From: St. Dominic and His Work, by Pierre Mandonnet, O.P.,
Translated by Sister Mary Benedicta Larkin, O.P., B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis/London, 1948.
Character of St. Dominic
THE deeds and aspirations of Dominic in his apostolic labors and in the foundation of the Preachers represent him fully enough to enable us to know him and portray him; moreover, we have numerous views of his character from those who lived and labored with him. The depositions during the process of canonization at Bologna and at Toulouse leave nothing to be desired in this regard. In their clear, short, and precise testimony, the witnesses engrave in perfect harmony all the lines which compose the moral and religious features of the Founder of the Preachers.
One of his religious daughters, Cecilia Cesarini, to whom the saint gave the habit of the Order at St. Sixtus, has traced a detailed word-portrait of her spiritual father: "The Blessed Dominic was of medium height and of slight build. His countenance was beautiful, of fair complexion, with light auburn hair and beard and luminous eyes. A kind of radiance shone from his brow, inspiring love and reverence in all. Full of joy, he seemed ever ready to smile, unless moved to pity by the affliction of his neighbor. His hands were long and shapely; his voice strong, noble, and sonorous. He never was bald, and his corona was complete, sprinkled with a few white hairs."(1) Dominic, no doubt, would have smiled at this description of him: "Cecilia," he would say, "there is only one beauty: that of the soul."
Rarely have nature and grace apportioned their gifts so generously as to Dominic, and rarely has a man been as faithful in cultivating the seed sown by Providence. His constant effort was to develop the growth to perfection. Born to be a leader and guide of souls, never did he forget the great principle that gives power to authority: act by force of example and do more yourself than you ask of others. The Church had placed him at the head of a militia of "invincible athletes of Christ," her own earliest name for them. The head of these athletes of the faith had to be himself a model of athletes, an apostle par excellence, powerful in word and work. Faith and charity animated the whole career of Dominic in his personal life and in his public activity. These divine talents cultivated his natural gifts and made them fruitful; for he esteemed these goods as coming also from God. Viewing them constantly vitalized by grace, we, too, can appreciate and admire their native splendor.
Dominic had a nature of exquisite sensibility and profound force. Those who knew him and lived intimately with him emphasize equally his spirit of joy and his flow of tears at the sight of suffering. He was one of those generous souls that live only for others; hence his gift for compassion and consolation. Without effort he communicated the spirit of his own soul to the soul of his neighbor.
Dominic guarded perpetual virginity. The spiritualized character imposed upon their senses by souls that submit neither to the tyranny nor to the caprice of the flesh, had refined his sensibilities and purified his affections. To maintain a continual mastery over his body, the Founder of the Preachers followed a program of extreme rigor. Watching, fasting, mortifications of every kind along with the privation and fatigue of long journeys on foot had made a supple instrument of a servant so rebellious as is the flesh of man. Nor is it surprising that a soul like Dominic's, at once gentle, strong, and ardent, radiated its inner strength through such feeble and transparent clay without loss or diminution.
This power of persuasion won for the saint his victory in founding the only religious Order of the Middle Ages established among clerics and churchmen, the class at that time most opposed to sacrifice and dutiful devotion. The reiterated appeals of Sovereign Pontiffs had been powerless to draw from their great benefices, or their scholarly vanity, even a handful of ecclesiastics for the apostolate, at a period when ruin threatened the Christian world, and the faithful were dying for lack of spiritual nourishment. The subprior of Osma worked this miracle. The young William de Montferrat, a follower of Cardinal Ugolino, whom Dominic knew at Rome and attracted to his Order in the house of his great friend and protector, later told of the impression made upon him by Dominic. Dominic's manner, he said, Pleased him greatly and he began to love him. He had never met a man so religious and so zealous for the salvation of souls.(2)
In their perfection the higher faculties of the Master of the Preachers seem to have excelled his exquisite sensibility. Not only were his intelligence and his will of the first order, but their balance and harmony found expression in a remarkable unity of action. The progress of events and the vocation of St. Dominic called into full play the qualities of his practical judgment, while his achievements attest the breadth and height of his spiritual vision.
Dominic's education was that of a well-trained cleric of the late twelfth century. It was almost exclusively theological, that is, Scriptural, for the Bible was the principal work studied. The subprior of Osma meditated continually on the New Testament, particularly on the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul, which he always carried with him and knew almost by heart. In his sojourns at Rome, Bologna, and Paris he interpreted certain books of the New Testament for the brethren, and thus he was, so to speak, the first Master of the Order. As he nourished his own soul on Sacred Scripture, so, by his letters, his words, and his example, he encouraged his brethren to imitate him.(3)
Vowed to the labors of the apostolate from the year 1205 under almost desperate conditions, he had acquired from everyday life an appreciation of difficulties and the art of overcoming them. Continual association with ordinary people and association with the most eminent men of his time gave him wide views of the problems harassing the Christian world. He had been enveloped and carried along, as it were, by all the great movements of the age: the religious aspirations of the people and the heretical propaganda, the troubles of the communal life of the large cities, the policy and the war at the time of the crusade, the intellectual ferment in the schools of Paris and Bologna, and the sorrowing solicitude of the Church, whose many efforts for reform were still without success. Dominic understood and, in a certain sense, likewise shared intimately the reform views of such great lights as Innocent III and Cardinal Ugolino. He put to the test and ultimately realized the most cherished designs of the papacy, which were likewise his own.
To carry to completion an extremely difficult undertaking, Dominic had at his command an incomparable strength of will. Aware of realities and taught by experience, his practical judgment had the seal of full maturity; his decisions were precise and firm, their execution swift and sure. His disciples tell us(4) he never reconsidered a determination once made. Considering that an Order of Preachers, judged almost impossible, was started and within a few years instituted and extended to the distant frontiers of Europe, we recognize what an expenditure of energy was demanded of St. Dominic. Of all his moral virtues, lofty and balanced as they were, that of fortitude most impresses the historian. Then there is his evenness of spirit in success and reverses, his confidence in his enterprises and his scorn of danger. Even to the most timid and hesitant of his disciples, he imparted his own sense of security in his boldest undertakings. By nature and vocation he was magnetic.
THE BOOK OF CHARITY
From what source did such energy proceed? His companions and disciples have told us over and over again: from an almost uninterrupted union with God. Either he was speaking to God, they say, or about God. The greater part of his nights was passed in the church in meditation or prayer. On his long journeys over a vast stretch of Europe, he often went aside from his companions and, alone, engaged in the divine communication from which issued his great strength and its continual renewal. In this incomparable love for God, he breathed a love for souls and rekindled his desire for their conquest. He loved them all, those of his sons and his daughters, those of all religious families, those of faithful Christians, those of Jews and pagans, to whom he showed a great affability, because, born outside the Church, they were not tearing her bosom asunder. He loved the souls of the heretics and spent himself to convince and win them. He loathed heresy, which loosed such evils in society and led Christians to perdition. Whatever may be said to the contrary, Dominic never exercised the office of a judge delegated for the prosecution of heresy, an office instituted by Gregory IX twelve years after the saint's death, one which a number of Preachers were required to exercise.
A young student of the University of Bologna who did not know which to admire more, the grace of his word or the eloquence of his speech in the use of Holy Scripture, once asked him toward the close of his life, in what book he had studied most. Dominic answered: "In the Book of Charity more than in the books of men."(5) St. Paul would have given the same answer.
Dominic's holiness, like the grandeur of his mission, became evident to men by those miracles that confirm the presence and the power of God in great souls. In the life of the Founder of the Preachers, many striking prodigies are recorded: from the vision in which his mother, before his birth, saw him under the appearance of a dog -- it had long been the symbol of preachers -- that held in its mouth a lighted torch to set fire to the world, on to the marvelous fragrance which his dust and bones exhaled when they were taken from his first tomb to be translated to a more worthy sepulcher. We have purposely omitted the recounting of these prodigies as well as of numerous anecdotes. The purpose and brevity of these pages forbade their inclusion. An account of all these marvels will be easily accessible in biographies and histories dealing with a detailed study of the saint's life.
1 Sister Cecilia was very old, over eighty no doubt, when she described St. Dominic, who had received her in her youth at St. Sixtus. But do we have to think, as Altaner does (p. 171), that in her word-portrait, she was not inspired by her personal recollection of the saint but was influenced by the picture of him hanging in the church of St. Agnes, as in every church of the Preachers (Acta capitulorum generalium O.P., 1254, 1, 70)? Her description is so simple! The most interesting features are traced in Jordan, no. 103. If the case were our own, we feel we could live to be ninety and still be able to draw a similar portrait of Father Mandonnet, whom we too knew at the very beginning of our religious life.
2 Processus (Bologna), no. 12.
3 Ibid., nos. 3, 22, 29; Frachet, p. 82.
4 Jordan, no. 103.