History of Religious Life
St. Dominic and the Apostolate of Teaching the Word of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We will take an analysis and a rundown of ten of the outstanding
statements in the
Dominican tradition given by St. Thomas Aquinas, who was on the scene early
in the Dominican Order and whose writings have influenced the whole Church ever since.
I would like to first give you a brief rundown on the history of the Dominican
Order, compare St. Francis with St. Dominic, then go over the chart with
you, and then look at St. Thomas' teaching, which is, perhaps, the highest
expression of Dominican spirituality that we have.
The founder of the Dominicans was Dominic Guzmann, born of noble parents
and after a brilliant course of studies, became a priest. What brought
the Dominicans into existence was what Dominic did shortly after his ordination.
He traveled through France and was appalled by the ravages of the Albigensian
heresy in the France of the early thirteenth century. He saw hundreds
of cities lost to the Church because of the ideas that had been imbibed,
often in learned circles, by the people - bishops, priests, religious
and the laity. An estimate is that eleven hundred towns in France alone
had become Albigensian.
The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 was met mainly to combat this heresy.
He was already a priest, and he began preaching in one town after another,
teaching the truth and combating the errors that he met, especially among
priests and clergy. He felt from the very beginning that this kind of
error cannot be conquered by human wisdom alone. He founded an Order of
women in 1206. In the meantime he interested other priests to join him
and also men who were not going on for the priesthood; so that by 1215
they came to be called Friars Preachers - both priests and laymen, who
as members of the community were allowed to preach. The actual foundation
is dated 1215 in Toulouse, and remarkably, in one year Pope Honorius III
in 1216 approved the rule of St. Dominic, based heavily on that of St.
Augustine, and soon there were houses in all the major cities in France.
Dominic died five years after his Order was approved - 1221. By 1221 there
were eight provinces established already in Europe.
That's why I keep telling people, even as I say we are going through
the most devastating period of the Church's history today, all kinds of
new religious orders are needed, and they are coming into existence, not
to supplant those that exist, but to take on new work and to inspire all
of us what can be done. Watching the Missionary Sisters of Charity, as
I do week after week, you can almost touch and feel the grace of God.
There are extraordinary gifts in that community twenty-five years old.
Three hundred and sixty-five Novices.
In any case, something like that took place in the Albigensian times when there
were such awful things going on; and God raised Dominic, as He raised
Francis, to meet the needs of the times. These are such times today.
The Dominicans preached to both ordinary people and simple people. However,
by preference they concentrated on the more learned especially the clergy
who, as far as we can tell, were dismally ignorant. And I don't think
there is anything worse for the Church than an ignorant priest; he's a
dangerous creature, because as a priest he will be respected and his teaching
will be accepted, but he can teach the most awful nonsense and be believed.
Before we go on to analyze the Dominican spirituality theologically,
I like to make six comparisons between Francis and Dominic. First, both
Francis and Dominic wished to go to the people, and in this sense there
was a major shift in the history of religious life from monasticism, which
by definition required of the people to go to the monastery. Francis and
Dominic reversed that; the monastery goes to the people. But Dominic's
spirituality was more structured than that of Francis'. Dominic's has
a great deal of the monastic structure, and to this day the Dominicans
retain it. They have the Divine Office in choir, they have rules and regulations
that pertain especially to the monastic tradition, much more so than St.
Second, both Francis and Dominic recognized the need to fuse the contemplative
and the active life or the life of prayer with the apostolate. By now
we all know this is one of the hardest relationships to maintain, to both
be totally dedicated to the work for souls and to give one's time to prayer.
Both recognized the difficulty of combining the two, which was unlike
the monastic tradition where everything had to subserve the liturgy and
prayer. In the monastic tradition there is a primacy and a priority to
prayer to which everything else must be subordinated.
As we've been saying all along, every community today owes something
to all of these traditions. No two communities have exactly the same proportion,
some have more structure, some less, some are more monastic, some less.
In any case the Franciscans were quite satisfied to live out this mixed
life in practice. The Dominicans took on the task of studying and analyzing
this relationship. You can't imagine the number of books published by
the Dominicans, including Thomas Aquinas, on the relationship of the active
to the contemplative life; in fact, the very terminology we owe to the
Third, both Francis and Dominic desired to communicate the gospel to
the people. But where Francis was more immediately concerned with speaking
to the heart, Dominic was more directly concerned with enlightening the
mind, thus motivating the will to love and serve God.
Fourth, both Francis and Dominic were zealous to proclaim the word of
God. But Francis' approach was more pastoral, homiletic, simple and spontaneous,
whereas Dominic's approach did not exclude, of course, the pastoral and
the homiletic, but stressed the intellectual, the academic, the organized,
the scholastic, the institutional. All teaching communities in the Catholic
Church owe to the Dominicans the foundations which Dominic so well laid.
Fifth, in a sense the two forms of proclamation of the gospel were meant
to complement one another. In other words, it was no coincidence in God's
providence that Dominic and Francis were literally contemporaries; and
for a while there was a question of whether they would become one Order
- that would have been a hard one to name: The Franco-Dominicans!In any
case God provided for theChurch for now seven hundred years, and we are
confident for centuries to come. On the Franciscan side the meeting of
the universal needs, on the Dominican side the meeting of particular needs;
On the Franciscan side, the ordinary people, the run-of-the- mill. The
Dominicans concentrated on the learned or maybe the not so learned but
who needed to be taught. The Franciscans wanted to make sure that everyone
had the gospel preached including the unlettered and the children. The
Dominicans created schools in order to teach especially the teachers.
Sixth, eventually these two spiritualities or forms of proclamation of
the gospel became more similar to one another. We how have Dominicans,
not many, engaged in pastoral work. One of my best friends was Father
Sullivan, who for eighteen years - a Dominican - was chaplain at the Ohio
State Penitentiary. The prized exhibit in his room where he was chaplain
to the IMH community in Monore Michigan, the prized exhibit was a belt
six to eight feet long, a leather strap which showed signs of being
burnt. It was the belt with which those who were being executed in the
electric chair would be tied. Father Sullivan had the privilege of then
removing the belt from the burnt body. He never felt he could destroy
it, since that belt had witnessed the death of so many people.
So Dominicans can be chaplains. We do have, for example a St. Bonaventure
University which is Franciscan. But with such exceptions the distinction
remains. It reflects what Christ did. Christ spoke to the run-of-the-mill
and He spoke to His immediate followers and disciples, but Christ distinguished:
He didn't say the same thing; he would take the disciples aside and tell
them things He wouldn't tell the others; He'd explain things to them that
He did not explain to the others. It's the same Christ, but a Christ Who
is concerned about both the leaders and the led, about the shepherds and
the sheep. So that both spiritualities remain in the Church;
both are needed but they are quite different.
Lest I forget, there is a little booklet of fifty-eight pages
by St. Vincent Ferrer of the Order of Preachers, "Treatise on the
Spiritual Life." Some of it pertains more to the monastic tradition,
but most of the pages contain such profound wisdom that we can all profit
from it. He's one of their great preachers, who foretold the end of the
world unless the people reformed. These fifty-eight pages have made a
big difference in my life; I commend it to all of you. Let me read some
of the chapters especially for religious: On Poverty; On Silence; On Purity
of Heart; On the Matter of regulating the Body; Rules to be Observed at
Table; On Preaching; Remedy Against Certain Spiritual Temptations; Remedy
Against False Revelations; How to Escape the Snares and Temptations of
the Devil. Is he ever down-to-earth!
Having said that, let's now look at Dominican spirituality.
First, the importance. Why is Dominican spirituality so important for
the Church? Because of St. Thomas who was the Church's greatest teacher;
and therefore Thomastic theology is the common inheritance of all of us.
Secondly, the influence on Catholic education. The Dominicans were the
first religious Order as such to operate their own schools. Religious
had taught in schools; but the formal, overt, explicit establishment of
schools outside of what had previously been just monastic grounds, that
was done by the Dominicans. And then of course the influence on the religious
life and the intellectual world. Some of the greatest minds in the Church
are Dominican doctors of the Church - St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas
Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena. At any rate they have deeply influenced
the world of ideas.
The origins. It is interesting to note that St. Dominic's
mother is Blessed Jane of Aza; it helps to have a saint for a mother.
And Dominic, by the way, emphasized the importance of sound Catholic education
from the beginning. He followed the Augustinian rule before he founded
the Dominicans. He was a choir canon identified with the Church, sang
the Divine Office before he became a Dominican. As we said earlier, he
was inspired by the prevalence of heresy. He saw widespread ignorance
of bishops and priests. I think this is one of the main reasons for the
convulsion of the Catholic Church - ignorance of bishops and priests,
ignorance of their faith! When you see some of the imprimaturs that have
been given to books, you say a prayer for the bishop.
The foundation of the Dominican Order coincided with the Fourth
Lateran Council, as three centuries later the origin of the Society of
Jesus would coincide with the great Council of Trent. Dominic then was
given by the Fourth Lateran Council the tools and the weapons, you might
say, that he had to use in combating heresy., Among many, the
two principal dependencies of Dominic's thinking are on Cassian - an early
monastic abbot and writer - and the desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers
particularly appealed to Dominic because so much of the long years of
study by the Dominicans was to live the equivalent of a hermit's life.
To work in the intellectual apostolate you must have some hermit's blood
in your veins, because study and research is a very lonely job.
Dominic associated, in a way that Francis before him did, preaching and
poverty. Either the people see you as poor or don't preach to them, otherwise
they won't listen.
The basic premises. We would expect them to be founded somehow
on truth. The first basic premise of Dominican spirituality is that truth
is the foundation of the spiritual life, unlike with Francis for whom
the foundation of the spiritual life was love. And then in terms of the
source of truth it is reason and revelation. If truth is the foundation
of the spiritual life, where do you get it? One from inside and one from
outside; from inside from your own reason, from outsiderevelation. So
that we might define reason as the inside source of truth and we might
define revelation as the outside source of truth.
What are the leading sources for our understanding the Dominican
spirituality? Six sources. First and most obviously, Dominics own rule.
Second, the writings of St. Albert, the teacher of St. Thomas. I am currently
working with one of the brightest men I have ever taught. He's finishing
his theological studies at Emmittsburg, MD, one of my former students
at the university. We are working on a volume that should be finished
at the end of the year, "A Lifetime Program for Catholic Reading."
We are choosing about the one hundred best books in the Catholic faith
from the first century to the twentieth. You can't imagine the problems
we've got in the twentieth century to choose and pick. Many people, I'm
sure, are going to be disappointed, because their favorites won't be listed.
But among the men we are listing is St. Albert; he published thirty-eight
volumes. Then St. Thomas. McGraw-Hill in New York is offering the Summa
Theologiae in English, Latin on one side, English on the other. It
sells normally for about $450. Their sale price is $150. At any rate,
Thomas Aquinas is just great and, frankly, he's not hard, honest; once
you get past some of his vocables, he's not hard to understand and he's
clear, much clearer, by the way, than most of his commentators.
Then Blessed Henry Suso, one of the great Dominican mystics.
The President of Aquinas College in Nashville Tennese that I periodically
write to is Sister Henry Suso. His books: Book of Eternal Truth, Book
of Eternal Wisdom and the little Book of Letters his own collection,
are indispensable for understanding the mystical side of Dominican spirituality.
Then, of course, St. Catherine of Siena her Dialogues. Then, as I
already recommended, St. Vincent Ferrer's little treatise is a gem. One
thing he taught me is that if you really want to work on your spiritual
life, work on the mind and watch especially the first risings of any thought
of self-complacency. The first thought of self-praise, of self-satisfaction
nip it in the bud.
The purpose of the spiritual life is contemplare et alius contemplate
tradere: the purpose of the spiritual life is to contemplate and to
pass on to others what you have contemplated. The purpose of the spiritual
life is to contemplate God in His Wisdom and to pass on to others what
you have contemplated. Evidently you will pass on to others as much as
you yourself have learned. But notice, too, there is that conjunction
"et". The purpose of the spiritual life is not to contemplate
period. It is to behold the truth, and notice, it is not to discover the
truth, it is to behold, to look at. The highest function of the mind is
not to reason: reason is in the order of means; it is to behold, to contemplate,
which is in the order of end. The only reason we reason is in order to
contemplate. Heaven, thank God, will not be an eternity of reasoning.
When you are reasoning you are still on your way; when you contemplate
you have arrived. And you contemplate what you now see and believe in,
then you reason some more, But then the goal of the spiritual life is
to behold the truth and to share it with others.
Now some of the principal features of Dominican spirituality. Each one
of these is good for a lecture. First on the relationship of nature and
grace. Nature, as you know, is that with which we come into the world.
Nature is the given, grace is the needed. Nature is that with which we
are born; grace is that which we are given. Now we cannot possibly say
that the ancient monks or fathers of the desert believed that nature should
be destroyed. No. Nevertheless their attitude, as we know from the writings
of Pachomius, Anthony of the Desert, was that they looked upon nature
as not all that good: it needed to be fasted and fasted into submission.
Not so Dominic.
In the Dominican perspective the function of grace in relationship to
nature is to develop it, to build on it. It was St. Thomas who gave us
the phrase: grace builds on nature. Now, as I tell people, you'd better
be sure that your nature can support the grace!
Second. Grace is a new life. In the Franciscan Tradition grace is mainly
Presence. In the Dominican, grace is primarily a new life. So that grace
is somehow not only to build on nature but is to follow a path not unlike
that of nature. We speak of our natural life, where the soul is the animating
principle of the body. In the Dominican tradition you would say the soul
is to the body what grace is to the soul.Sin is compared with nature.
There is a sickness that is fatal or mortal, there is sickness that debilitates.
So there is sin that is fatal and sin that is debilitating. You can take
everything that we know about nature, and the Dominicans now for seven
hundred years have developed a library of analogies between grace and
nature. Thus for example, does any human being give him or herself their
own nature? Either somebody else gives it to us or we don't get it. So
in the order of grace. No one gets this divinized nature unless Somebody
else gives it. It is not enough for nature to be alive - a child just
born, a child must be fed. So it is not enough to have the life, that
life must be nourished. Transfer that to the order of grace. It's not
enough to have the life, it must be nourished. The natural life can be
healed, the supernatural life can be healed. The natural life can develop,
can grow, the supernatural life can develop, can grow. This is just the
common vocabulary of every believer. But the whole idea and the theological
development of this whole thing was done by the Dominican Order.
Theological virtues are above the moral virtues. But it's not that obvious.
The theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity, faith being the
foundation of hope and charity. You can't hope in what you don't believe,
and you sure can't love what you don't know. However as between the theological
virtues and the moral virtues - prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance,
I cannot tell you how practically valuable in the spiritual life is this
very simple statement: that the theological virtues are above the moral
virtues. Why? Because so much of the spiritual life has to do with the
order of morality.
Take the matter of temperance. That means the control of one's sense
appetites. You can tell whether you are improving in the matter of sobriety
or food by the intake. Sex, which is a virtue of temperance, chastity.
Fortitude, which is mainly the capacity to endure. And justice, giving
everyone his due. Prudence, using the right means to a predetermined end.
These moral virtues which have all kinds of subdivisions are so much a
part of the everyday spiritual life of all of us. Most of our thinking,
much of our writing has to do with the moral virtues. And all the while
we are liable to overlook the fact that the primary purpose of the spiritual
life is not the moral virtues but the theological virtues. How often do
you hear about growing in faith? Or growing in trust? Even when we talk
about growth in charity we often bring it down to the level of the moral
Thus, for example, the main purpose for the studies that we are taking
is to grow in the virtue of faith. Now you don't feel particularly more
holy. See what I am saying? We have come to so identify holiness, sanctity
with morality. This is a result of four and a half centuries of cohabitation
with Protestantism, for which Christianity is mainly ethical. Now don't
misunderstand me. Good moral behavior, being able to take it - patience,
a form of fortitude and temperance, all kinds of self-control is important.
But objectively in the eyes of God which is more important, a person with
a strong faith or a person with titanic courage? It's faith.
As we grow in the spiritual life we look instinctively for development
in the moral virtues; I am more self-controlled, I am more patient, I
deal with people more honestly, sincerely and all the rest, I am more
prudent. So the presence or absence of moral virtues is so obvious even
to the natural man. Is it possible for a person who doesn't have much
faith nevertheless to be quite prudent and strictly just and courageous
and have perfect self-mastery? Yes.
The theological virtues are in the order of grace. Now grace is required
for the moral virtues too. But this is one of the great contributions
of the Dominican spirituality: to place first things first. We are not
to neglect the moral order; but let's not substitute the moral for the
theological and neglect the cultivation of my faith or my acts of the
love of God for the sake of developing a moral virtue which may make me
feel that I am really growing. This can be pharisaical: just, mortified.
Third. In the Dominican perspective there is a distinction between essence
and function. We are all to grow, to use a general term, in goodness,
modeled after the goodness of Christ Who is God Incarnate. But we can
look at our goodness in two ways, either in its essence or in its function.
Now in teaching the subject theologically I distinguish between sanctity
and holiness, and I identify the essence of goodness as sanctity and the
function of goodness as holiness. To further refine what we are saying,
we distinguish between being good in the eyes of God and - to use bad
grammar but good theology behaving good. Sanctity is of the order of
being, holiness is of the order of activity. Now we are both to be good
and to act good. Acting good is moral behavior and consequently holiness
is another term for morality. Sanctity, for our purpose, is the presence
Thus a child just baptized, the moment the water is poured on their heads,
faith tells me that child becomes a child of God , possesses sanctifying
grace, the theological virtues and all the rest. Does that child possess
sanctity? Yes, because God is present in that soul as He is not present
in a child not yet baptized. When we are in the state of grace, the very
fact of being in the state of grace gives us reason for saying, as St.
Paul more than once speaks of the faithful as the saints.
So there is a sanctity which is substantial: substantive sanctity, essential
sanctity, the goodness of being, sanctity as grace. Conversely, once we
reach the age of reason, which I prefer to call the age of decision. There
is only one purpose that we have reason for and that's to make choices.
So as we make choices then we can choose between the good and the evil,
or for that matter between the good and the better, then we begin to exercise
the activity or function in the behavioral order. Now the theological
virtues belong in the essence, the moral virtues belong in the behavioral
Does a child just baptized have the virtue of faith? Yes. Hope? Yes.
Charity? Yes. Does a child have any degree of moral virtue? It hasn't
started acting. St. Jerome had quite a temper and used to call heretics
names that couldn't be translated. Here's what he thought of rich people.
"Every rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief." Now
there are a few exceptions! But you get the drift of his mentality; he
was a firebrand. Now if Jerome would be raised to the honors of the altar
on the basis of his meekness and sweet condescending humility, there wouldn't
be a St. Jerome. Don't misunderstand me. We are supposed to work at our
humility and meekness; but the essence is not that morality; the essence
is the grace of God in the soul. And does that make a difference! The
older you get the more comforting it becomes; you say to yourself: "Lord,
thanks for that distinction." You just wish you could graph your
moral virtues going straight up with the growth in age. I hate to disappoint
you, we don't have all that much evidence. We are to work at it, but what
really counts is the life of God in the soul. And God will sometimes allow
good people to labor with limitations and certain weaknesses in their
character until their dying day.
One of the saintliness men I was taught by, Father Buscaren had a fiery
French temper; he was my confessor and my spiritual director. We related
well. In case you don't know, I'm the type too. We used to have to choose
among ourselves who would serve his Mass, because if you did anything
wrong you heard about it. Once I remember somebody said something he shouldn't
have said in class; we all ducked; the canon law book came in one direction;
he had a very good arm. A very saintly person. Then he would apologize
after he had chewed you up.
In any case, the theological virtues are above the moral virtues and
sanctity is distinguished between the essential and the moral. How much
can be hidden behind otherwise meaningless words!
When in the Dominican tradition contemplation is spoken of as not merely
a means but the source of apostolic activity, this especially means that
the heart of the apostolate is the communication of grace; and consequently
being engaged in apostolic work does not mean primarily performing corporal
or spiritual works of mercy; - they in fact are a means to an end. The
end of apostolic activity in every Catholic view is to obtain grace for
those for whom I work. A work is apostolic no matter what you are doing.
I cannot tell you how satisfying this is. I may be teaching algebra, or
keeping accounts for my community, or cooking in the kitchen. Apostolic
activity in essence is not the work that I do, it is through that work
I obtain grace for those in whose favor I work.
And consequently it is one thing to think of contemplation which a person
uses to strengthen his spiritual life, to draw closer to God, to have
the strength and motivation and wisdom to then go on into the active apostolate.
Now contemplation is that, it is the source of strengthening the apostle,
of deepening his or her convictions, of enabling the person to be equipped
for work in the spiritual or corporal works of mercy. But that is in the
order of means. Whereas here contemplation is more than just that. It
is that by my union with God, which is the essence of contemplation,that
by being contemplative, united with God I then might bring God to others
who are depending on how closely I am united with the source of grace
no matter what I do, whether I peel potatoes or teach metaphysics.
For many religious the notion of contemplation is rather on the level
of strengthening one to go on into the active apostolate. We don't minimize
its importance; I need strength, I need light; but that kind of presumes
that the most important role of the apostolate is to do the work. It's
not. Honest. Qua apostolate, whatever I do it is that I might be used
as an instrument of God to communicate His grace. Our Lady never preached
a sermon, never wrote a book; who would doubt she was a channel of grace?
And that because of her very close union with God.
Now three centuries later Ignatius would build on this premise. In the
Dominican tradition, what you are doing here is you are uniting yourself
with the source of grace in order that being thus united you can speak
the most ordinary prose and be boring, and people will be turned off,
and they may say what a poor teacher he is; but God will use you; and
it might be the very humiliation in being a bum teacher is the very instrument
that God uses to sanctify those whom you have bored by being a poor teacher.
The instrument hardly even knows that he or she is an instrument.
Finally, whatever else Dominic brought into the Church it was - not so
much he but his followers, notably Thomas Aquinas - it was to lay to rest
once and for all which is the highest state of life, in the Catholic Church.
It is the combination of being both contemplative and apostolic, to be
both a man and woman of prayer and active in laboring for souls. Now the
reason for that is of course Christ Himself. The secret is the Spirit
of God in each of our souls, to see the meaning, so that once you realize
that, it doesn't matter at all what you are doing, because the purpose
of the apostolate is not to do the work, it is to bring grace to souls.
I think of my mother, who cleaned office buildings to see her only son
through school. I'd be out of my mind if I didn't think that that humble
woman did not win grace for those whose lives she entered - especially
this nondescript individual. On this level it doesn't matter a bit what
you are doing. What matters is that the instrument is united with God.
If the instrument is not united with God, God permits all kinds of things
to happen. He committed the world to be redeemed by His death on the Cross.
But then it will be in spite of the person's lack of sanctity that some
good will be done, but not because of it.
And consequently we would expect the last item to follow on the second
last, because then you do not dichotomize or distinguish as I think we
have mistakenly come to distinguish the active from the contemplative.
When in the sixteenth century the Church began to approve, very gingerly
at first, to allow what are now called apostolic communities - the Society
of Jesus was the first to have its Constitutions approved allowing for
both solemn and simple vows; prior to Ignatius no simple vows were recognized
by Rome - this opened the door for communities like yours that take simple
vows, in which especially women, on a scale and to an extent
that was unknown four hundred years ago, are engaged in the far flung
apostolate throughout the world. Prior to the sixteenth century and then
finalized by St. Vincent De Paul when he founded the Daughters of Charity,
the only women's communities recognized by the Church are what we now
call contemplative. But they never called themselves contemplative. And
after the division especially among women's communities, once the division
was made between those with simple vows and those with solemn vows, those
who continued in what had then been a fifteen century tradition, who remained
cloistered, started calling themselves contemplatives.
It is not as though you who are under simple vows are not
to be contemplatives. The Dominican spirituality has clarified this immensely
for all of us. Contemplation has for its purpose to unite the instrument
with God so that thus united the instrument might bring grace to everyone
who touches our lives.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica