Dominican Charism

September 2, 2013


What are the essentials of the Dominican life? How do the Friars live? They are men of study, bound to the liturgy, to vowed life, to monastic discipline, and mobile. The Dominican is dedicated to truth, for God is truth.

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The Charism of the Order of Preachers

To understand the spirit of the Dominican Order, it’s helpful to look at the times in which Dominic lived. The beginning of the thirteenth century was a time of renewed vigor for Europe: commerce revived; towns rose up; shining cities like Paris and London and Bologna grew in size, power and influence. Parliamentary democracy was here and there coming into being. A new learning was at work, with the ideas of pagan Aristotle and his Arab commentators beginning to fascinate the mind of the West. But in the midst of this new life, it was also a time of ecclesiastical corruption, despite the efforts of reformers like Innocent III. The new middle class of the cities, skeptical, increasingly educated, materialistic, could not be helped by a clergy by and large pitifully untrained, nor by monastic foundations largely rural and, by definition, isolated from the currents of daily life. There was, in the words of Amos the Prophet, “a famine of the hearing of the Word of God,” and the vacuum was frequently filled by superstition, divisive heresy, and a love for this world. Various attempts were made to respond to the situation. Groups of diocesan priests living in community, the canons, engaged in parochial and theological work. In a number of places, lay preachers like the poor men of Lyons attempted to return to the simplicity of the early Church and to the Gospel-fervor of its early preachers. But most such lay groups quickly sank into doctrinal error, and had, in the end, to be suppressed.
It was in such a world that Dominic Guzman grew up, the son of a Spanish noble; the philosophy student who sold his books to buy food for the starving; and for ten years a canon of the Cathedral at Osma in Spain. Dominic and his bishop, Diego, passed through southern France on a journey about 1204, and the journey changed their lives. The church was devastated. Manichees, Cathari, Albigensians – the movement had various names – had propagated a doctrine that included a hatred for matter, for material sacraments. These were the products of an evil unspirited god. Perfect religion was to starve oneself into the release of death. In contrast to worldly Catholic clergy, the leaders to the Cathari were rigid ascetics who held the loyalty of followers of varying degrees of devotion, who were often licentious themselves.
Dominic and Diego were moved at the state of the Church, and struck by the failure of past attempts to bring back the lapsed – past attempts by ecclesiastical dignitaries weighed down with servants and pomp. Dominic saw the need for preachers who would be learned, disciplined, and poor. With the approval of the bishop of Toulouse, Folques (who had once been a troubadour), Dominic began to gather a group of men willing to take up mendicancy and the dangers of preaching in hostile territory. They would sing a love song, but not that of the troubadours. They would sing the love of Jesus crucified. They would be given over to liturgical life and prayer, like the monks. They would be given over to active ministry in community, like the canons. But they would move about according to the needs of the Church and they would preach, something heretofore largely reserved to Bishops. As he gathered his preachers, Dominic also established a convent of nuns (mostly converts from heresy), whose example and prayer would lend support to the campaign of the preachers.

Sowing to the World

The plan of life of the preachers gained universal approbation in December, 1216. The Friars, up to that time a promising experiment in southern France, were now given wider scope, directly under the patronage of the Holy See. And in 1217 Dominic took decisive action to ensure that the work of the Order would range as widely as the need for preachers did. After long prayer, he called his sixteen followers together and dispersed them, despite their objections. They were too inexperienced, needed a leader, the Order was just getting on its feet, with few resources and few friends. Dominic’s reply: “Seed that is hoarded rots. You shall no longer live together in this house.” He sent them of: four to Spain, seven to Paris, two to stay on in Toulouse, two to Prouille. He and one last brother shortly went off to Rome. The seed was being scattered for harvest. By 1221, the year of Dominic’s death, some 500 friars had spread as far as Hungary, Denmark, and England. By 1222 they had reached the mission fields of Cracow, Danzig, and Prague. Soon after, they were preaching the Word in Greece and Palestine. The story of the Preachers had begun.

The Charism

What were the essentials of the Dominican life? How would the Friars live? They would be men of study, bound to the liturgy, to vowed life, to monastic discipline, and mobile. The Dominican is dedicated to truth, for God is truth. It is sacred truth, saving truth, that primarily concerns us here. God has called us into the intimacy of his own Trinitarian life, so that as sons in the Son we can cry out Abba, Father. And we are meant one day to see the glory, the power, the love, beauty, wisdom of God face to face. While we are on pilgrimage, we share in God’s own self-knowledge through faith in Him, as He reveals Himself in the Word made flesh and the Word as preached. The truth convicts, the truth redeems, the truth saves. The Dominican is to live in that truth, to be converted and sanctified by it, and to preach it.
“Happy indeed is the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of scoffers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who ponders his law day and night.”
“To ponder his law day and night” is to contemplate and share with others the fruit of contemplation; to lead others into Christ who is truth. This is the essence of Dominican study. Dominic himself sent his preachers to hear theological lectures in Toulouse. He insisted that every house make provision for all its preachers to be continually studying the Word. It is no accident that the two books which Dominic carried with him were the works of the two rabbinic New Testament writers, Paul and Matthew, men with a rabbi’s love for God’s Word, men with a practical eye for organizing and strengthing local Churches. Dominican study aims to give the preacher the attitude of Saint Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach.”
As the Constitutions set down: “Our study ought principally to look to this: that we may be useful to the souls of our neighbors.” And living in service to sacred truth means working to find ways of conveying it, that is, to put other truth such as philosophy, literature, archeology, economics and language, at the service of the Gospel, so that it may be understood and believed. As Dominic’s successor put it: “The rule of the Friars Preachers … to live virtuously, to learn, and to teach.” Dominicans are to be given over to the liturgical life of the Church, to be genuinely taken up in the mystery of Christ which they proclaim. They are to offer the prayer of the Church for the good of the Church, to join in Christ’s own prayer in the heavenly sanctuary not made by hands. They are to live the vowed life, to be conformed to the example of Christ who was poor and loved the poor. Nudus nudum sequi Christum, “Naked to follow the naked Christ.” They are to be conformed to the example of Christ whose human love focused on the Father and on the whole human family. They are to be conformed to the example of Christ whose food was to do, not his own will, but the will of the One who sent him. By vows, they are freed for life in God, for witness and ministry in the Church.
The Dominican lives under the discipline of monastic observance. The disciplined round of daily routine requires him again and again to submit to the common good and the will of God, and it provides the environment in which contemplation becomes possible. At the heart of the Dominican ideal of community is the description in Acts 2 of the common life of the apostles. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those were being saved.”
The Dominican is called to apostolic mobility, to traveling light, to being available where needed. Dominicans are to be like other preachers sent out long ago, two by two, to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom in power, and on the road, they are to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every creature. As one early critic (by no means the last) of the Friars complained, “The world is their cell and the sea is their cloister.” Prayer, study, preaching, liturgy, monastic observance, community, mobility, vowed life: the essence of the Dominican life consists largely in an ordered integration of all these elements, thus forming the preacher who sits among his brothers and sisters at the Feet of Jesus, the Preacher and Word. Filled with the water of life, the water of mercy that flows from the Side of Christ, the Dominican is to turn and share that water as widely, as generously as he can.

Individuals Living the Charism

Yet this ideal has had an almost infinite variety of embodiments:
Bartolomo de las Casas
* Dominic, the apostolic contemplative;
* Hyacinth, missionary, preacher;
* Thomas Aquinas, a teacher always at the service
of the preaching mission of the Church;
* Catherine of Siena, a Dominican laywoman
whose love for truth took her out of a hermit’s life
to work for the reform and unity of the Church;
* Martin de Porres, who lived out Christ’s love
for the poor and the sick;
* Edward Fenwick, missionary bishop
in the American wilderness;
* Pere Lagrange, who devoted his life
to reviving Scripture studies in the Catholic Church;
* Bartolomo de las Casas, who worked to bring justice
for the enslaved Indians of Latin America.
The list goes on and on. It is a mixed lot, men and women, clergy and lay, some famous, some hidden and obscure, united around a love for truth, which comes from God and leads to God and must be the measure of all human activity as we journey into God. This is the ideal, an ideal fallen short of, sometimes almost snuffed out, but again and again rediscovered, embraced again by men and women who can be moved at the tears of Jesus for a Jerusalem that will not hear the truth, the tears of a Dominic as he begs in prayer “Lord, what will become of sinners?” Pray, friends, that we who bear the name of Dominic may bring his spirit to life.

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