This past fall I was blessed to begin formation with my local Lay Dominican chapter, happily coinciding with the opening of the 800th Jubilee of the Order of Preachers. My husband and I count a few Dominican friars among our friends, but it wasn’t until I met sisters that I recognized my attraction to all things Dominican. As it turns out, I’d been living many aspects of the Dominican charism already.
Every charism within the Church has something to teach us about holiness and Christian living, and the Dominican charism is no exception. (Not to brag too loudly, but we have a lot of saints and blesseds. Something must be working.)
With this in mind, and in anticipation of Monday’s (August 8) feast of St. Dominic, I’d like to indulge in a little bit of Dominican rah! rah! and give a brief overview of the Four Pillars of Dominican life. My hope is that everyone might find a nugget of practical wisdom or spiritual takeaway. There’s something for everyone here, even the most Franciscan or Carmelite or Benedictine or Jesuit people among us!
Pillar One: Prayer
Dominicans are “people of the Word” who feel a particular draw toward Christ as the Logos, the Word-made-Flesh. Therefore, Dominican prayer focuses on encountering the Word particularly in the Liturgy and in Eucharist, in Scripture, and in contemplation and meditation.
Dominican prayer, Fr. Paul Murray explains, is usually simple and straightforward Gospel petition:
When, over the years, Dominicans have found themselves confronted with detailed methods and techniques of meditation, and with long lists of instructions of what to do in meditation and what not to do, their reaction has almost always been the same: they instinctively feel that something has gone wrong… [St. Dominic’s] prayer is never in any way esoteric. It is always simple, always ecclesial. (From The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness, pp. 9-11)
While Dominicans may study and use formal prayer methodology, their preference is to not get caught up in methodological minutiae. They prefer the simplicity of placing themselves in God’s presence, meditating on the Word, and talking to Him as friend and Lord.
This simplicity is aptly modeled by St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas once had a vision of Christ on the Cross, who asked him what reward he wanted for all he had done and written. Thomas’ response was, “Non nisi te, Domine”—“Only you, Lord.” It doesn’t get much more simple than that!
We also see this simplicity at work in the famous frescos of Bl. Fra Angelico at the San Marco priory in Florence, Italy. Compared to Giotto’s paintings of the life of Francis in Assisi, Fra Angelico’s meditations on the mysteries of Christ seems almost stark. But I suspect this was purposeful: the simplicity of the paintings would have encouraged simplicity in the friar praying before it.
Pillar Two: Study
When you enter a library or bookstore, do you get shivers of delight, anticipating all the many things you could learn?
If so, you will find a friend in the Dominicans—they are people who love to study! Study is essential to Dominican life; St. Dominic made sure the friars had time for it. Study deepens prayer by fostering a deeper understanding of God, and it prepares Dominicans for their apostolic work, namely preaching. The preacher must catechize himself in order to be filled to the brim with truth so that it spills over into every aspect of his life. He studies his Beloved in order to fall more deeply in love with him.
For Dominicans, study is more than the cursory reading of this-or-that, however good that reading might be. It is also more than doing one’s spiritual reading (again, however good and necessary it is). Instead, study is contemplative and deliberate “intellectual grappling with truth.” This does not mean that one must be a genius to be a Dominican, but it does mean that Dominicans are called to exercise their brain muscles.
St. Josemaria Escriva (not a Dominican) wrote that “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer” (The Way, 335). I think Dominicans would agree. Making time for studying both our faith and other aspects of God’s creation makes for better discipleship and better apostles.
Pillar Three: Community
Community is the third pillar of Dominican life. From the Order’s inception the Dominicans sought to imitate the Apostles as recorded in Acts:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:44-47, RSVCE)
Community life supports individual prayer life by providing a place of encouragement, and prayer supports community life by charging it with the charity that comes only from God. It provides a forum for apostolic ideas and the energy to fulfill them. Dominicans also encourage each other to live lives of simplicity and detachment from worldly goods, their self-denial bearing fruit in their prayer and preaching.
Friars, nuns, and sisters primarily focus on the community life of their respective priories and convents. Lay Dominicans live it in their families, their Dominican chapters, and in their parishes. Everyone, however, strives to live in union with the community that is the Holy Trinity.
Dominicans are not alone in seeing the importance of community life. But it’s good to remember that we should make time to be present to others. It’s good for them and it’s good for us.
Pillar Four: Apostolate
If community life supports the Dominican in his or her apostolate, then the apostolate in return strengthens friendships within a community, uniting them around their common purpose: to know Christ and bring the news of God’s salvation to others.
Dominican apostolic work can be many things, but at its heart it always involves preaching in some form. For the friars, this is actual preaching from the pulpit, and sisters and Lay Dominicans will often give talks. But preaching can take the form of other spiritual and corporal works of mercy, according to each person’s particular gifts and callings. What makes it preaching is the person’s desire to proclaim the Person of Christ to others.
Interestingly, I’ve heard that some Dominicans make a distinction between ministry and apostolate. Ministry is more focused on service within the Church, whereas apostolate is more evangelical in nature, focusing on going beyond the four walls of the church building. It’s a good distinction, though many acts of service have elements of both, of course.
Takeaways for Everyone
What can we all learn from the Four Pillars, whatever our charism?
- Keep prayer simple. No need to overcomplicate things.
- Seek and rejoice in the Word-Made-Flesh.
- Exercise your brain muscles.
- Be a supportive and caring friend and family member.
- Keep life and possessions simple.
- Preach the Person of Christ at all times.
If we model our lives on these six takeaways, devoting ourselves to loving God and others, I suspect that we might become “Dominican” saints ourselves!
St. Dominic de Guzman, pray for us. Happy feast day, everyone!