“I would describe the appearance of Blessed Dominic in the following way. He was slender and of medium height. His face was handsome and somewhat ruddy. His hair and beard were reddish and his eyes beautiful. From his brow and eyes emanated a kind of radiance which drew everyone to revere and love him. He was always cheerful and gay, except when he was moved to compassion at the sight of someone’s affliction. His hands were long and well-formed and his voice was of a pleasing resonance. He was never bald, although he wore the full corona, which was sprinkled with a few grey hairs.” — Portrait of Blessed Dominic, from ‘The Miracles of St. Dominic’ as narrated by Bl. Cecilia Cesarini
We had some friends over for dinner the other night and of course, with me at the helm, the conversation took a brief detour onto the topic of St. Dominic. My friend laughed and said, “Wait, who are you talking about?” At first I was taken aback: How could anyone NOT know Dominic?! But as I thought about it, I realized that for many Catholics– even delightfully faithful ones such as my friend– St. Dominic de Guzman is not a person with whom they are familiar. She had heard of the Dominicans, but knew next to nothing about our beloved founder. For some reason, Dominic has not captured the imagination and devotion of the general populus in the same way that St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscans, our fellow mendicant friars, has. Why is this?
Well, perhaps Francis stands alone among the saints for sheer amount of intrigue: stigmata, grandiose gestures of poverty and compassion, communing with animals, inventing the Christmas creche. Who can compete with that? Or perhaps Dominic has been out-done in popularity by his many religious sons and daughters in a way that Francis never was. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Siena enjoy much more devotion than their holy father at the present moment, but St. Francis, too, has his fair share of holy brethren: St. Clare, St. Anthony and Padre Pio come trippingly to mind. Or perhaps too many people have fallen under the mistaken idea that Dominic was a dark and brooding persona, the first inquisitor with his heart set on conversion at any cost. As you can see from Bl. Cecilia’s recollection above, that image couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Whatever the reason, it strikes me that Dominic, in his hidden greatness, is much like the figure of St. Joseph. In his tireless devotion to Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother, Dominic serves God’s family with the humble, gentle, instructive hand of a father. He labors in the background, seeking nothing but to provide, guide and protect. As we will see, Dominic was certainly not one to hide in the shadows when there was teaching to be done, but at the end of an encounter with him we are left not with an impression of Dominic, the Great Teacher, but of those whom Dominic loves most: God, Jesus Christ, the Church and of course…. Mary. This may mean that Dominic never emerges as a Saint For the People like our father Francis, but in the great heavenly choirs– with the multitude of Dominican saints– we can imagine that Dominic beams with the radiant joy of a father who has loved and taught his children well.
The Life of St. Dominic
The year was AD 1170, in Calaruega, Spain, when a noble woman named Jane of Aza felt her infant leap in her womb. She did not yet know if it was a boy or a girl, but she had prayed fervently at the Benedictine Abbey of Silos, asking St. Dominic if he would intercede on her behalf for the blessing of another son. That night, Jane had a dream, in which a great hound leaped forth from her womb, carrying a lighted torch in his mouth. With this torch, he set the whole world aflame.
Seven years passed, and with great maternal joy, Jane sent her son Dominic to study with her brother, the archpriest of Gumiel d’Izan. The young boy proved to be an avid learner and took to his tutelage well. His favorite thing to study was Sacred Scripture, specifically the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistles of Paul. He was captivated by the exhortation to go out and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19) and by Paul’s indefatigable zeal for proclaiming the Gospel to everyone. He read with great interest about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, how those who served others were actually serving Christ in disguise. Thus it was that at the University of Palencia, Dominic was moved to sell even his most precious books in order to provide for the poor. As a teenager, Dominic even attempted to offer himself into slavery at the hands of the Moors so that he would win others’ freedom.
Eventually, Dominic was blessed to become a priest and began his life of preaching as a canon regular¹ in Osma. It was not until 1203, when Dominic accompanied Bishop Diego of Osma on a king’s mission that he was introduced to the Albigensian heresy in southern France. The Albigenses (or, Cathars) were a nominally Christian sect who believed that the material world was evil. This was a revival of an ancient heresy (Manicheanism) which gained popularity partly because the people perceived the worldly wealth of priests in the area and rejected it as anti-Christian. The Cathar perfecti (the equivalent of priests) would travel around the countryside, preaching to the people and carrying nothing with them, just as did the Apostles. Poor people were being driven away from the True Faith by those who preached and lived poverty according to the Gospels– it was perhaps their way of life, more than their preaching, that attracted the people. During their travels, Dominic and Diego stayed at an inn which was run by a family converted to the Albigensian heresy. Upon discovering this fact, Dominic began to question the innkeeper. The two of them reportedly stayed up for the entire night, arguing matters of doctrine and scripture. By sunrise the next morning, Dominic had so lovingly instructed this man that he knelt and repented of his heresy and asked the good father for forgiveness. It was after this encounter that Dominic confided in Diego his plan to found a preaching order that would not only revive ecclesiastical discipline in southern France, but would travel about just as the Cathars did, begging for their keep and speaking directly with the people. But unlike the Cathars, Dominic would preach the Truth of Christ and His Church– he would combat this great heresy one person at a time.
Diego was very intrigued by Dominic’s plan and after their royal mission had concluded, the two companions set out to Rome to ask the pope for permission to found this new preaching order. Innocent III, however, rejected their plan and instead asked them to join forces with the Cistercians in Languedoc, whom he had already tasked with combating the Albigensian heresy. Eager to obey, Dominic and Bishop Diego returned to France, only to find that the Cistercians were making matters worse. By their lavish means of living, the Cistercians had effectively convinced the local people that the Cathars were right: their lack of poverty was taken as a sign that they lacked faith and knowledge of Christ. Dominic and Diego were quick to admonish their brother priests and eventually, the Cistercians saw that they had been wrong.
This papal retinue now embarked on its first preaching missions, going out into the local villages and challenging the Cathar perfecti to open debates. Dominic’s training at the university and his inimitable love of scripture won a great many theological arguments, such that the heretics began to threaten him with violence. Whenever he entered a Cathar town, the people would hurl insults at him, spit on him and even beat him for daring to enter. On a few occasions, Dominic brought with him a list of doctrines and arguments which clearly demonstrated the error of the Cathar interpretation of scripture. These pages were ripped from his hands by an angry mob and thrown into a fire, only to find that the papers would not yield to its flames.
For years in France, noble families had been sending their daughters to convents for their education, only to find that the convents had succumbed to heresy and the women were never properly instructed in the faith. It was in the year 1206 that Dominic founded a convent at Prouille, which was to be a safe haven for nuns who had converted from the Albigensian heresy. He charged this group of sisters with the task of praying for his preaching mission. Thus it was that the community which would become the Second Order of Dominicans was established. Ever the gentlemen, Dominic founded his family on the principle of “ladies first.”
The years passed and tensions with the Albigensians heated up. In 1208, Pope Innocent sent crusaders to southern France and began a bloody civil war. Dominic would have no part in the bloodshed, and prayed fervently for peace for many years. During this time and at great personal danger, Dominic continued to preach to the people, entering towns that were dominated by heresy and enduring all manner of derision. It is said that in 1213, when the Albigensian forces were conquered, that the victory was due to Dominic’s intercession for peace, particularly through his great devotion to Our Lady and the rosary.
In 1215, Pope Innocent began the Fourth Lateran Council, which Dominic attended as the official theologian to Bishop Foulques of Fanjeaux. It was after this council, in 1216, that Dominic finally received verbal permission from the pope to begin his preaching order. That December, the newly-elected Pope Honorius III officially confirmed the Order of the Friars Preachers in his papal bull Religiosam Vitam.
Dominic went to work. He stayed in Rome through Easter of that year, preaching and gathering friars for his new order. It is during this time that Dominic purportedly met and established a friendship with Francis of Assisi, a relationship which despite subsequent centuries of on-again/off-again tension between the two orders, resulted in respect so deep that Dominicans still refer to him as “our father, Francis.”
On August 13, 1217, Dominic called the first general meeting of the order. Then he promptly divided his new band of friars into pairs and sent them off to all corners of Europe. For the few remaining years of his life, Dominic preached the Gospel tirelessly and founded countless convents, houses of study and monasteries where his new order would grow and thrive. He was known as a miracle-worker and a man greatly devoted to the study and preaching of the Word. He died in 1221 after a prolonged illness, leaving behind an Order of Preachers that numbered almost 300 (not bad for only 5 years of work!) He was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1234.
Many stories were told of Dominic’s great love for those he sought to convert. He is reported to have spent many sleepless nights in prayer, weeping for the conversion of sinners. He refused to wear shoes in his travels, insisting that the blood which spilled forth from his feet would be offered up for the people who had been seduced by error. Of course, Dominic’s (and consequently his order’s) association with the Rosary cannot go without mention. Dominic loved Our Lady dearly and found in her a great patroness of his order. Bl. Cecilia, who received the habit from Dominic’s hands in Rome, tells the story of one of Dominic’s many nights in prayer, when Mary visited him and gave him a vision of heaven:
Suddenly he was rapt in spirit before God and saw Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin sitting at His right. It seemed to Blessed Dominic that Our Lady was wearing a cape of bright blue, the color of sapphire. As Blessed Dominic looked around, he could see religious of all the orders but his own around the throne of God, so that he began to weep bitterly and stood far away, not daring to approach the Lord and His mother. Then Our Lady motioned for him to come near. But he would not dare, until Our Lord Himself also called him. Then Blessed Dominic cast himself before them weeping bitterly. But Our Lord told him to rise, and when he did, Our Lord asked him, “Why are you weeping so?” “I am weeping because I see all the other orders here but no sign of my own.” And the Lord said to him, “Do you want to see your Order?” and he answered, “Yes, Lord.” Then Our Lord, putting his hand upon the shoulders of the Blessed Virgin, said to Blessed Dominic, “I have entrusted your Order to my Mother.” Then he asked him again, “Do you still wish to see your Order?” and again he answered “Yes, Lord.” Then the Blessed Virgin opened the cape which covered her and spread it out before Blessed, Dominic, to whom it seemed vast enough to cover the entire heaven and, under it, he saw a large multitude of the brethren. Then prostrating himself, Blessed Dominic gave thanks to God and to Blessed Mary His Mother. — The Miracles of St. Dominic
And what of Jane’s strange dream about that hound? Well, it all goes back to the Latin. Not long after his death, the Order of Preachers became known by the name of their founder and were called: “Dominicans,” in Latin: Dominicanes. When separated into two words, this title becomes: “Domini canes”… the dogs of God. The torch is the light of Christ, or the tongues of fire which landed on the Apostles at Pentecost. Dominic carried Christ and His message to the world in a time when it was so desperately needed. He did not shy away from this call under the false pretense of humility: he embraced the gifts of knowledge and preaching that God had given him and used them to build the Kingdom.
St. Dominic has left our family a great legacy not only of prayer and study, but of compassion for those who have fallen into error. Like many of his religious sons and daughters, Dominic was a scholar, but he proved that intellectual inquiry need not detract from our sincere love of God. In fact, Dominicans follow the premise that we cannot fully love God unless we seek to know him, nor can we know him if we do not love him. And so we are called: to praise, to bless, to preach– to follow in the footsteps of our holy father Dominic, so that we can preach in our own way to the errors of our own times.
- The “canons regular” is a term given to priests who live in community according to the Rule of St. Augustine, yet engage in active ministry outside the chapter house. This is different from canons secular, who are parish priests and do not live in community. “Regular” is from the Latin for rule (regula) and “secular” refers to their activity out in the world (saecularis).