An Order born in an inn: the Dominicans

Un Ordre né dans une auberge: les Dominicains
23 Aprile 2020
Riscoprire e riprendersi il dono della vita
25 Aprile 2020

An Order born in an inn: the Dominicans

To avoid misunderstandings, I should begin by explaining the origin of this title which might at first glance seem disrespectful towards St Dominic de Guzman (Caleruega c. 1170 – Bologna 1221), the Spaniard who founded the Order of Friars Preachers (the feast of his Translation will be celebrated on 24th May), and also perhaps even more towards those men and women who, over the last eight hundred years and across five continents, have shared in the Dominican charism of the Charity of Truth, bearing witness to it by their lives and by various forms of preaching.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with a Lay Dominican about the state of general ignorance and confusion in every area and at every level which is characteristic of the present age, aggravated by the fact that thanks to the Internet anyone and everyone can have their say regardless of whether it is true or false, reasonable or not (cf U. Eco). He pointed out how incredibly relevant in the current situation was the charism which God had entrusted to Dominic for the good of his Church then and now: the proclamation of the Truth! In fact, I was able to observe for myself an unexpected instance of this kind of ignorance and confusion among members of the clergy, religious and several lay people after the publication of my previous reflections on the Sacrament of Penance and the limits the State can place on the exercise of religious liberty. This committed and educated layman rightly observed that in the end, the Dominican Order was born in an inn in Toulouse (cf P. Lippini, La vita quotidiana di un convento medievale. Gli ambienti, le regole, l’orario e le mansioni dei Frati Domenicani del tredicesimo secolo, Bologna 2008, p. 11), at that time the cradle of the heretical movement known as the ‘Albigensians’ (Cathars) and so a place where ignorance and confusion reigned. Yes, born in an inn! I was struck by this joke, and it prompted in me the reflections which follow. To help the reader understand why, however, I will briefly recount the episode from the life of St Dominic to which this layman was referring, so that no one thinks the Order was born in an inn because of a fondness for wine! Rather, its origins lay in those ‘highs’ which only the Holy Spirit can give.

In the autumn of 1203 Dominic, a young canon of Osma cathedral, was travelling with his bishop Diego di Acebes on a diplomatic mission to Denmark on behalf of King Alfonso VIII of Castile. While passing through the south of France, he became aware of the social and religious  confusion and turmoil in which the people of God found themselves on account of the Cathar heresy and the threat of periodic raids especially by the pagan Cuman tribes of Hungary, who held a large area of northern Europe in fear (cf H. Vicaire). Coming as he did from a quiet backwater of Old Castile, the events Dominic witnessed on this journey must have been a real shock for him, and his response, as he reflected on them, was one of religious attentiveness. Providence led Dominic and his bishop Diego to stay in an inn whose owner adhered to the heresy. As a result Dominic spent the whole night listening attentively to this man’s words of anger and scorn as he had a go at the Church, with its wealth and cosy relationship with those in power, and repeated the partial and categorically asserted truths touted by the heretics without stopping to consider or qualify them. Dominic listened attentively: he didn’t just hear his host out, nor did he judge him, but rather showed his openness to him. This did not mean simply agreeing with him in order to be “nice”, and thus confirming him in his way of thinking, but the exact opposite: he overturned the innkeeper’s certainties one by one and calmed his anger. He pursued a real conversation, engaging the innkeeper on the level of reasoned arguments, illumined by the light of faith, and so helping him to distinguish the truth of the gospel message from its surrogates, which might be attractive but consistently fall short because of the simple fact that their god is created by man, and so does not exist. In this listening and the ensuing discussion, like Christ with the disciples on the way to Emmaus (the Gospel proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Easter), Dominic first breaks open the Word (cf Lk 24:27) until the innkeeper, like those disciples, recognises the one true God revealed by Christ, passing from disappointment, error and a feeling of abandonment to the heartfelt joy of learning he has always been loved and never deceived (cf Lk 24:32). Like those disciples he realises he thought he knew everything about Him, but had never really met him or allowed the Son of God to take hold of him. After they had listened to that stranger on the way to Emmaus and accepted his word, those disciples discovered him to be the Christ, the necessary companion on their own earthly pilgrimage, and they decided to return to Jerusalem that very night, which was no longer night for them; likewise the innkeeper would greet the dawn a different man. In fact the breaking of the new day saw the birth of two new men: the innkeeper, converted to the true faith, and Dominic, who, moved by God, saw how necessary it was to help his neighbour to rediscover what is true, good and beautiful!

What was it that touched Dominic so profoundly as to turn his calm and steady life upside down? We find an answer in the writings of his successor at the head of the Order: “When he learnt that the inhabitants of that region were heretics, he felt great compassion for so many souls pitifully deceived by error” (Iordanus de Saxonia, Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum, n. 15: Libellus). I am convinced Dominic in the first place realised that, behind so many people’s rejection of the institutional Church of the day and their anger towards it lay a search for the meaning of their existence, and ultimately a thirst for God, especially since within these people who fight and do each other down to the point of hating each other, there are in the end the same expectations and hopes for love and fraternal communion. He sensed that if, by true faith and the grace of God, this ‘kernel’ of goodness which is in every person can be brought out, change for the better is possible. At the same time, Dominic became aware of the possible consequences of churchmen’s infidelities (not of the Church herself, but of those who betray her: cf Cardinal C. Journet), but also of the falsehoods and deceptions of heresy. During that night at Toulouse spent talking with the heretic innkeeper, a new world was opened to him and his attention was drawn to a reality which deserved all his compassion. He experienced a growing sense of his duty to be a co-worker with Christ in the salvation of others, and would hold nothing back in making himself, like St Paul, all things to all men that he might by all means save some (cf 1 Cor 9:22), in order to: “… encompass all people in the ample embrace of his charity, and because he loved everyone he was loved by everyone. He made this his motto: to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Libellus, n. 107)

In fact, from that frank and unbiased conversation in the inn – a symbol for me of the real world – Dominic began to glimpse the importance of the charity of truth and the truth of charity which became characteristic of his life and of his preaching of the Truth which is Christ without ever abandoning the embrace of charity (cf Eph 4:15; Bl. G. Girotti). Convinced that people are not opposed to God but often to a false idea of God Dominic, open to the Holy Spirit, founded the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans, constituted by Honorius III with his two Bulls Religiosam vitam of 22nd December 1216 and Gratiarum omnium largitori of 21st January 1217). These friars were to announce to their brothers and sisters the Good News through which they could come to a knowledge of God’s loving plan and thus the meaning of their life; they were to do this through the witness of their lives and through serious study aimed at growth in wisdom rather than the mere acquisition of facts. This charism is of surprising, almost disconcerting, relevance in our current age if we consider, as mentioned above, the confusion in every area and at every level which is condemning people to unhappiness. This preaching (“in season and out of season ” [2 Tim 4:2]), as St Dominic understood it, is always proposition, never imposition, faithful to the example of Christ who never forced anyone to follow the Gospel: “If you wish …” (Mt 19:21). Combining the contemplative life and the active life, the Order stands out among the forms of religious life, as Aquinas teaches: “… the work of the active life is twofold. One proceeds from the fulness of contemplation, such as teaching and preaching. Wherefore Gregory says (Hom. v in Ezech.) that the words of Psalm 144(145):7, ‘They shall publish the memory of Thy sweetness,’ refer ‘to perfect men returning from their contemplation.’ And this work is more excellent than simple contemplation. For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate. […] Accordingly the highest place in religious orders is held by those which are directed to teaching and preaching, which, moreover, are nearest to the episcopal perfection, even as in other things ‘the end of that which is first is in conjunction with the beginning of that which is second,’ as Dionysius states (De Div. Nom. 7, 3). The second place belongs to those which are directed to contemplation, and the third to those which are occupied with external actions.” (Sum. Theol, II-II, q. 188, a. 6, in c.)

The confusion and turmoil of St Dominic’s times are not so much a historical as an existential phenomenon: they are connected to what it is to be human after original sin, and so there is nothing new under the sun (cf Eccl 1:9). The Covid-19 crisis we are currently living through is, like every crisis, bringing out the best and the worst in each of us, and at the same time it puts in sharp relief the intrinsic absurdity of certain situations, especially if considered in the light of the common good which today, as a result of globalisation, should be treated as a universal good. Such a ‘lost’ world is highly susceptible to the various ‘enchanters’ of the moment who promise anything and everything (justice, happiness, well-being, freedom understood as doing whatever you like); we can see how necessary in a world like this is the charity of truth which Dominic, in that inn in Toulouse, recognised as the answer to the expectations of every woman and man, conveyed through a testimony and a ministry which brings people to respond to various difficulties and apparently hopeless situations with Peter’s words to Christ: “‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (Jn 6:68)

In that inn in Toulouse, Dominic realised the danger of ignorance and thus the need to educate people and present them with the truth, freeing them from the slavery of “feeling” and enabling them to think rationally; so today, the friars preachers are called to expose at every level of society, but especially within the Church, claims to be what one is not and to act in ways which are contrary to one’s own good and to the good of others. They are not to remain passive observers of what is going on, limited to watching what is happening, but rather to make the effort to see problems, difficulties, doubts and anger as occasions of grace; not merely to come across other people and their problems in the course of life, but desiring always to meet them. What happened in that inn and changed St Dominic’s life is a reminder to Dominican nuns, friars, sisters and laity that our charism is founded in the ‘incarnation’ of our faith in people’s day-to-day lives. This requires of all of us a concerted effort to conform our lives to what we have freely embraced. Concretely, that means cultivating first of all our intimate relation with God in prayer which is informed and nourished by study undertaken out of the desire to know ever more closely Him who has loved me from eternity (cf St Catherine of Siena). Only in this way will we be able to bear witness to that true Word, as Dominic did with innkeeper, and not merely the many words of our own which show themselves to be simply meaninglessness and provoke adverse reactions, especially when they are contradicted by the inconsistency of our own lives. In fact, Dominic was first of all a man of God (he spoke with God or about God) and thus profoundly honest, always knowing how to recognise and act on the proper priorities of things. One of the things which struck me the most when I read Lacordaire’s Life of St Dominic for the first time was that, although Dominic was as poor as could be, giving everything to the poor, not even having his own cell and insisting that his brethren not own property even in common, he insisted on having for the liturgy the best and the most beautiful things they could afford. Reading that as a young law student, I thought: this man really believed and understood how things really are.

Whether they know it or not, people today are like that innkeeper in Toulouse, waiting to meet someone who will help them get out of the dark night to be reborn like the new day, and to become a new creation (cf Gal 3:26-27). What, then, needs to be done? Much could be said here, and this is not the place to begin the conversation, but everyone will surely agree with what St Dominic’s successor in leading the Order, Blessed Jordan of Saxony (1176 ca.-1237), wrote, summing up the charism of the friars preachers: to live uprightly, to learn and to teach (cf G. de Fracheto, Vitae Fratrum, P. III, C. 8, n. 163). The Dominican Order was born in an inn where Dominic, a profoundly religious and upright man, learnt to listen to the innkeeper and so teach him the liberating truth of the Gospel; we too, then, who have been ‘captured’ by his charism with all its contemporary relevance, are called to be upright, to learn and to teach what has been committed to us by Revelation and by Tradition in this inn which the world has always been and continues to be.

Next year is the eight hundredth anniversary of the death of the man known to his devoted children who follow his charism as our Holy Father Dominic (1221-2021). Like the celebration of any anniversary in the life of a person or an institution, this is a moment to take stock and to formulate goals and plans. Generally on these occasions, everyone gets out their ‘family jewels’ and puts them on show, potentially not paying enough attention to flaws, weaknesses, and those scleroses which are a normal development when the life of a person or institution is particularly long. Then, especially in the case of a religious Order, there is almost always the thought of ‘reforming’ it, i.e. taking it back to the purity of its origins, forgetting how dangerous such an operation can be if not carried out with the intelligence and faith to recognised the action in history of the Spirit. From a reading of the history of the Church in this regard, we learn that true reforms are those which succeeded in identifying and channelling commonly held expectations, either promoted from above and received and spread by those on the ground or initiated from below and not blocked by enlightened authorities. This is the secret of the Dominican Order’s unity after more than eight hundred years.

In any case, many such initiatives are already planned, even if at the moment given the current pandemic no one can be sure whether and how they will take place, and even whether they will be alive to take part in them. Given the circumstances, I asked myself how I could celebrate an anniversary of such significance for me personally, having experienced for over forty years the gift, comprising as always joys and sorrows, of living the charism St Dominic left us. In fact, I am convinced that in the end, beyond all the commemorations of the events and the people connected to this charism who have made a contribution to its history, the most important thing is my personal commitment to live uprightly, to learn and to teach, with all that this implies, consistent with how St Dominic lived and what he left us. This can all be summed up in a simple but nonetheless challenging word: conversion! It is an undertaking which is crucial for my life and demands my personal initiative even when I don’t receive everything I should at the institutional level. Not the conversion of others, but my own conversion, not achieved by taking refuge in the past, in external forms (or even aestheticism), but by undertaking day by day to put God always first, to give to Him alone the first fruits and not the leftovers of my day (cf Gn 4:3-7), and measuring the truthfulness of that undertaking by my commitment to community life, in a Community which is always a place of forgiveness and celebration (cf J. Vanier), where we discover that we are where we are not because we chose each other or like each other, because we have the same ideas, the same education and tastes, but only because God has brought us together in faith. For that reason, no one should think they can live fraternal life in a religious community with the cardinal virtues alone (or indeed without good manners or respect on the part of the more recently arrived for those who have been there longer: cf 1 Pet 5:5), as it is the theological virtues that are needed: faith, hope, and charity. In conclusion, therefore, I must thank this Lay Dominican whose joke that we were born in an inn led me to think again about the priorities and consistency of the Dominican charism and my own life, and especially how crucial it is for all of us to be a “ … new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:23-24), so that we can be preachers in the name of Christ of conversion and forgiveness of sins, beginning from that Jerusalem which is the place where God has desired us to be (cf Lk 24:47-48), and even when life seems to be a disaster from birth or subsequently (cf Acts 3:2).

Rome, Angelicum, 15th April 2020

Fr. Bruno, O. P.

*A sincere thanks to Fr. Gregory Pearson for the English translation.

**The original version in Italian, shorter, will be published in the magazine of religious life “Testimoni”.

***La versione in lingua spagnola sarà pubblicata nei prossimi giorni.