DOMINICAN SPIRITUALITY: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE
William A. Hinnebusch, O.P.
Dominican life is sacrificial, the sacrifice being consummated when the Dominican takes his vows. By the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, he consecrates himself as a victim to Almighty God. In the Book of Leviticus God laid down in precise detail how each of the sacrifices of the Old Covenant was to be offered. In the Church today, our Holy Mother prescribes exactly how the sacrifice of the Mass is to be celebrated. This determination is in the minutest detail: the number of candles, the color and kind of vestments, and the many actions of the priest -- when to make the sign of the cross, when to bow, and when to genuflect. He may not omit or change any of these rubrics.
Our holy Order of Preachers prescribes the laws by which the Dominican must live the religious life in the Rule of St. Augustine, in the Constitutions, in our customs. These regulations are the rubrics by which the religious sacrifices himself to God. The victim offered is self, sacrificed by daily living according to the laws of the Order. This is what the Dominican promised to do when he knelt before his prior at profession and pronounced his vows. He promised to obey "according to the Rule of St. Augustine and the Institutions of the Friars Preachers." If he lives in any other way be breaks his promise and violates God's rights over him. Chief among the rubrics of the Rule and Constitutions are the monastic observances: silence, fasting, abstinence, wearing the habit, kissing the scapular, and grace before and after meals, chapter prayers, prostrations and venias, the enclosure of the cloister, and all the customs of community living. The observances stand among the four chief means -- the vows, choral recitation of the Office, the common life with its monastic observances, and the assiduous study of sacred truth -- chosen by St. Dominic for the achievement of the Order's ends. Though all of them (except the vows) may be modified to permit a better adaptation of the Order to present conditions, the Constitutions state categorically that they may never be completely eliminated. The observances, immolating the religious as a victim of holocaust, play a vital part in Dominican life.
The Observances Prepare for Contemplation
The observances are vital to the inner life of the priory and to the external life of the apostolate. They were designed by St. Dominic to prepare and dispose his children for contemplation. By nature they do this as monastic history testifies. From the days of Pachomius, the father of monasticism, through Basil, Benedict, Norbert, Dominic, and beyond, contemplative Orders have incorporated these practices into their spiritual life as essential means of living their life. These founders prized the observances for their many contributions to the community and to individual religious. Among these benefits was the establishment of an atmosphere of sacrifice. The observances not only ensure united direction in a community, offering the members fellowship, love and support, and promoting the apostolate, but also provide opportunity for mortification. Mortification, derived from the late-Latin word mortificare, means to kill. The great problem of man since the sin of Adam has been to tame the flesh, flesh meaning our whole fallen nature. The monastic observances help the religious to destroy his vices, leash his emotions and passions, govern his will, die to self. They attack the self-will and pride that lie at the root of all evil. By taming the flesh, the observances prepare the Dominican for contemplation. Whereas the passions entice the soul from the things of the spirit and focus its attention on the things of sense, the observances detach him from material things, and purify the senses, and remove distractions.
The early friars testified to St. Dominic's supreme evaluation of the observances. William of Montferrat, one of his frequent companions, had this to say:In all the time we were together, I saw that Brother Dominic kept the rule and observances of the Friars Preachers most strictly. He indeed dispensed the brethren but would not dispense himself. He kept all the fasts prescribed in the rule both in sickness and in health.Ventura of Verona, who was prior at Bologna when Dominic died there, corroborated William's testimony: "When Brother Dominic was in the priory . . . he conformed to the community in food and drink, kept the rule entirely and fully and did all he could to have the friars keep it." When they failed to do so, he was firm in correcting them. Rudolph of Faenza, procurator at Bologna, went into detail on this point:If he saw a brother breaking any rule, he would pass by as though he had not seen it. But afterward, with a mild expression and kind words, he would say: "Brother, you must confess your fault!" And with his gentle words he induced all to confess and repent. And though he spoke humble words, he severely punished their excesses; nevertheless they went away from him consoled.Dominic was not content with the mortifications inherent in the faithful fulfillment of the rule. He went much further in inflicting austerities on himself. His diet was rigorous, his nightly vigils prolonged. He chastised himself with hairshirt and discipline. Moreover, Rudolph tells us: "Brother Dominic always wore an iron chain girded around his waist next to the flesh. He wore it until his death." Rudolph found the chain when he was preparing Dominic's body for burial. At first he took it as a keepsake, but later gave it to Jordan of Saxony. John of Spain spoke of Dominic's vigils and disciplines: "Both night and day, Brother Dominic was most constant in prayer. He prayed more than the other brethren who lived with him and kept longer vigils. He used the discipline on his body with greater severity and greater frequency than the others:" By such prayer and penance St. Dominic won the graces of the apostolate.God gave him [writes Jordan of Saxony] the singular grace of weeping for sinners, the miserable, and the afflicted. He carried their miseries in the sanctuary of his compassionate heart and poured forth his burning love in floods of tears.His compassion led him to sacrifices for sinners. The greater austerities he practiced are not recommended indiscriminately and should be undertaken only with the consent of a confessor. But there are a myriad of little ways of imitating Dominic's mortifications which do not injure health or impair strength. John of Spain gives some idea of these: "The Blessed Dominic was frugal in eating and drinking but particularly as regards any special dish:" Some religious are ingenious in finding mortifications both unobtrusive and effective. Some religious never lean back in their chairs. Others are sparing in the use of condiments: salt, pepper, vinegar, catchup, mustard, and salad dressings. The best mortifications, however, are those that are inherent in the rule and regular discipline: silence, answering bells promptly, making inclinations at Office carefully, asking permissions, accepting without complaint restrictions of freedom.
These built-in mortifications should be consciously accepted. Religious should not lose their profit from them by complaining or by doing them through routine without thought of their deeper meaning. The observances should be frequently and consciously offered as acts of love and sacrifice. A religious should not habituate himself to keeping the rules without reflection; keeping them well, perhaps, but never adverting to the fact that they are mortifying, never laying them as homage at the feet of the Crucified Christ.
High on the list of observances are the enclosure, custody of the eyes, and silence. John of Spain tells us how strictly St. Dominic guarded his eyes: "When we walked through the cities and villages together, the witness noticed that Dominic hardly raised his eyes from the ground." The roving eye leads to many distractions and often to sin.
The enclosure of the Second Order is most strict. It prevents both the world from entering the monastery and nuns from leaving it. The cloister of the First and Third Orders, however, is less strict. It is the so-called defensive cloister; it keeps the world out of the religious house but does not forbid the religious from going into the world for the sake of the apostolate. Especially by barring entrance to the spirit of the world, the cloister guarantees to the priory and convent the atmosphere of peace that is so necessary for prayer and study.
The Dominican is happy when his rule imposes restrictions upon him when his superiors regulate the use of TV and radio, of telephone and mail box, of visits, trips, and vacations. These restrictions chafe and gall but also protect the religious, giving him the spiritual climate that he came into the Order to seek and reminding him that his true home is the cloister.
Silence is the most important element of monastic discipline. St. James emphasizes it as a test of a true religious spirit: "If anyone thinks himself to be religious not restraining his tongue, but deceiving his own heart that man's religion is vain" (James 1:26). Elsewhere he elaborates on the control of the tongue; "If anyone doe: not offend in word, he is a perfect man, able also to lead round by a bridle the whole body." He calls attention to how men control wild horses with bridles, guide great ships with rudders, and tame all birds, beasts, and ever serpents, but not the tongue. "The tongue no man car tame . . . it is a restless evil full of deadly poison" (James 3: 2-10). With this apostolic teaching and the experience of centuries of monastic history to guide them, the Order's Constitutions exhort the brethren to keep silence "with all zeal and diligence." They call it "the most holy law of silence the guardian of all other observances" and "urge all superiors out of zeal for regular observance to exert themselves to have this most ancient law of silence prevail, not withstanding any contrary custom whatsoever." The 1955 General Chapter underlined "the most holy law of silence" with these words:We admonish the brethren to observe silence even in small houses, especially at table, not only because it is prescribed and is an easy means of mortification for all, but especially because it is altogether necessary for a contemplative life and the study of sacred truth.What is said of silence can be said of all the observances. All of them in one way or another are a form of silence; they calm the clamor of the senses, still the chattering of imagination and memory, the faculties which feed on the data of the senses. The observances close off these avenues to the soul, barring the distracting thoughts which enter through the highway of the senses.
The friar witnesses during the canonization process of St. Dominic stressed his silence. William of Montferrat says: "The Blessed Dominic always observed silence at the customary times and places according to the regulations. He avoided useless conversation:" Forgier of Penna brought out the close connection between silence and preaching: "I never heard an idle or harmful word fall from his lips, or flattery or detraction, but he always spoke of God. And to anyone he met along the road he preached about God and urged the friars to do the same. Ventura of Verona mentioned the solemn silence at night: "When he was traveling he kept silence after compline and made his companions do likewise, just as though he were at home in the priory. In the morning, when he traveled, he had the brethren observe silence every day until about terce." Bonvisus told of yet another kind of silence practiced by St. Dominic: "When the violence of fever took hold of him [during a sickness in Milan], he did not complain about this illness; rather, it seemed he was in prayer and contemplation." Dominic was skilled, therefore, in all kinds of silence: the ordinary silence of the religious house, the solemn silence, the silence which avoids gossip and other sins of the tongue, the silence which refuses to complain.
Monastic Observances and the Apostolate
Monastic observances not only serve their basic function of providing a contemplative climate for the religious life but, for the Dominican are an essential condition of the apostolate. Religious discipline builds a framework for contemplation, study, and the efficient use of time, factors of utmost importance for apostolic activity. It silences the urging of selfishness and develops a disciplined will, a will that becomes the spring of effective action. The rule eliminates concern for material things, for the needs of daily life such as food and clothing. The religious habit is not only an object of beauty and significance but saves the religious, especially the sisters, the time and trouble of keeping up with the fashions.
The observances also impetrate the graces of the apostolate. Pere Cormier, master general from 1904 to 1916, who did so much to revive the Dominican spirit after the damage done by the nineteenth century, brought out a very important point about the discipline of the cloister." Our whole religious observance," he wrote, "may be considered as a sacramental, endowed by God with a special power of sanctifying our lives whether bodily, intellectually, or spiritually." A sacramental is an action or object instituted by the Church through her approval and blessing as a channel of grace. It becomes the occasion of this grace through the Church's prayer when she blesses the object and through the disposition of the user. The sacramentals are not as effective as the sacraments, which work immediately and directly, but they are precious means of grace. When the Church approves a religious rule, in a sense, she makes all its religious observances channels of grace for religious who follow them. The Dominican Rule and Constitutions bear the stamp of the Church's approval. The discipline they impose will bring Dominicans grace, if they sincerely submit to it. Père Cormier underlined this truth: "All observances, even the least, hide a certain grace and deserve that we diligently carry them out "
The sacramental value of the observances is heightened by the fact that a consecrated person performs them. The person is dedicated to God by profession. The vows give a double value to every action performed under their influence. In the classroom the obedience of the child has one value: the merit of obedience. The obedience of the sister who teaches the child has two values: it is an act of obedience and, through the action of the vow, is also an act of the virtue of religion. The vows can only be lived correctly according to the Rule and Constitutions. This is how the religious promises to obey. When the Dominican keeps his rules, his vows sanctify his actions, in a sense, make them sacramentals. Through them he merits grace. When he breaks the rules or acts contrary to them without dispensation that action escapes the sanctifying effect of his vows.
The holy habit is the chief sacramental Mother Church has given Dominicans. It is symbolic of the whole religious life, what the religious is, what he aims at, what he hopes to become. These ideals are expressed in the prayer used by the priest to bless the scapular.O Lord Jesus Christ, who didst vouchsafe to clothe thyself with the garments of our mortality, we beseech thee to bless this garment which our holy fathers have appointed to be worn as a token of innocence and humility, that they who are clothed with it may be worthy to put on thee, Christ our Lord, Amen.Each time the friar clothes himself with his habit, he reminds himself that his chief duty is to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, that he must do this in a Dominican way, the way of the vows and the observances of the Order. In effect, when he throws the scapular over his head, he hears St. Paul say to him: "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14) .
The Dominican puts on Christ by imitating him. A great actor most successfully portrays an historical character when he studies his photographs, his mannerisms, the most minute details of his life, and especially his spirit. An actor who has done this, especially if he has been playing his role for an extended run, tends unconsciously to imitate the character he portrays. If such close imitation can be effected in the case of a fellow man, a religious can more easily do the same with the life of Jesus Christ, a member of the Mystical Body sharing Christ's divine life. The blessing of the scapular speaks specifically of innocence and humility. The colors of the habit exemplify these virtues; its white signifies Christ's innocence; its black indicates Christ's humility: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matt. 11:29).
When Dominicans have learned of Christ and put on his virtues then their lives become a convincing argument for their message, a witnessing to the truth that they preach: "We preach a crucified Christ" (I Cor. 1:23).
Keeping the Rules and Constitutions
Since monastic observances have such sanctifying power, the Dominican should keep them well. "All observances, even the least, hold a certain grace in them and deserve that we carry them out diligently." Only when he keeps them, will the Dominican get the benefits that St. Dominic wanted him to have from them. It is inevitable, of course, that there will be infractions. Infractions often come from human limitations, sometimes from weakness, sometimes from surprise or inadvertence. One religious, naturally impetuous, blurts out something before he thinks, or breaks the rules because action precedes thought. Another fails through vivaciousness, a third through natural sluggishness. For some people torture begins when the rising bell rings. The heavy sleeper finds it agony to jump up right with the bell. The light sleeper, however, who has no trouble and is always on time, may reap little merit because he has settled into routine and seldom dedicates his promptness to the Lord, or he may make his observance a subject of boastful comparison with his sluggish neighbor: "O God, I thank thee that I am not like the rest of men" (Luke, 18:11).
Since rules and Constitutions do not bind under sin, violations are not sins precisely as violations of the rules. But an infraction may become mortally sinful, if it is done through contempt for the law or through contempt for authority. The actions may be venially sinful, and often are, not because the rules are broken, but because some sinful motive intrudes itself. For example, the religious breaks a rule or fails to keep it through pride, self-love, anger, sloth, gluttony, or uncharitableness. Failing to obey the law through motives of that kind makes infractions venially sinful. If the matter is serious enough, for example, serious defamation of the character of another religious, the infraction may be mortally sinful. The Constitutions of the sisters bring out these truths explicitly:The Rule, the Constitutions of the Congregation and the ordinances of the chapter do not oblige directly under sin . . . . However, the sister can sin indirectly by transgressing the rules and Constitutions if the transgression is committed from some inordinate or culpable motive.Semi-deliberate faults do little harm, "provided," writes Humbert of Romans, "that you regret your poor observance." When the Dominican is concerned about his violations and does not settle down and live with them, it is a healthy sign, a sign that he is still striving for perfection. But when he no longer thinks a rule is important, then he has stopped working for perfection and is failing in the fundamental obligation that he assumed when he made profession. Christ was most severe with the lukewarm:I know thy works; thou art neither cold nor hot. I would that thou wert cold or hot, but because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to vomit thee out of my mouth; because thou sayest, "I am rich and have grown wealthy and have need of nothing," and dost not know that thou art the wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked one (Apoc. 3 :15-17).In his daily examination of conscience the Dominican should carefully inspect his observance for that day. He should constantly check himself, especially watching the fault which experience has shown to be his special weakness. Since he wears the Dominican habit his salvation is linked with the observance of the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers. Let him break the rules because he despises them, because he no longer cares for perfection, or because he considers observances petty matters that can be habitually disregarded, then the danger flags are up and he would do well to examine his conscience about his own laxity. There is no truth to the legend that a Dominican cannot be lost. He should be constantly concerned about the rule, be sorry when he breaks it, keep it because he prizes it. If this is his prevailing mood, then he is climbing steadily upward, even though he commits unintentional faults.
A page from the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila illustrates the sanctifying quality of all Orders approved by the Church and underlines the importance of minute observance of the religious rule. Of all the souls she saw in vision departing this life, only three went directly to heaven. The first was the Franciscan, St. Peter of Alcantara, who escaped purgatory because of his extremely penitential life. The second was the Dominican, Peter Ibanez, one of her confessors. She does not assign a reason for his immediate ascent to heaven, but elsewhere speaks of his high degree of prayer, his penance, and his sanctity. The third was an unknown Carmelite father. Of this last, Teresa writes: "I was amazed that he had not gone to purgatory." But then she remembered that he "had faithfully observed his rule."
St. Theresa of Lisieux is a similar case. Her observance of the austere Carmelite Rule with all its rigors and penances was most exact. There were no extraordinary occurrences in her life: no visions, ecstasies, or raptures, as in the case of her great namesake. When Theresa lay in her last illness, one of the sisters who was working in the kitchen said to another:Sister Theresa will not live long and really I sometimes wonder what our Mother Prioress will find to say about her in her obituary when she dies. She will be sorely puzzled, for this little sister, amiable as she is, has certainly never done anything worth speaking about. People still make this mistake when they talk about Theresa; they think that heaven cost her nothing but smiles and roses. But they do not know the Carmelite Rule.A similar amazement is expressed when people hear that Pope John XXII is said to have remarked when he was canonizing St. Thomas Aquinas: "Prove to me that a Friar Preacher has kept his rule perfectly, and I will canonize him forthwith without any further proof of sanctity." This remark may be legendary, but, if so, it contains a kernel of truth. Sound theology lies behind john's words. It is axiomatic that when the Church stamps a religious Order or Congregation with her approval, its members have a guarantee that its Rule and Constitutions, its way of living the religious life, is a safe spiritual way, a road that leads to sanctity. During seven centuries, eighteen canonized saints and at least 285 beati have lived "according to the Rule of St. Augustine, and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers." They belonged to all three branches of the Order, to the First, to the Second, to the Third. Some of the members of the Third Order lived as sisters in community; others as secular tertiaries. Each branch of the Order leads its members to sanctity.
Not one of these saintly Dominicans had heaven handed to him without effort. Every one of them lived the Dominican life under human conditions, conditions never absolutely ideal. There were lukewarm friars during the golden age of the Order, during the days of Raymond, Peter, Albert, and Thomas; even Dominic found timidity and weakness among his earliest disciples. Some of these saintly friars lived in centuries when Dominican life reached the depths, during days of decline and decay. All around them were religious who no longer cared, who were no longer concerned about perfection. The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena pictures in almost lurid colors the decay that had penetrated the ranks of clergy and religious during the lifetimes of Bl. Raymond of Capua, Bl. John Dominici, Bl. Lawrence of Rippafratta, St. Antoninus, and many of the other beati. The experience of these Dominicans of the darker days proves that the priest, sister, or tertiary cannot wait until conditions are just right, until the golden age returns, before beginning to walk the road to holiness. Each Dominican must begin walking at once. He must set out in the spirit of the final words of St. Augustine's Rule:May the Lord grant that you observe all these things like lovers of spiritual beauty, breathing forth the sweet odor of Christ in the holiness of your life. Not like slaves under the law, but like those set free by grace . . . . And when you find yourself doing what is written here, give thanks to God, the Giver of all good things. When, however, anyone among you sees that he has failed in any point, let him repent of the past, be on guard for the future, praying that his faults may be forgiven and he be not led into temptation.