The Goal of the Friar Preacher
February 23, 2014
Anyone wishing to talk about Dominican spirituality would be right to point to the earliest documents of the order: the primitive constitutions, the biography of St. Dominic written by his successor, the lives of the early brethren. Allow me to begin at the beginning of the beginning, not with the greatest deeds of St. Dominic and his companions, but with his favorite book, a book that was not a new release in his time but something as many years removed from St. Dominic as he is from us: The Conferences of the Fathers by John Cassian. St. Dominic always carried this book with him on his journeys. While it may sound obscure, it is an understatement to say that it has been influential. Through it, John Cassian brought the treasures of eastern monasticism to the West. It is written in a dialogue format where Cassian, speaking in the first person, relates his encounters with various desert fathers. Since we are beginning at the beginning, it makes sense to begin with a look at the first of Cassian’s conferences. Two aspiring monks, Cassian and his friend Germanus, visit the revered Abba Moses and beg him for some wise advice. He begins to ask them about the goal of the monk. Why do monks flee the world and take up residence in desert caves? Why do they fast and pray? They conclude that the end, or purpose, of the monk is the kingdom of God. The monk bears all the hardships of his way of life for the sake of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God might seem like an abstract and distant goal. Indeed, it is difficult to act unless we figure out a more proximate goal of action. If a farmer ultimately wants to produce an abundant crop so that he and his family can live in security, he needs a more immediate goal that helps accomplish this. The farmer’s more immediate goal is faithfully tilling the soil. He can center all of his activity around this and other practices that lead to an abundant harvest. The monks in Cassian’s first conference surmise that purity of heart is the immediate goal that lets them attain the kingdom of God. “For its sake solitude is pursued; for its sake we know that we must undertake fasts, vigils, labors, bodily deprivation, readings, and other virtuous things, so that by them we may be able to acquire and keep a heart untouched by any harmful passion, and so that by taking these steps we may be able to ascend to the perfection of love” (I.VII.1). For Cassian, purity of heart is much broader than chastity, it is a singularity of heart wherein the soul possesses God more and more through love and contemplation. St. Dominic was not a desert monk but a traveling preacher. Why is this monastic teaching important to him? Why was this his favorite book? The teaching about means and ends found in Cassian’s first conference offers a helpful guide in interpreting not only the monastic life, but also religious life generally. The ultimate end of religious life is the kingdom of God and purity of heart is the proper way to attain this. Each religious order has a different aspect under which to see that end, a different flavor with which to season it. Consequently, each order has different means that are especially adapted to its particular end. St. Dominic founded an order that exists, “principally for preaching and the salvation of souls.” Therefore, the means appropriate to its end, while similar to those of the desert monks, are not entirely the same. A Dominican cultivates purity of heart with a view to preaching. Means appropriate to this goal are contemplative prayer (both liturgical and mental), contemplative study (especially of scripture and the sacred sciences), living a common life, doing penance, and observing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. These practices are intended not only to help a friar cultivate a pure heart, but an abundantly pure heart that issues forth in preaching, preaching that is geared towards saving souls. It can be tempting to reduce a religious order to its observances. What is a Dominican? Someone who does x, y, z and then talks to people. However, Cassian’s first conference teaches that “The observances do not exist for themselves” (I.VII.1). The means are always subordinate to the end. The means help one to attain the end but are not a magical formula that infallibly produces saintly monks or holy friars preachers. In fact, the terrifying thing is that these means can be performed dutifully and the end can still be missed. Conversely, certain means can be omitted and one can still advance towards the end. This same healthy realism about religious observance was bequeathed to the Order of Preachers by St. Dominic and can be observed particularly in the principle of dispensation. St. Dominic was insistent that a superior be able to dispense from observances, “whenever he deems it appropriate, especially in regard to what may impede study, preaching or the good of souls” (Fundamental Constitution VI). This is not a legal loophole designed to get us out of certain observances, but rather a principle that allows the order to accomplish its mission. It reminds us that certain things are more important than others and helps to keep the purpose of the order before our eyes: preaching and the salvation of souls. This is the goal of the friar preacher. Recognizing this connection between Cassian and St. Dominic can also aid those discerning a vocation. The discussion of the ends and means of a religious order should prompt interior reflection. What are the elements of a religious order that are attractive to me? What is its purpose? Can I imagine the relationship between its means and its ends taking flesh in my own person?
Image: Hieronymous Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony