THE LIFE OF ST. DOMINIC de GUZMAN
St. Dominic was a man characterized by exceptional integrity and extraordinary energy of divine zeal which carried him all along. He was also a man of remarkable character and broadness of vision. He had the deepest compassion for every sort of human suffering, and he saw the need to use all the resources of human learning in the service of Christ.
Br. Jordan, the second master of the order, exclaimed with admiration, “who could ever hope to imitate the virtues of this man? To be able to do what he did requires more than human strength, it presupposes particular grace, which he alone had.” Nevertheless, he continued,” brethren let us follow our father to the best of our ability.”
Then, who was Dominic?
He is the founder of the Dominican Order.
Dominic was born in the year 1170 in a simple village in Northern Spain called Caleruega. He was born in a noble and eminently Christian family. The father of the Saint was Felix Guzman, commandant of a fortified castle on the border of Christian Spain in the troubled years of the conquest. His mother was Jane of Aza, a daughter of the old Castilian nobility. The Guzman home had claim to distinction besides its splendid heritage of family traditions; it was a household of Saints- and not in the rhetorical sense only, for the Church has accorded the honor of the altar both Jane and the oldest son Mannes. He had another brother: Anthony who gave his life when caring for the plague –stricken. There must have been at least one other child, probably a girl, since history records a nephew and two nieces of St. Dominic who were members of the Order he founded.
The future greatness of Dominic was announced to Jane before his birth by a mysterious vision of a hound who fled through the world igniting everything from a torch he carried in his mouth. Troubled by the vision Jane went often to pray at the shrine of St. Dominic Silos in the nearby hills. In gratitude for the consolations that she received there, she named his third son after St. Dominic of Silos. During baptism another sign foretold the greatness of his destiny. As the water was poured on his forehead, his grandmother saw a bright star shinning on the infant’s forehead. All the old “lives” mention that “a certain splendor” always shone from his face, as though the star were still there. His childhood was passed in a holy household. Even as a child, Dominic avoided games and denied himself the comfort of a bed to sleep on the floor.
As a boy of seven, Dominic was sent to, Gumiel d’Izan where his mother’s brother was a parish priest, to receive instruction. He stayed there for seven years. As a young man, at the age of 14, he went to the university in Palencia, in the kingdom of Leon. Around that time, there was a terrible famine. To give alms to the poor, he sold his possessions, even his precious annotated books, thinking that the living skins of the famished were more important than the dead skins of his books. His study of the arts lasted six years. He studied the liberal arts and theology at Palencia. The sacred repose of the tabernacle was his resting place; all his time was divided equally between prayer and study; and God rewarded the fervent love with which he kept His commandments, by bestowing on him such a spirit and understanding as made it easy for him to solve the most difficult questions. He was so heart-warming that no one ever talked to him without feeling better of it. The books which were studied then were; the conferences of Cassian, the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul, which latter were stamped on his Order.
These peaceful years of growth and development came to an end with Dominic’s ordination to priesthood, a secular priest, probably in 1195. At the time of his ordination, some important changes took place in the diocese of Osma in which he was residing. His Bishop, a man of eminent holiness, following the plan then active in Europe, engaged in changing the canons of his Cathedral into Canons Regular. The Canons Regular were essentially clerics who customarily followed the Rule of Saint Augustine, subject to stricter discipline and lived a community life.
Nine years were spent at Osma, during which time was gradually the future athlete of Christ by the means offered in the regular life: the choral Office, the care of the souls in the city parish work, and discipline of life under the rule of St. Augustine. During his nightly vigils, Father Dominic grew in holiness as he wept for sinners. God gave him the grace to weep for sinners and the afflicted whom he bore in an inner sanctuary of holy compassion which pressed on his heart, flowed out and escaped in tears. Thus, he began to appear among his brethren like a bright burning torch. He was the first in holiness, the last in humility, spreading about him an odor of life which gave life and a perfume like the sweetness of the summer day.
When Dominic was 31 years old, in the year 1201, and the subprior of his community, his prior, Diego d’Azevedo, succeeded the Bishop of Osma. Two years later Don Diego was sent by the king of Castile to arrange a marriage for his son with the princess of “the Marches” probably Denmark. In making up his retinue, Bishop thought first of the Zealous young priest who have brightened the cloister of Osma, and requested him to go with him, probably in the capacity of secretary.
As they passed through the South of France the frightful character and extent of the Albigensian heresy which then infected the whole of the Southern provinces first came to their notice. People were adopting Albigensianism which considered all material things to be evil. While at Toulouse, though their time was, Dominic was unwilling to go away without doing something for the soul of the innkeeper. So, he opted to stayed up all night until he had persuaded the innkeeper to accept the true faith. Dominic, moved by this conquest and by the sad knowledge that there were thousands of others who shared the inn-keepers ignorance, began to dream of some religious body consecrated to the defense of the church and the exposition of truth. All that is known about the Don Diego and Dominic’s mission to Denmark is that it was successful, but the princess died before the marriage could be solemnized. Certainly, what the bishop and his young secretary saw on this journey did change the course of history.
About that time, the pope had called upon the Cistercian abbots to preach against this heresy. The found their task a difficult one, for the country was entirely in the power of the heretic. Cistercians invited Don Diego and Dominic to their discussion, from which Bishop Diego set the pace by dismissing his entire retinue, keeping with him only Dominic. Dom Diego died soon after living Dominic to fight the heresy alone.
The heretics attracted men by persuasive means, by preaching and a great outward show of sanctity, while the legate were surrounded by a numerous suite of followers, horses and rich apparel. The Albigensian were extremely austere, but Dominic surpassed them all by his charitable sacrifices. He might eat a bit of dried fish or a little bread and soup. Women who often fed him testified that he never ate more than two eggs, and his wine was about two-thirds water. Dominic wore an abrasive hair shirt, and had an iron chain forged around his waist. He slept very little, and when he did, it was always on the floor, preferably in the chapel. There, the fire of the Holy Spirit even dried his rain-soaked habit better than those of his companions who spent the night by the fireplace. Exhausted from his vigils, he sometimes napped on the side of the road. It was his practice to carry his shoes until he got to town.
On the night of July 22, 1206, the feast of Saint Mary Magdalen, on a hill of Fanjeaux overlooking the little town of Prouille on the plain, Saint Dominic, while kneeling in prayer, saw what appeared to be a globe of fire descending from the sky and come to rest over a little chapel: shrine of Our Lady. This sigh (or sign of God, “Seignadou” in the local dialect) occurred again the next two nights. From this, he understood that he was to begin his work at the church of St. Mary of Prouille. He started by establishing, what became, the first monastery of nuns at Prouille. In the months that followed, Dominic converted nine young women. Consequently, the first “Dominican” convent opened on the 27th of December. Saint Mary Magdalen, the penitent Apostle to the Apostles, therefore, would become the patroness and mother not only of the converted nuns of Prouille but of the Order of Preachers about to be born. Bishop Diego returned to his diocese in 1207, but died soon after. Saint Dominic then took charge of the small band of preachers. Already at Prouille, there was a double monastery or priory next to the monastery, but the brothers were not yet bound to Dominic canonically.
Unfortunately, in 1208, servants of an Albigensian count murdered a papal legate, giving the heresy more political significance. As a result, the mission turned into a bloody crusade in the hands of aristocrats and their armies. In the course of the war, Churches were burned, and the preachers disbanded. Dominic, often alone, continued at the task for years, all the while serving the victims of violence. Brother Dominic always hoped to be martyred but thought himself unworthy. So, he fled places of honor and drew near to mistreatment, to where people would spit and throw filth at him. Aware of looming ambush, he approached singing in plain view. His courage and faith, however, intimidated assassins.
Dominic set out, nevertheless, for Rome to complete the foundation. He arrived in September, but did not receive the papal bull of confirmation until December 22, 1216. In a second bull issued the same day, Honorius said, “We, considering that the brethren of the Order will be the champions of the faith and true lights of the world, do confirm the Order in all its lands and possessions present and to come and we take under our protection and government the Order itself, with all its goods and rights.” The order was confirmed by Pope innocent.
To his brethren, Dominic was exemplary in mortification, doctrine and contemplation. Three times each night, he would whip himself to blood, once for his own salvation, a second time for sinners, and a third for departed souls. Later, other Dominican saints would do the same. Dominic habitually wept for sinners, in the towns he passed, while celebrating Mass, and during his vigils. He was heard crying: O Lord, what will become of sinners? Often on the road, he would either instruct his companions or wander off to pray. His most evident characteristic was that he always spoke to God in prayer or about God to others.
Dominic was a real missionary. He traveled through France to his Spanish homeland, and then as far as Paris by June of 1219. For a few days, German pilgrims, who traveled on the same road, fed him, so he prayed for the ability to speak their language, and the gift was given to him. Neither language nor locked doors could obstruct him. More than one porter wondered how he got beyond their gates. After establishing houses along the way, Dominic returned to Italy, stopping at Milan, Bologna, Florence and Viterbo. He was in Rome for Christmas.
Dominic was a man of great prudence in administration. When the pope asked Dominic to reform and organize the more or less independent nuns of the city, he carried out this ministry in a diplomatic manner that he overcame their protests and achieved the desire goal peacefully. By February of 1220, he gathered many at San Sisto. He called Mother Blanche from Prouille to take charge of the monastery. The friars meanwhile moved to the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, another donation from the pope. For centuries, the Masters of the Order have managed the Order from there.
Although he performed many miracles, Dominic is a saint because of his great charity, not because of his miracles, yet the greatness of his miracles is a sign of his love. Of all his well attested prodigies, the most remarkable are the resuscitations of the dead. Our saintly Father once rescued a workman who was crushed by a fallen wall at San Sisto.
The first General Chapter of the Order was held in Bologna around Pentecost, 1220; in which he recommended that all economic matters be handled by the lay brothers, but the Chapter Fathers voted against him. Dominic preached throughout Italy for a year until the second General Chapter, once again in Bologna. By then, his health was declining, yet he continued to walk from town to town preaching. By mid-summer, he had spent his strength. Heaven had warned the “Athlete of Christ” that his life was about to end. His work was bearing fruit. Already the Order had grown to eight provinces: Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, Rome, Germany, Hungary, and England. By the time he reached Bologna in August, it was very hot and humid.
The heat compounded his fever. Although he could not stand, he refused to be put on a bed. He lay on the floor of a borrowed cell, in a borrowed habit, for he had none of his own. He had bequeathed to his children this testimony: “Have charity one for another; guard humility; make your treasure out of voluntary poverty. When asked about burial, he expressed his wish to be “under the feet of the brethren,” that is, under the feet of those who bring Good News. He assured them, “Do not weep, my children; I shall be more useful to you where I am now going, than I have ever been in this life.”
Near the end, he told the elders, “Till this day, God, in His mercy, has kept my virginity pure and unstained. If you desire this blessed gift of God, hold yourselves apart from everything that can conjure up evil, for it is by watchful care in this that a man is loved by God and revered by man. Be eager in your service of God; strengthen and widen this newborn Order; increase your love of God and your keen observance of the Rule; grow in holiness.” Only a few more words were exchanged. After his confession, he directed his sons to begin the Commendation of the Dying. During its recitation, he stretched his arms upward and died. It was Friday, August 6, 1221, about 6 o’clock in the evening: fittingly the Transfiguration. Saint Dominic was 51 years old when he died and was canonized in July 1234.
Miracles followed and devotion to the saint grew, so the church building needed to be expanded and Dominic’s body moved. Hundreds of people of every rank attended the Translation on May 24, 1233. When the stone covering his remains was lifted, a gentle aroma, like a sweet perfume, filled the air to the delight of all. The sacred relics have since been revered in a sepulcher befitting his glory. Within a year after the Translation of the Body, after collecting depositions and testimonies, Dominic was canonized a saint. His feast is celebrated on the eighth of August.