The Dominican Choice

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with Saints | 1441, Chapter Room Fresco | Convento di San Marco, Firenze

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with Saints | 1441, Chapter Room Fresco | Convento di San Marco, Firenze

The feast of St. Dominic we celebrate today invites us to consider the heritage of St. Dominic de Guzmán in the life of the Church. For over eight hundred years, the Order of Preachers he founded has remained a testament to the sanctity of the man who labored tirelessly to bring the Word Incarnate to those who lived in the poverty of ignorance of the Gospel, and were severed from the life of grace and beatitude. We are heirs in this heritage of holiness that has continued even in our modern age to call souls to believe in the power of grace that is at work in the world, and to live here and now for life eternal. It is through this legacy that we can come to know and choose to live in accord with what will bring us to salvation.

Modern culture hails its banners and slogans before us each day. The essence of modernism to be disparate: to promote ever-new causes to rally with, and to reinvent what has already been tried and found wanting, only to find ever more want for novelty. In a world full of options, the range of things to choose from is dizzying. Every day, consciously or unconsciously, we make thousands of decisions; right reason perceives a best way forward and acts on it. In the life of faith we similarly have a plenitude of options. Virtue offers options between goods. Vice allures with opposing force to bring us to act against reason, and often also against the docile direction of grace.

The Church offers us countless examples of holiness: St. Dominic is one of thousands of saints. The holiness spectrum encompasses the entire people of God. Ever since Christ walked the face of the earth, we have had access to the Source of Grace which unites and sanctifies the Christian people. Each saint presents an option for sanctity we can strive to emulate.

What happens then, when we find ourselves asking ever-deeper questions about the nature of who we are, and the way we might be happy? When modernity beckons us to live our lives only for temporary gain and pleasure, and we perceive dissonance within the call? When we must also choose a way to live in the world: a vocation, or an expression of the Faith by which to seek holiness of life? How do we “opt- in”? Whom do we follow? Why?

Or perhaps we should ask ourselves a different question altogether, aiming to understand what the choice for holiness itself looks like – what we should first seek – before we discover the ways to achieve it?

The Dominican form of life answers a pervasive human need: the intimate, often hidden need of the soul for God – a perennial and primary need, which precedes physical needs, and ranks above any merely societal or material need, however rightful it might be. In theological terms, if God is the primary cause of our being, then the need for God is the primary need of our life. We cannot live truly human lives if this need remains unfulfilled. “All things were made through him, and without him nothing came to be” (John 1:3), means also that all things must seek Him first if they are to exist – to remain, and to thrive in being.

At the beginning of his Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI explains that the belief in the truth of the love of God is the primary calling of the Christian life.

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: ‘God so loved the world he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should… have eternal life’ (3:16).” (DCE, n.1)

It is clear, then, that while there are many options for holiness, in reality, there is a single need and a single choice that precedes them all: the need for the One who is Love, and the choice for the Truth who is a person – Jesus Christ – who declares a perennial and unchanging Ego Sum: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14.6).

And so it is, that the Dominican choice is born. Ontologically, it is the choice for Truth as the living answer to our first and deepest human need. Veritas is a Person – the Person of Christ. Veritas is the way to happiness. Veritas is not singularly the charism of the Order of Preachers; it likewise the lifeblood of Christianity.

“In the midst of the Church he opened his mouth: and the Lord filled him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding: he clothed him with a robe of glory”

-Introit from the Common of Doctors and Evangelists

For eight centuries, saints and sinners have walked in the steps of St. Dominic and discovered in the trail of tears he left behind the waters of life. And not strictly because of what he said (he left no writings), or through a cult of personality built upon the particular and compelling manifestations of holiness he lived, but because the way of life he chose was the way of disappearance into Christ, by which he set himself aside, and so became the incarnate instrument of the Word Made Flesh in the world, and its herald; the dispenser of the lavish love of the Savior, the minister of Truth, and its free servant – counting all human need unfulfilled, an all love insufficient, if it was not first met with the saving Truth that makes us free.

In a similar way, we should look deeply into the heart of modern human sorrow and loneliness, of our own indigence and hopelessness, and discover in that darkness the need for something more than we can ever give others or ourselves by our own will-power or beneficence. We must not be anxious to withdraw from the world, or eager to engage it more fully; to risk less or risk all; to preserve what may have been lost of the Faith or to build anew – but must first ask ourselves what is left of God in the heart of man.

Only when we dare ask this question, will we see the urgency of the Truth: that the periphery we must reach is actually as close as the individual human soul – our own soul, and each human soul that longs for redemption, and is made by God for the full joy of union with HIm. Only when we dare ask this question, will we actually notice the greatest poverty the world has ever known – the despair of goodness, and the loss of hope – and not walk on by. Only when we dare ask this question, will the choice for our charity be clear: Beatitude before all else, Truth before all else. Nothing less than the Truth, and no aim short of Beatitude.

Only when we dare ask this question, will our own conversion begin anew.

This conversion was the singular cause for which the first Preacher of Grace would weep at night, and relentlessly preach at day. He who knew hunger and penitence, who had no bed or possessions, criss-crossed 13th century Europe as he consecrated himself entirely to satisfy a far greater hunger, and the deepest sufferings that afflict the human heart.

“God had given him a special grace of prayer for sinners, the poor, those in distress; he made their misfortunes his own in the intimate sanctuary of his compassion and the tears which welled from his eyes were an indication of the fervor which was burning in him”

-M.H. Vicaire, O.P., St. Dominic and His Times, 44

No piece of bread suffices if the heart of man is away from the Fount of Love. The Fount of Love must first be discovered so that it may satiate the thirst of the world. The Christian should first be an evangelist of the Incarnate God, of the Word Made Flesh, who helps bring souls to the living water. St. Dominic knew and believed that all just deeds and all charity spring from the greater Source, from Goodness itself. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 6.33) was said with the same Godly lips that would later utter “I Thirst” from the Cross. The intimate sanctuary of our compassion is firstly the dwelling of God in the human soul. We must be tabernacles where He dwells, before we can expend ourselves to love in His name.

The nature of choice demands that we stake our life on something that precedes the mode of its manifestation. However many good options for holy living there are, we can opt for them as the ways by which we respond to the primary call to live “in the Truth”. In the glorious plentitude of Christian options, the Dominican choice necessarily comes first because it is primary and essential to every other good expression of charity, or attempt to preserve Christian culture and purity of faith, or effort to satisfy real material human need. We are indeed commanded by Christ to feed the hungry and clothe the naked: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25.40). Yet, in the divine economy, the unity of the corporal works of mercy rests on the necessity of the spiritual ones. Body and soul are one, but the soul animates the body.

It is the Truth that makes us free (cf. John 8.32). Veritas is the primary identity of holiness in the world, and in it is the hope for irreducible happiness. Truth, therefore, is the first charity, lest everything else become scattered human effort lacking good roots. Only when we are free we can then go about preserving the glories of the Christian promise ravaged by novelty and waste. Free, we are not slaves of material impoverishment made grievous by the desecration of the sacred. Free, we are not impaired by indigent begging for acknowledgment in a modern culture that prides itself in deriding holiness as unreasonable weakness, and reviling sacrifice as pointless suffering. Free, we already claim victory in the certainty of the greater victory of Love at work in the world.

Free, we can enter the intimate and hallowed ground of the human soul as the Image of God to another Image of God — we become Christ to Christ.

“My grace is sufficient for you”

-2 Corinthians 12.9

The Dominican choice is the bold and luminous act of faith in this promise of the perfection of our weakness. It is the light that defies the darkness of our age and shatters its despair. For it stakes all things on the hope of salvation, believing that there is an answer to the deepest longing of the soul: that the greatest sinners can become saints – that broken human nature, our flesh and blood, can be configured to Christ to love limitlessly, and that we are thus transfigured already in this life to behold forever the Glory of God.

O light of the Church,

Teacher of Truth,

Rose of Patience,

Ivory of Chastity,

You freely poured forth the waters of wisdom;

Preacher of Grace,

Unite us to the blessed.



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