DOMINICAN SPIRITUALITY: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE
William A. Hinnebusch, O.P.
The Christian is the image of Christ. The Dominican is the image of St. Dominic. As a canon of Osma, before he became an apostole, he was a contemplative. Here is how Jordan of Saxony describes these years at Osma: "Day and night he frequented the church, giving himself without interruption to prayer. Redeeming the time by contemplation, he scarcely left the walls of the monastery." Then St. Dominic went into southern France to begin his years of ceaseless apostolic activity. He became an apostle but did not stop being a contemplative. Abbot William Peter of St. Paul's monastery in Toulouse, who had known Dominic personally, testified that he had never seen anyone pray or weep so much. Dominic's prayer was so intense that it forced him to pray aloud: "O Lord, have mercy on Thy people . . . what is to become of sinners?"
The Dominican Order is Contemplative
St. Dominic founded an Order that is contemplative in all its branches -- the First Order, Second Order, Third Order Conventual, and the Third Order of Tertiaries. Any Dominican who is not eager to become a contemplative is falling short in his Dominican spirit.
Some people hold that it is impossible to unite the contemplative and active lives, because each of these lives is so engrossing. The life of prayer claims all the attention of a person; activity claims all his attention also. When Dominic founded the Friars Preachers, some people said it was impossible to have an Order that combined both features. They knew only two kinds of Order. There were the contemplative Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Premonstratentians, and so forth. They led the life of prayer. Not that they never left the cloister, but the vow of stability bound them to one monastery for their whole life. The active Orders were strictly active, the Knights Templars, Knights of St. John, Teutonic Knights, the Orders of Ransom, and Orders that took care of pilgrims and the sick, running inns and hospitals. Only the Canons Regular, leading the contemplative life, undertook a limited, parochial ministry.
St. Dominic founded a new kind of Order, one that pursued an intense life of prayer and yet embraced a general apostolic activity. He personally demonstrated that it is possible to be a contemplative of the highest type and also a zealous apostle. But these two lives can be united only when the apostle gives primacy to contemplation. It must be Christian contemplation, pondering the mysteries of our redemption -- Christ's desire to save all souls, his death on the Cross for the redemption of sinners, the Father's love in sending Christ to us. That type of prayer becomes apostolic; the contemplative seeks the salvation of his neighbor, because, like the early Christians, when he "sees his neighbor, he sees God."
St. Dominic prayed in that way. Jordan of Saxony writes: "He shared the daytime with his neighbor, but the night he dedicated to God:" He spent so much of his night in prayer, that he hardly needed a bed. In fact, his friars testified that he never had a bed of his own. When he slept, he slept in a chair, on the floor, leaning against the altar, or dozed at table. At night he prayed as long as his body could endure it. When sleep overpowered him, he rested his head, like the patriarch Jacob, upon a stone. After a short rest, Jordan notes, he would rouse his spirit and renew his fervent prayer. He was first and foremost a contemplative, and his children must be contemplatives.
Contemplation is the chief purpose of the Order. The Dominican does not contemplate because he wants to become an apostle. That would make it a means to an end. Contemplation is so superior, that it cannot be subordinated to anything lesser. The Dominican seeks contemplation for its own sake, because contemplation unites him to God. "Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be given to you besides" (Matt. 6:33).
Contemplation -- the Source of the Apostolate
When a friar prays, he hopes his prayer will become deep and profound, filling his own soul with such grace and spiritual energy that they will overflow on the souls of others. The image of his life is a deep well. It fills slowly until its pure water reaches the top; then the water runs over the brim and begins to irrigate the whole countryside. The well never empties itself in watering the fields, but gives of its abundance. The Dominican must sanctify himself before he can go out to help his neighbor. The end of the Order, in all branches, is a contemplation that fructifies in the apostolate. A Dominican's life is a life hidden in God with Christ, lived in the solitude and silence of the religious house. There he dwells alone with God while his exterior activity is the voice of cloistered silence.
The Dominican goes into the pulpit, the classroom, or the sick-room because obedience sends him, because his apostolic yearning to help souls impels him to go. He does not undertake these works through natural eagerness to exercise his talents, or to fulfill his personality. Of course this does not mean that if a priest likes to preach, he must no longer delight in it; nor if he loves teaching, that he must curb the joy he experiences. It means only that his motive in going out to work is not personal gratifications but the glory of God and the good of neighbor.
All other motives urging him onward to works of the apostolic life are less worthy. With his usual acuteness, St. Thomas describes the failure of most religious who plunge into the apostolate: "They are led to engage in external works rather from the weariness which they feel for the contemplative life, than from a desire to attain to the fulness of divine love" (De perf. vitae sp., c. 23). "There are some who are deprived of freedom for divine contemplation and immersed in secular affairs willingly or without regret; in these persons very little or no charity is evident" (De carit., a. 11, ad 6 ) .
But Thomas finds not only activists, weary with the contemplative life, but also selfish contemplatives. "They so enjoy divine contemplation," he writes, "that they do not want to forsake it, even to consecrate themselves to the service of God by saving their neighbor" (De carit., a. 11, ad 6).
The true Dominican resembles neither of these types. If his neighbor did not need him, he would stay in his religious house with God, but because of his neighbor's dire necessity, he longs to give him the fruits of his own interior life. There is an intimate connection between his prayer and his apostolic yearnings. This distinguishes him from the purely contemplative monk who may go forth out of obedience, as did St. Bernard, to work for the salvation of his neighbor. The Dominican, seeing God in his neighbor, is constrained by the impetus of his own contemplation to bring that neighbor to God. Therefore, as St. Thomas observes:" . . at the expense of his much loved contemplation, he devotes himself, for God's sake, to his neighbor's salvation. Hence, it is a proof of a greater perfection of charity to be willing, for the love of God and neighbor, to work for the salvation of others, even though, by so doing, contemplation be somewhat impaired, than to cling so closely to the sweetness of contemplation as to be unwilling to sacrifice it, even for the salvation of others" (De perf. vitae sp., c. 23).Tormented by a passion for souls, the Dominican brings them a message that has been matured in silent prayer before God, that has "been shaped in the sanctuary, the choir, and the cloister:"
This eminent ideal, this search for contemplation that fructifies in the apostolate, has been expressed concretely in the oldest, the simplest, and the most beautiful Dominican rule of conduct. It comes directly from the practice of St. Dominic. The canonization witnesses tell us that he spoke only with God or of God. We shall let Stephen speak for them all:It was his custom to speak always of God or with God whether he was in or outside the priory or on a journey. He strongly urged the brethren to act in the same way and he had this placed in the Constitutions.Speaking thus of God, in conversation or in sermons, Dominic's contemplation spilled over the brim of his prayerful soul to the sanctification of those who heard him.
The Dominican saints learned this lesson from their father. They also spoke with God and of God. Bl. Raymond of Capua writes this about St. Catherine of Siena:. . . if she had intelligent people to tally to, she could have gone on talking to them about God for a hundred days and nights without stopping for food or drink. She never got tired talking about God. On the contrary, as time went on, she seemed to grow ever more lively and enthusiastic. Again and again she has told me she knew of no greater consolation in life than talking and arguing about God with people of understanding. And anyone who ever worked with her can vouch for this from personal experience.Raymond goes on for another page, telling how he fell asleep once when Catherine was talking to him about God. She awoke him with a rebuke: "Is this all you care about the salvation of your soul?"
St. Thomas gave theological expression to the Order's motto when he said that an apostolic religious must "contemplate and give to others the fruit of his contemplation" (Summa theol., II, II, p. 188, a.6). The Dominican apostle must "speak with God or of God".
Contemplation -- Inherent in Dominican Life
Is it possible to prove that the Order is contemplative? This can be done by first considering the kind of Order St. Dominic founded: an Order of Canons Regular. The bull of confirmation issued by Pope Honorius III on December 22, 1216, began with the words Religiosam vitam. Hundreds of similar bulls open with the same words and with the same general content. They vary in detail but are always given in favor of chapters of canons regular. The chief duty of the canons was contemplative -- the worship of the Holy Trinity. The canons existed to carry out the divine worship of the Church in a solemn manner. They were attached to the cathedrals precisely for that purpose: to worship God officially, to participate in the solemn Mass, to chant the Divine Office in the name of the Church. They were officially "pray-ers". The issuance of the Religiosam vitam by Pope Honorius served notice on the Friars Preaches that they were Canons Regular and that their chief function was to worship God in a contemplative way.
St. Dominic also adopted the monastic observances -- the community life, cloister, silence, austerities of fasting and abstinence, bowings during the Office and Mass, venias, the scapular -- from the contemplative Orders. The first part of the primitive Constitutions was almost exclusively devoted to these things. The Founder took them from the Premonstratentians, who borrowed them from the Cistercians, a most strict, contemplative Order. Dominican nuns and sisters have taken these observances from the fathers. Tertiaries perform the bows when they recite the Office during their meetings. Even in their private recitations, the members of the Order should bow their heads reverently at the Gloria Patri. The observances are a sign to the friar that he must be a contemplative.
The second part of the early Constitutions also clearly demonstrates the contemplative character of the Order. This part, governing preaching, study, and apostolate, held before friars going out to preach a vivid portrait of their contemplative apostolic career:They shall receive a blessing and then go forth as men desirous of their own salvation and the salvation of others. Let them bear themselves with religious decorum as men of the Gospel, treading in the footsteps of their Savior and speaking with God or about God to themselves and their neighbor . . . .The present Constitutions prescribe the same ideals, repeating the words of 1220:It is known that our Order was founded from the beginning for the express purpose of preaching and the salvation of souls . . . .The Rule of St. Augustine, chosen by St. Dominic as best suited for his purposes in founding the Order, likewise imposes the duty of contemplation. It opens with a statement, in different words, of the Order's great intention to speak only "with God or of God:" "Before all things, dear brethren, love God and after him your neighbor." These words are a trumpet call to contemplation. The Rule first ascends to the very throne of God to look on him in loving contemplation; then it descends, bringing his love to souls. Humbert of the Romans, fifth master general, makes a beautiful application of these words to the Dominican preacher in his comment on the Rule:
This end we ought to pursue, preaching and teaching from the abundance and fulness of contemplation, after the example of our most holy father Dominic, who used to speak only with God or of God to the great benefit of souls.
The means set by that most holy patriarch for the attainment of that end are, besides the three solemn vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, regular life with its monastic observances, the solemn recitation of the Once, and the assiduous study of sacred truth. Among us these means cannot be abolished or substantially altered, though it is permissible (the vows, of course, excepted) to temper them somewhat, opportunely, so that they might be more suited for a facile reaching of the end and possess greater efficacy and be more suited for a more expedite attainment of the end.It is the duty of the preacher at times to devote himself to contemplating the things of God; at times, however, to exert himself in action for his neighbor. The love of God raises him up to the first; the love of neighbor carries him down to the second . . but because each one owes more to himself than to his neighbor, he must give himself more to the quiet of the contemplative life than to the works of the active, like the workers of Solomon, who rested more than they worked. He must seek the things of God more than he seeks the things of his neighbor, and must preach more to himself than to others, preferring the love of God to the love of neighbor, because that is the first and the greatest commandment. Therefore, there is an order in these things and it is rightly written: 'Before all things love God, and then the neighbor.'
The words of the Rule illustrate the sublimity and spirituality of the Dominican vocation. Above all else, it urges the fulfillment of the two great commandments: "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matt. 12:37-39).
Contemplation and Preaching
The contempative character of the Order is demonstrated from the special end that St. Dominic established -- preaching for the salvation of souls. The primitive Constitutions clearly state this purpose in their prologue: "It is known that our Order was founded from the beginning for preaching and the salvation of souls." Spreading the word of God for souls demands a contemplative life from the apostle. St. Peter clearly taught this truth when the first deacons were chosen. Pointing out the need for the new office, he spoke for the Twelve:It is not desirable that we should forsake the word of God and serve at tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, that we may put them in charge of this work. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts, 6:2-4 ).He even wanted contemplation for the "active" deacons. They must be men "full of the Spirit and of wisdom."
St. Dominic, an apostle among the Albigenses, devoted himself "to prayer and the ministry of the word", giving "his day to his neighbor, his night to God". Humbert of the Romans, in his Commentary on the Rule shows how well the first sons of St. Dominic imitated their Founder:The state of a religious is the state of a contemplative. The things that are preached are learned in contemplation. Speaking of preachers the blessed Gregory said: "in contemplation they drink in the truths which later they pour out in their preaching." The office of the preacher is, on the one hand, to give himself to contemplating the things of God, and, on the other, to devote himself to activities on behalf of his neighbor. He must give himself to both the active and the contemplative lives. But since everyone is responsible first for himself, the preacher must devote himself much more to contemplation than to the works of the active life.
Contemplation in the Lives of Sisters and Tertiaries
All that we have said about contemplation applies equally to Dominican sisters. This is clear regarding the nuns of the Second Order, but the sisters of the Conventual Third Order are also committed to the Order's spiritual life. Dominican spirituality is the same, in its basic principles, for all members of the Order. No congregation of sisters or brothers can be affiliated with the Order unless the master general is satisfied that its constitutions and customs faithfully reflect the spirit of the Friars Preachers. A congregation enjoying such affiliation can be sure that the Order is satisfied with the contemplative character of its laws and customs. All parts of the Order, except the secular Third Order, follow the Rule of St. Augustine. Read regularly in the refectory, the Rule continually challenges the brethren with these words:Before all things, dear brethren, love God and after him your neighbor, because these are the principal commands which have been given to us. These, then, are the things which we command you who live in the monastery to observe: first, that you dwell together in unity in the monastery and have one mind and one heart in the Lord, for this is the reason why you have come together.The Constitutions of the sisters, as those of the fathers, commit them to the contemplative life. The Friars Preachers were founded by St. Dominic for the sanctification of its members and the salvation of souls. The sisters "as true daughters of their holy Founder and Patriarch, must always remember this twofold object and strive with all their energy to attain it" The first emphasis is on their own salvation. The Order was founded to sanctify its members, to make them "perfect in charity". In the second place it seeks the salvation of souls. The principal and essential purpose the Dominican has in entering the religious life, is to achieve his personal sanctification. This he does through the three vows of religion and by keeping the Rule and Constitutions. These guiding documents for Dominicans, together with the sisters' customary, oblige them to follow the contemplative monastic observances as they were set down in 1216 by St. Dominic.
The sisters also take the vows, follow their Constitutions, and keep the Rule. They wear the Order's habit with its scapular, the badge of a contemplative Order. They have the fasts and abstinences, the enclosure, community life, silence, the Office and all the many Dominican sacramentals which help lead their souls to God.
Infused Contemplation -- the Dominican Ideal
When St. Dominic placed contemplation before his children as the primary end of their lives, he intended infused contemplation. The thirteenth century did not know the distinction made by later spiritual writers between "infused" and "acquired" contemplation. The Founder did not rule out vocal prayer, mental prayer, or other kinds of active prayer. He practiced them himself and enjoined them as dispositive agents preparing for the higher types of prayer.
Contemplation is primarily an act of the intellect, but it begins in love, an act of the will. When the soul loves God, it longs to be united to him. Ardent love for God leads to the contemplative act. Once the soul has found God in contemplation, its love, by a reciprocal process, is increased. In the presence of the one we love, we experience delight; this, in turn, leads to an increase of love. Contemplation, therefore, is a circular motion (Summa theol., II II, q. 180, a. 6). It begins in love of God; it leads to our gazing upon him; thus lost in our enjoyment of him, we learn to love him more intensely.
Some might object that infused contemplation is a gift of God; it cannot be acquired. God gives it to whom he pleases, when he pleases, and as much as he pleases. It is given when the Holy Spirit makes his Gifts, especially wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, active in the soul. Then the soul is made docile and readily responsive to the whisperings of the Spirit. If that is true; if contemplation is a gift of God; if we cannot acquire it by our own efforts, then how can we be true Dominicans? Not every one, and maybe only a few are given this gift. Of course, we do not know who has it or who does not have it. Sometimes a person may have it and not be aware of it himself. Or a soul may experience contemplation once, a few times, or frequently. So the difficulty remains, how can we be true to our vocation if here and now we are not contemplatives? We are true to our calling if we live our contemplative vocation sincerely, if we try habitually to dispose ourselves for the higher prayer. This is required even of a person who enjoys the act of contemplation. It is an act, and, therefore, transitory; it lasts for a time and then ceases. Even one so gifted must constantly be disposing himself, otherwise he will lose God's blessing.
Preparing for Contemplation
How can this be done? St. Thomas prescribes hearing, reading, meditating, and praying (Summa theol. II II, q. 180, a. 3 ad 4). A Dominican prepares for contemplation when he listens to sermons, when he reads spiritual books, when he prays mentally or vocally. Chanting Office in choir, during which the soul savors the sacred texts and listens to the whispering of the Invisible Teacher, was the means preferred by St. Dominic to dispose his children for contemplation.
The Dominican should constantly and humbly beg God for this gift. It is a higher grace directly conducive to sanctity and may, therefore, be legitimately desired. Our Lord, in the words spoken to the woman who had come to Jacob's well to draw water, encourages us to ask for the contemplative graces: "If thou didst know the gift of God, and who it is who says to thee, 'Give me to drink,' thou perhaps, wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water" (John, 4:10 ) . The Book of Wisdom teaches that such prayer made humbly and perseveringly can expect an answer: "I called upon God and the spirit of wisdom came upon me" (Wisd., 7:7 ) . The soul prays humbly for this grace when it realizes that it is God's gift and the answer depends on his Will. He may not answer this prayer in the present life, or he may answer it later when the soul has done more to dispose itself. He may answer it only once, or he may answer it more abundantly. We may pray for contemplation without presumption, because infused contemplation is the normal flowering of the life of grace, which should continue developing until it reaches its maturity in contemplation. Should this not take place, it will occur in eternity, following the purifications of purgatory. When trials and sufferings come into his life, the religious should never complain; rather he should welcome them as purifications which will cleanse his soul, show him his weakness, and draw him gradually toward union with God. Many souls lose all the purgative value of sufferings when they rebel or fall into self pity.
The Dominican who appreciates the Divine generosity, will beg God incessantly for the higher spiritual gifts. However, this prayer will be presumptuous if it is not matched by unending, vigorous efforts on his part to do everything possible to dispose himself for the higher graces. Utmost fidelity to the prayer and the duties of his religious life are the providential means given to the religious to accomplish this work. Deliberate neglect or habitual infidelity to religious duties will nullify all efforts begging of God the higher forms of prayer.
If the Dominican prays for the grace of contemplation, then he must be ready to pay the price. No one can become a contemplative unless he is willing to die totally to self. Everything in the Order's religious life prepares its members to die to self and live in God. The friar begins to die to self when he commences to live his religious life earnestly; when he begins to mortify, put to death, his own will, desires, likes and dislikes. He must even learn to put aside, on many occasions, his own opinions. If he is faithful to the monastic observances, silence, fasts, abstinence, and the many other things that are so insignificant in themselves, he dies to self. Such fidelity to minutiae prepares him for contemplation by clearing away the obstacles, chiefly self-will and personal vice, which impede it and by requiring the practice of the virtues which promote it, such as obedience, patience, perseverance and charity.
The Dominican lives in God when he enters wholeheartedly into liturgical prayer, study, and the apostolate. The liturgy and loving study of sacred truth place him in direct contact with God, the object of contemplation. The apostolate carries fruits of contemplation to souls. Nothing in the Order's spiritual scheme is useless. Every element in its spirituality is essentially integrated in a master plan for the sanctification of the Dominican and the salvation of souls.
The Order's life, Rule, Constitutions, and customs are grand. They are grand in design, grand in purpose, grand in their effect. A Dominican should live them as well as he can, deeply lamenting when he fails. He should persevere in keeping his Rule and Constitutions all the days of his life, never yielding to discouragement. Only God knows why he gives contemplation to some and not to others; why he gives it early or late; why he gives it occasionally or frequently. St. Augustine teaches that this is a mystery, that if we do not wish to err, we should not inquire. Rather the soul should turn inward to scrutinize its own conduct, to see where it is still failing in complete fidelity to grace. If God gives it the graces of contemplation, it must respond with great gratitude and love.
If the friar does all he can to make himself ready for contemplation, he will certainly work most effectively for the sanctification of his soul. Only failure on his part to pursue the ends of the Order, to use the means it provides, or to use them in proper balance, stand as obstacles to contemplation. Preaching, teaching, nursing, and the vast variety of work done by the Order in the modern world do not prevent a Dominican from aspiring to be, or becoming, a contemplative.
The Order produces contemplatives and has them at the present day. Perhaps the reader may not know of any, but there are many. The saints of the Order exemplify the beautiful balance of Dominican spirituality, the perfect blend of contemplation and apostolicity. They have been among the greatest contemplatives of the Church: St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Vincent Ferrer, yet they have been zealous apostles. The pages of Dominican history are sprinkled liberally with great souls who have become saints in the Dominican way, following their rule with utmost fidelity, working faithfully for the good of souls.