The Dominican Story

III. Dominican Contributions to the Spiritual Life of the Church

by fr. Gregory Anderson, OP (

Dominican contributions to the spiritual life and teaching of the Church have been tremendous from the beginning down to the present time. St. Albert the Great was the first to write on spiritual theology. He invoked the principle that theology is primarily a practical doctrine that pertains to the sanctification of the student, consisting basically in growth in charity. St. Thomas Aquinas held the same point of view and this has become a principle of Dominican spirituality.

The two differed in that St. Albert in developing his teaching used the writings of an unknown author known as the Pseudo-Dionysius as a starting point. In the Middle Ages the Pseudo-Dionysius was believed to be the Dionysius converted by St. Paul by his sermon of the Areopagus of Athens, as related by the Acts of the Apostles. It has since been proven that the author wrote much later. His writings were in the Neo-Platonic tradition of Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers who were Sts. Basil the Great and the two Gregorys of Naziansen and Nyssa, all of whom are Doctors of the Church. Their Neo-Platonism was in a much more radical form than that of St. Augustine.

St. Thomas was completely familiar with the Pseudo-Dionysian writings and used them when it suited his purpose but he rejected their Neo-Platonism.

Albert's stress on these writings was to have a great influence on what are known as the Rhineland mystics --- Dominicans such as Meister Eckhart, John Tauler and Blessed Henry Suso. Eckhart, who died in 1327, had known St. Albert when Albert was an old man. In their teaching, as far as mystical theology is concerned, the emphasis is on the divine darkness in which the soul is immersed and taken up into the existence of God. This leads to the conclusion that we are absorbed into God as drops in a bucket of water. For this reason, the teachings of Meister Eckhart have become popular with those who see that he has much in common with the Oriental philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism. Matthew Fox was among the more vocal proponents of this point of view.

St. Thomas, on the other hand, taught that the closer we come to God the more of an individual we become, which is borne out by the the fact that saints, as they advance in sanctity, become more and more themselves, completely different from any other saint. All you have to do is to read the life of a saint and see how true that is. This is an extremely important principle of the Dominican spiritual life.

Another figure in the Rhineland School of Mysticism was Blessed Henry Suso who lived from 1295 to 1366. He gave many conferences to nuns of the area and was a great deal more Thomistic than Meister Eckhart. But he was a peculiar sort of man engaging in all sorts of ghastly penances until God told him to stop. His Little Book of Eternal Wisdom is still considered to be a spiritual classic.

Another member of this school was John Tauler, born some time between 1300 and 1304 and died in 1361, who was basically a preacher who used to pack them into churches in the Rhineland. His sermons were simple, orthodox and generally Thomistic. He taught that the only way to God is through identication with the crucified Christ.

As these men demonstrate, the women of the Order were a powerful influence. By 1300 there were 141 monasteries of cloistered nuns, 74 in Germany alone. The Friars served as their chaplains and spiritual directors. This meant, of course, that they had to develop a spiritual doctrine to enable them to carry on their work with the nuns. By and large, except in the Rhineland of Germany, they relied on the teaching of St. Thomas.

The Third Order secular, or as they were quaintly, but accurately called in an early Rule, "The Brothers and Sisters of Penance Living At Home," were a factor in this. There was a broad spectrum of life styles for the Laity ranging from a requirement that the members dress simply without adornment, to those who wore a habit but lived at home, such as St. Catherine of Siena, to those who were more commonly known as Beguines. They wore a habit, lived in the same compound but did not live a common life outside of the Liturgy. I ran into a relic of this life style in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. I was puzzled because the building seemed to be put together in a rather higgly-piggly fashion. The reason for this became clear when it was explained to me that it was originally a community of Beguines, Whenever a new member moved in they added on another apartment wherever there was room. They had a common chapel, but the members lived in their own quarters, did their own cooking and supported themselves by sewing, painting or whatever. They took no public vows. They did wear the habit but were lay Dominicans only. Back in the twenties, the bishop told them they had to fish or cut bait, become Third Order Religious or disperse. They chose to become religious sisters and affliated themselves with the Mission San Jose Dominican Sisters. It was shrewd move. The Mexican government was confiscating all religious property except that owned by Americans. This meant they would not be closed down. When I was there the first time, there were still two or three of the original Beguines alive. This, I believe, was the last house of Beguines in the Church.

Out of all these various manifestations of Dominican lay life developed the Third Order Religious. Blessed Emily Bicchieri founded the first group in 1256. They took vows, wore the habit and lived a common life. In contrast to the cloistered nuns they devoted themselves to good works, although liturgical prayer was not neglected. In time, of course, these good works grew in scope so that now Dominican Sisters are engaged in every kind of ministry from hospitals, schools and colleges to missionary and social work.

The greatest writer on the spiritual life of Middle Ages and of all time, was a lay Dominican, St. Catherine of Siena, whose doctrine was so exalted and orthodox that she has been made a Doctor of the Church, the only lay person to have that distinction. She definitely was on the Thomistic side and in sharp contrast to the teaching of Meister Eckhart some of whose teachings were condemned by the Church after his death. While he was alive, he consistently maintained his loyalty to the Church and his willingness to submit to her magisterium.

She stressed objectivity and universality contrary to his subjectivity and individuality. She looked outward to the salvation of the world and reform of the Church and the Order. He looked intensely toward the interior life of the soul. Her spirituality was much more ecclesial and sacramental than his.

She was deeply influened by the teaching of another Italian, Dominic Cavalca whose Mirror of the Cross was a popular work at the time. He had died in 1342 five years before her birth in 1347.

The next great figure in Spiritual Theology was Louis of Granada whose birth date is uncaertain, but who died in 1588. Although he was a brilliant student under the greatest Dominican theologian of the time, Francisco de Vittoria, his main interest was in helping the average lay person to become holy. His best known work was The Sinners Guide which was translated into all the European languages and remains a classic today. He was the first in the Dominican Spanish school of spiritual theology.

During the last century there has been an explosion of a kind in the Dominican contribution to spirituality. The great breakthrough came in 1905 when Father Juan Gonzalez Arintero, who was born in 1860 and died in 1928, published his masterpiece, The Mystical Evolution In The Development And Vitality Of The Church. Building on the doctrine of St. Thomas of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the lives of the saints, he proposed thatall Christians, lay people as well as religious, were called to the highest levels of the spiritual life and that the life of grace developed into contemplative prayer. This was a radical position and aroused much opposition.

His teaching, however, was taken up by a French Dominican, Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who was considered to be the greatest theologian in the Church at the time. His two books, Christian Perfection And Contemplation and The Three Stages Of The Spiritual Life forever broke the back of the school that taught that there was a distinction between ascetic and mystical theology, that the highest levels of the spiritual life were only for a chosen few while the rest of us could only stand and look on in admiration. Since he taught at the Angelicum in Rome, his prestige was enormous and his books were translated into most modern languages. Father Arintero, on the other hand, was not teaching anywhere because he was stone deaf and lived at Salamanca in Spain which was then a kind of backwater theologically speaking. The teaching of the two carried the day and are at present the common teaching of theologians.

In France there was an exciting outpouring of books on the spiritual life aimed primarily at the laity, with names like Gardeil, Sertillanges, Froget, Bernadot and Regamey in the forefront. They were all translated into English and were very popular in this country. England also made it contribution in the persons of Bede Jarret, Vincent McNabb, Gerald Vann and Thomas Gilby.

A number of magazines devoted to the spiritual life began to be published. In 1919 the French publication La Vie Spirituelle began publication while the following year, Father Arintero began the Spanish magazine La Vida Sobrenatural. In the United States we have Spirituality Today which was originally called Cross and Crown, edited by Leonard Callahan, O.P.

As a final note, perhaps the best-known name today as a writer on the spiritual life is an American Dominican from the Mid-West Province, Jordan Aumann. Who knows who will be the next? He could be from your province and you may know him.

| Next | Tradition |