Following St Dominic’s Way
Solemnity of Our Holy Father Dominic | Fr Dominic Ryan gives thanks that Saint Dominic let Dominicans be Dominicans rather than wasting their time trying to imitate him.
The majority of religious orders and congregations don’t last very long. They come into being, grow, flourish, decline and then die out over the course of about 150 years. Indeed more religious orders and congregations have ceased to exist than currently do exist and it’s unlikely that pattern will change any time soon. This isn’t a cause for concern, however. It’s a sign of the vitality of God’s Church. Essentially there are two conditions religious orders need to satisfy. They need to measure up to the standards of their founder and they need to fulfil the task their founder set for them. Get both of them right and God sustains the order for as long as it’s needed. Get them wrong and God raises up other orders to do the necessary work. Orders that persist beyond the 150 year mark, like the Order of Preachers the feast of whose founder, St. Dominic, we celebrate today, tend to have a firm grasp of both of these conditions.
Take the need for orders to measure up to the standards of their founder. Too often this gets fleshed out as an attempt to imitate the founder’s personality. Yet no personality can be perfectly imitated, even more so that of a saint, and as a result religious end up disagreeing over whether their efforts are acceptable or not. In the end, dissatisfied with each other’s efforts, they drift apart and thus religious orders cease to be. Not so the Dominicans, though, in part at least because St. Dominic wasn’t one of the great personality saints. He didn’t attract people to Christ through the force of his personality or his heroic virtue. Rather his great triumph was to recognise the need for a new type of religious order – a mendicant order rather than a purely monastic one – one that could respond to the pastoral and theological needs of its times. Then having recognised that need, St. Dominic established the structures in which Dominicans could flourish: prayer, conventual life, study and preaching. Thus fortified Dominicans were freed from the need to try to imitate St. Dominic’s personality. They could measure up to St. Dominic’s standards by following the structures he established and as a result the Order remained in being and focused on its task.
And what a task that was! Then as now people tended erroneously to disparage the natural world as bad or irrelevant to human flourishing. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. God is the author of nature as well as the author of grace and St Dominic understood that fundamentally the world was good. Good because it was created by God and therefore in some sense reflected God, who after all is perfectly good. Good because its existence and the changes that occur within it render it suitable for proving that God exists, thus satisfying our desire for knowledge. Good because Our Lord assumed created human nature to his person when he became incarnate and thus made our salvation possible.
Indeed it was the recognition of the goodness of the natural world that led Dominicans to realise that our end, the beatific vision, was perfectly gratuitous yet supremely appropriate. Supremely appropriate, because once human beings have reflected on the natural world, and come to realise that God exists, then they will then naturally desire to know the essence of God, just as they naturally desire to know the essence of any cause. Perfectly gratuitous, however, because the fulfilment of any desire consequent to knowledge is never owed to us. Just as for example, someone who, having realised that one day they will die, and perhaps wishing that it would not be so, does not thereby acquire the right not to die.
So we first encounter God in the natural world. He shares his grace with us thus making it possible for us to join him in heaven. We desire to know his essence. Then in heaven he fulfils our desire and enables us to see him as he really is. Our path to heaven begins in the natural world and the Dominican Order has always preached such. Thank goodness St. Dominic let Dominicans be Dominicans rather than wasting their time trying to imitate him.
2 Tim 4:1-8 | Matt 5:13-19
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the statue of Saint Dominic in the Rosary Shrine Church of St Dominic’s in London.