08 August 2011

Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare

Saint Dominic in Prayer, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), 1605

Patrick Comerford

I find that one of the weaknesses of the calendar in the Church of Ireland, both in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Church of Ireland Directory, is the poor provision made for remembering the saints of the wider Church as exemplars and role models.

For example, the Church of England in Common Worship, the Episcopal Church, and other provinces of the Anglican Communion remember Saint Dominic on this day. The Gospel reading for the Eucharist in their calendars on this day is:

John 7:16-18

16 Then Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. 17 Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. 18 Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.’

‘The Hound of God’

A scene from the life of Saint Dominic in a window in Saint Mary’s Priory Church, Tallaght (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Dominic (1170-1221) was born in Castile, in present-day Spain, into an obscure family. He entered the priesthood, and eventually became prior of the canons of the cathedral chapter at Osma.

The turning point in his life came in 1206, when he accompanied the Bishop of Osma on a visit to southern France, to an area held by the Albigensians. The Albigensians were dualists, holding that there are two gods, one the god of goodness, light, truth, and spirit, and the other the god of evil, darkness, error, and matter, the creator of the material universe. The good god made our souls, and the bad god kidnapped them and imprisoned them in bodies of flesh.

Dominic sat up all night debating with the innkeeper. By dawn the man was convinced of the validity of Orthodox Christianity. From then on, Dominic knew that his calling in life was to preach the Gospel and debates publicly with his opponents.

Despite Pope Innocent III’s declaration of a crusade against the Albigensians in 1207, Dominic continued to preach and to debate where he could. In 1215, he founded the Order of Preachers, whose mendicant friars were to live in poverty, to devote themselves to studying philosophy and theology, and to combat false doctrine by logical argument rather than the use of force.

He was convinced the material wealth of some of the clergy was a major obstacle to the conversion of heretics, and so was determined that the friars in his order should live lives of poverty and simplicity, no better off materially than those they sought to convert.

When Pope Innocent III gave him a tour of the papal treasures in Rome, and remarked complacently, referring to Acts 3: 6, “Peter can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’,” Dominic turned, looked straight at the Pope, and said: “No, and neither can he say, ‘Rise and walk’.” (Similar stories are told about both Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi.)

It is a story that he gave away his money and sold his clothes, his furniture and even his precious manuscripts, that he might relieve distress. When his companions expressed astonishment that he should sell his books, Dominic replied: “Would you have me study off these dead skins, when men are dying of hunger?”

In 1208, Dominic encountered the Papal Legates returning in pomp to Rome, and delivered his famous rebuke: “It is not by the display of power and pomp, cavalcades of retainers, and richly-houseled palfreys, or by gorgeous apparel, that the heretics win proselytes; it is by zealous preaching, by apostolic humility, by austerity, by seeming, it is true, but by seeming holiness. Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth.”

On another occasion, he said: “The heretics are to be converted by an example of humility and other virtues far more readily than by any external display or verbal battles. So let us arm ourselves with devout prayers and set off showing signs of genuine humility and barefooted to combat Goliath.”

Although Dominic was offered a bishopric on three occasions, he refused each time, believing that he was called to another work. He died in 1220 in Bologna.

The Order of Preachers is known since then as the Dominicans, or the Blackfriars. They are sometimes called the Domini canes, “the hounds of the Lord,” a reference to Dominic’s reliance on the power of preaching. The motto of the order is Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare, “To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.”

The spiritual tradition of the Dominicans is marked by charity, study and preaching, and by instances of mystical union.

In the course of history, famous Dominicans have included Thomas Aquinas (28 January), the “angelic doctor,” and Catherine of Siena (29 April), the first woman to have been declared a Doctor of the Church, both commemorated in the calendar in Common Worship, as well as Meister Eckhart, the painter Fra Angelico – and our own Wilf Harrington. Oh ... and Sister Luc Gabriel (1933-1985), the Belgian “Singing Nun,” who became a one-hit wonder with Dominique (1963).

But they have also been closely identified with the Inquisition, and Tomás de Torquemada was the first Inquisitor General of Spain. Perhaps this explains why Dominic was not popular with the leaders of the Reformation, who even portrayed him as presiding at an auto da fé. Although there is a small Anglican Order of Preachers, just as there are Anglican Benedictines and Franciscans.

Yet, the historical sources from Saint Dominic’s own time tell us nothing about his alleged involvement in the Inquisition, nor do they provide any evidence for what it is in essence a 14th century invention that has become an unsettling legend.

Indeed, Saint Dominic is one of the few post-schism saints in the Western Church, alongside Saint Francis of Assisi, to have found acceptance in the Orthodox Church ... no wonder that the most famous painting of him is by a Cretan artist who was named after him, El Greco, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614).

However unfair to Dominic the Churches of the Reformation may have been I find him an interesting example of how a preacher can take to heart and live out the words of Christ in our Gospel reading.

Dominic’s emphases on preaching, learning and praising God, his respect for his opponents, his charity and his chosen lifestyle, which reflected his Gospel values, and his refusal to compromise those values for the sake of preferment or career, are values that I believe are important to cherish in this place, an inspiration for faculty members and for students alike.


O God of the prophets,
who opened the eyes of your servant Dominic
to perceive a famine of hearing the word of the Lord,
and moved him, and those he drew about him,
to satisfy that hunger
with sound preaching and fervent devotion:

Make your Church, dear Lord,
in this and every age,
attentive to the hungers of the world,
and quick to respond in love to those who are perishing;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was offered at the beginning of a faculty meeting on 8 August 2011.

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