The Life of St. Dominic

II. Laying the Foundations

by fr. Gregory Anderson, OP (

At the end of our last chapter you were asked to remember the name of the Bishop of Osma, Diego D'Azevedo. It was he who was responsible for catapulting Dominic into a whole new sphere, radically different from the peace and quiet of the cloister of Osma where he had intended to spend the rest of his days. In 1203, the king of Castile sent Bishop Diego to arrange a marriage of his son, Ferdinand, with "a noble lady of the Marches." Scholars agree that the "Marches" were what is now known as Denmark. The identity of the noble lady is not certain, but it seems probable that she was the niece of King Vademar II of Denmark, the daughter of his sister, Sophie, and Count Siegfried of Orlamünde, Since Prince Ferdinand was only 15 years old she probably was at least as young. The bishop asked Dominic to go with him. After they had crossed the Pyrenees, or, what is more likely, gone around them, they had to cross the district of Toulouse in southern France. The first night they spent in an inn whose owner had rejected his Catholic faith and joined a a great heresy that was raging in the Toulouse and had practically taken over the entire area. It was called the Albigensian heresy.

It was based on the very ancient idea that matter was evil and spirit was good. It has been around for a long time and is still with us in the form of theosophy, Christian Science and those who go in for Buddhism and other Eastern religions. It appeals to people who have vague and hazy minds and do not want to do any serious thinking. Albigenianism had the additional twist in that it did develop a logical and clear theological system. Marriage was evil, sex was sinful, flesh meat was forbidden, austerities were the in thing, and suicide was the preferred way of death. This would not, of course, appeal to many people, but Albigenianism had an answer for this. Only a few, the perfect, were obliged to this form of life. The rest were free to live as normal human beings. They were required only to renounce the Catholic faith and the Sacraments.

The lords, of course, were all in favor of this approach for it meant that they could have the lands and income of the Church, which was the same tactic Luther used in Germany and Henry VIII used in England. The result was that it was a deep-seated heresy and difficult to eradicate.

Dominic was appalled that anyone could fall for this nonsense. He and the innkeeper got into an argument that lasted the whole night, but in the morning the innkeeper fell on his knees and asked to be reconciled to the Church. This experience changed Dominic's life forever. He could never go back to the cloister at Osma. He did, however, have to continue on the journey to the Marches, return to the court of the king of Castile with the result of their successful negotiations, and then go back to the Marches to escort the young princess back to Castile. But on they were on this last leg of their mission, word came to them the bride-to-be had died, or, as some think, entered a monastery. In either case, she was dead to the world and marriage was out of the question. The retinue of courtiers broke up to return home in any way they wanted. Diego and Dominic decided to go by way of Rome.

Diego shared with Pope Innocent III some ideas close to his heart. One was the situation in southern France, another was a desire to resign his see so he could go and convert the Tartars or Tatars, a warlike Mongolian people who had invaded what is now Russia and were threatening to move further westward. St. Dominic would adopt the same dream and grow a beard so he could be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Monks and friars were usually clean-shaven so this made the saint distinctive. The Pope, however, refused Diego's requests and told him to go home for there was greater work to be done there.

In obedience, the bishop and his prior started back home but the Albigensian heresy was always in the back of their minds. On their trip they stopped at Citeaux, the great monastery founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the mother abbey of inumerable others of the Cisterian Order throughout Europe. The Pope had entrusted the mission of preaching to win back the heretics to the Church to the monks of Citeaux. Diego was so impressed with the Cisterians that he received their habit and persuaded a group of monks to return to Spain with him.

On their journey, they met at Montpellier the Abbot of Citeaux and two other monks, Pierre of Castelnau and Raoul of Fontefroide who had been preaching in southern France with no success. The monks were discouraged and frustrated, for the heretics proved to be unmoved by their efforts. Bishop Diego quickly pointed out the reasons for their failure. They had gone there as papal legates surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance that attended papal legates, fine horses, splendid regalia, impressive robes, comfortable living quarters and good food. The Cisterians actually lived very austere lives, but they felt they had to take on all the trappings of papal legates. As Diego made clear, this was no way to impress people whose leaders led lives of extreme austerity. Actually, the Cisterians would have been more successful if they had gone there as simple Cisterians, living their own austere lives.

They took Diego's words to heart as did Dominic. In fact, he went them one better. He was even more austere than the most austere of the leaders and he let it be known how much he denied himself. He would not sleep on a bed, but on the floor; one Lent he lived only on bread and water; he had the discipline given to him --- in other words, he was whipped. In all of these he made sure that everyone knew the extent of his penances. They may have been done for show, but the hard floor was real, the emptiness of his stomach was real, the lashes he received were real. They impressed even the heresy's leaders who wondered at his physical endurance that they could not equal.

At the same time he engaged in public debates with the heretical leaders and won one after another. One common way of deciding the winners was to throw the resume of their arguments into the fire. In every case, the resumes of the heretics were burned but Dominic's were thrown back out of the fire intact. In one case, the charred beam of the fireplace that his document hit as it flew out of the fire can still be seen. In other words, it was so hot that it could char a wooden beam but miraculously it was not consumed by the heat as great as it was.

One evening in 1206, outside the north gates of the village of Fanjeaux, St. Dominic sat reading about St. Mary Magdalen whose feast day it was. As he reflected on the life of the saint he was moved to ask God for guidance in what he should do. He also asked for a sign from the Blessed Virgin to help him. Just then a globe of fire came out of the heavens, hovered a bit and then in a blaze of glory settled over the forlorn and desolate church of Prouille which was nearby. The saint could not believe his eyes. He came back to the same spot the next evening and the sign was repeated. He returned again on the third evening and sure enough the vision appeared again. He took this as the sign he had prayed for and determined that the church at Prouille was the place God wanted him to begin his work. This vision is known as the Seignadou, "the sign of God" in the language of the place and time.

The way he began his work was to collect a group of women at Prouille and form them into nuns. This was not just a gathering of a group of pious women. Rather it was a daring tactic to counteract a strategy of the Albigensians who used similar groups of women who had attained the rank of "perfect" to teach the children of impoverished Catholic nobles and raise them in the heresy. These convents also served as apostolic centers where people could go for instruction and help. This is exactly what St. Dominic intended to do, but only for Catholic women, specifically, those who had been heretics but had returned to the Church. The initial group was nine in number. He gave them a simple white habit with a black veil. They were cloistered but not in the strict sense that our present day cloistered nuns are. Rather they were more like the Religious of the Sacred Heart or as the Ursulines used to be. They could not go out of the cloister but people could freely come to them for instruction, encouragment and assistance.

Bishop Diego highly approved of this move as did the bishop of Toulouse who in addition gave the sisters title to the church and land as well as the tithes and first fruits due to it. Thus, the financial security of the new foundation was assured. In addition, St. Dominic moved the little band of men who were working with him on to the property so it became a kind of "double monastery" which was not uncommon at the time.

The following year, 1207, Bishop Diego decided it was high time for him to return to his diocese of Osma with the intention of returning as soon as possible. But this was never possible for he died the following year. Upon his departure, Dominic was left in charge of the mission. He became a close friend of the Bishop of Toulouse, Foulques, a most apostolic pastor who saw in Dominic a kindred spirit who could be of great help to him in fulfilling his pastoral duties.

The situation would be greatly complicated the following year, 1208, when the papal legate in charge of the preaching mission to the Albigensians, was killed by the heretics. This brought on a bloody crusade led by Simon de Montfort, an English nobleman. Dominic was highly respected by Simon but he never expected the saint to participate in the battles that went on nor did he serve as an inquisitor. In fact, he saw that war was no way to overcome a well-established heresy so he wanted nothing to do with the so-called crusade.

In February of 1213, the bishop of Carcassonne went to France to see if he could get more troops to help in the Crusade. He appointed Dominic as his vicar general during his absence which lasted several months. This gave him an insight into the working of a diocese and administrative experience. It was in this position that he realized that the parochial system alone was inadequate to handle situations such as those of Southern France. Something more was needed.

All during this time Dominic continued to preach, engage in debates with the heretics and give lectures. His cheerfulness and joyousness of spirit never deserted him even in the face of threats against his life. He was fearless. Once, he walked alone through a village that he knew was bitterly against him singing at the top of his voice so that if they wanted to harm him they had their chance. Another time a group of heretics asked him, "Have you no fear of death? What would you do if we siezed you now?" Dominic laughed and said, "Oh I would just ask you not put me to death all at once; but gradually limb by limb to make my martyrdom a slow one, so that hardly human in form, blinded and a mass of blood, I should have a really much finer place in heaven." What can you do with a man who wants to be a martyr? Bodily harm or even a cruel death would play right into his hands. The result was that they left him alone.

In 1215, a wealthy merchant of Toulouse, Peter de Seila, gave St Dominic and his companions some houses in the city. Later on he was to join the Order as a brother and took care of finances. He used to say that it was not the Order that received him but it was he who received the Order. This was his little joke that he used repeatedly. As soon as the brethren had moved into the house Dominic took them to the lectures of Alexander of Stavensby, a distinguished theologian who was teaching in Toulouse at the time.

It was during this period that Dominic began to realize that that something more that was needed over and above the parochial system was a world-wide Order that would be devoted to preaching divine Truth. Its members would have to be learned, live a life of austerity and be contemplative. He saw that the problems of the Church were not confined to Southern France but were universal.

In that same year, 1215, he attended the Third Lateran Council in Rome as canon theologian for Bishop Foulques. There he had a chance to talk with Pope Innocent III about his ideas for a preaching Order. His basic problem was that the idea of a world-wide Order under one head was radical. It had never been done and Dominic had no models to build on. Another difficulty was that Rome and the bishops were wary of a group of preachers because they had had bad experiences with other groups such as the Humiliati. The major obstacle was that the Lateran Council had forbidden the founding of new Orders. New religious rules were out. There were to be no more of them.

The upshot was that Pope Innocent III told St. Dominic to go back to his little community of six brothers and select which one of the approved rules they would follow. He hurried back only to find that his group of six were now sixteen. There was really no problem in the selection. The Rule of St. Augustine, which St. Dominic and most of his other brethren had lived by for years was the obvious choice. It was a rule writen by a cleric for clerics. They also adopted some customs in regard to eating, fasting, sleeping and wearing wool. These were the beginning of what would develop into the Dominican Constitutions.

One other obstacle remained. Despite the houses of Peter de Seila they had no real religious house. It so happened that a priory was vacant in Toulouse, dedicated to St. Romain, with a hospital attached. Bishop Foulques and his canons gave it to St. Dominic and his companions. Although it was small it was remodeled ( a practice which Dominicans are still used to) and was made into a serviceable house.

In 1216, Dominic set out for Rome with everything in proper order for papal approval. When he got there he found out that Pope Innocent III had died and a new Pope, Honorius III, was the man to deal with. How that turned out we must leave to the next section.

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