in the truth, unless we ourselves possess the truth.

Saints of the Order

All of these characteristics of Dominican life, which we have just spoken of, have been maintained for around 800 years, and are responsible for creating many Saints and Blesseds. Some of the members of our Dominican family who may be of particular interest are: Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St Dominic’s successor, who drew many recruits from the schools and universities to the Order by his preaching, and who initiated the Salve procession at Compline; Blessed Reginald of Orleans, who received from our Lady the Dominican Scapular; St Thomas Aquinas, who, having been educated by another Dominican St Albert the Great, went on to create a Christian philosophy and theology that the Church has continued to use as the foundation of her official teaching; St Catherine of Siena, who was the very incarnation of the Dominican spirit, and chosen by Christ to be His mystical spouse; St Pius V, who wonderfully issued the bull Quo Primum, permitting the Mass of all time to be celebrated immemorially without any restraint; St Hyacinth and his brother Blessed Ceslaus, who were the apostles of Northern Europe; St Peter of Verona, the martyr who wrote the Creed in his blood; and St Rose of Lima and St Martin de Porres, saints of the Americas.

As we mentioned before, these are but a few of the more notable Dominicans. However, there are many others, thus showing that Dominican life, with all its various characteristics that we have spoken of, and tried and proved by eight centuries of tradition, is capable of producing holy souls. As a Pope once said: “Show me a Dominican who keeps his rule, and I will canonise him immediately”.

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