Category Archives: Dominican

A trouble-making mystic

Catherine of Siena, a Dominican lay woman from the fourteenth century, was a mystic who had a deep sense of the presence of God in her life. In her early life she spent much time in solitude, praying and fasting.

St. Catherine of Siena tomb; Santa Maria sopra Minerva

This did not, however, keep her from responding to those in need. After an intense experience of what is described as espousal to Christ, she began to work in a hospital with the sick.

But she did not stop at charity – though this was very important for her. She was asked several times to work to bring about peace including in the midst of a conflict between the papacy and the city of Florence. She also was an advocate of the poor and a champion of peace to others. As she wrote to the King of France:

“Repent! Think of death and its uncertainty. Be a father to the poor, as the steward of what God has entrusted to you. Don’t you consider what great responsibility for evil falls upon you when you refuse to do what lies in your power? What a devilish botch in the eyes of God is this war between brothers. Cut out these stupidities.”

She also attracted many followers who came to listen to her speak of God. But that led her to be a strong advocate for reform in the Church.

She was particularly appalled at the lifestyles of the bishops and priests:

“They ought to be mirrors of freely chosen poverty, humble lambs, giving away the Church’s possession to the poor. Yet here they are, living in worldly luxury and ambition and pretentious vanity a thousand times worse than if they belonged to the world! In fact, many laypersons put them to shame by their good and holy lives.”

She was especially critical of the pope who was living in Avignon, France, a virtual tool of the French throne. She managed to get Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. In the face of his fear of being poisoned, she told him: “Be not a timorous child, but manly . . .” She was a supporter of his successor, Urban VI, in the face of an anti-pope. But though she considered him the “sweet Christ on earth,” she was not afraid to exhort him also to be courageous and not a coward.

We find in St. Catherine an incredible combination of ways of following Christ – prayer, fasting, asceticism, mysticism, preaching, care of the sick, peacemaking, and advocating for the reform of the church. I wonder how she kept all of them together.

Perhaps it was because she experienced heaven in her life. As Catherine noted in a phrase often quoted by Dorothy Day who also combined many ways of following Christ – and was also a trouble-maker:

“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

Rather dead than a bishop

albertYesterday was the feast of St. Albert the Great, a great philosopher, scientist, and theologian. For him, no aspect of knowledge could not be recognized by a reasoned faith.

As a Dominican master of studies he taught the young Dominicans. One of his students was Thomas Aquinas, whose quiet disposition and body size had earned the name of “The Dumb Ox,” among Thomas’ fellow students. (Nastiness of students to each other is not a new phenomenon.)

St. Albert, though, rightly prophesied that “the lowing of this dumb ox will be heard throughout the world.”

Albert was later chosen to be bishop of Regensberg – a post he held for about two years. It was too much for him.

Today a Benedictine priest friend of mine, Father Albert, sent me this quote that Blessed Humbert of Romans, the Master of the Dominicans, wrote to Albert the Great about his elevation to the episcopacy:

“I would rather you were dead than a bishop…  Why ruin your reputation and that of the Order by letting yourself be taken away from poverty and preaching?  However troublesome you find the brethren, don’t imagine things will be better once you have secular clergy and powers to deal with … Better to be in a coffin than sit in a bishop’s chair!”

I could not stop laughing when I read it. St. Albert should have listened to Master Humbert.

It got even more hilarious when I discovered that the quote was cited by the new Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Anthony Fisher, O.P., in the homily of his installation Mass on November 12.

We need more bishops like him. And we would have a better world and a better church if we would be able to laugh at ourselves.


Playful Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

Though the church celebrates the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas on January 28, Thomas actually died on March 7, 1274 – 740 years ago today.

I think Thomas is one of the most maligned theologians of the Catholic Church.

In part this is due to the scholasticism that reduced Thomas’ dialectical method into a set of propositions – forgetting the serious questions that pervade Thomas’s Summa Theologica.

We also forget that Thomas, though steeped in the scriptures and in the writings of the fathers of the church, was not adverse to seek inspiration in the writings of the pagan Aristotle as well as in the texts of Jewish and Islamic philosophers.

But I think we also miss that Thomas was a person steeped in the love of God and seek to live this out in his daily life.

He could be a little absent-minded – or, rather, super-focused on a problem. There is the story of his attending a banquet with King St. Louis where, in the middle of the banquet, he pounded the table and stated that he had just found the perfect way to respond to a heresy!

But I think he was also practical.

In grad school a friend told me that Thomas had a three-fold way to respond to feeling bad: a good meal, a bath, and sleep. I have no idea where this is found in Thomas’ works, but it’s rather good advice.

But what I really like about Thomas is what I found this past year in Timothy Radcliffe’s Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation:

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that an inability to play was a sign of moral weakness: ‘Therefore, unmitigated seriousness betokens a lack of virtue because it wholly despises play, which is as necessary for a good human life as rest’.

So, today, on the anniversary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ death, let’s play!

The bellowing of the Dumb Ox

Students, even members of religious orders, can sometimes be rather caustic in their evaluations of their fellow students.

The Dominican friars who studied with St. Albert the Great in Cologne called Thomas Aquinas “The Dumb Ox,” for they saw this rather large man as very taciturn.

St. Albert, however, advised them that the lowing of this dumb ox would one day resound throughout the world.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

For many years the work of St. Thomas was the norm for Catholic theology – though more in terms of scholastic treatises that ignored the dialectical nature of Thomas’ Summa Theologica, where he discusses the pros and contras of hundreds of questions about faith and practice.

Thomas at times has been dismissed as cold and dry, more interested in “truths” than in the life of faith.

I think this is mistaken. And this is not only because I took a grad school course on “The Perfection of the Universe according to Thomas Aquinas.”

One of the more interesting remarks about Thomas comes from G. K. Chesterton:

He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.

This quotation from Thomas’ Summa Theologica (Ia–2ae ii, 4) bears this out:

 Four general reasons can be brought forward to show that perfect happiness consists neither in riches, nor in fame, nor in power. Of which the first is that perfect happiness is not compatible with any evil. The second is that happiness is self-sufficient; once obtained, no other human prize is wanting, such as good health and wisdom. The third is that no harm results from happiness, whereas sometimes riches are kept to the hurt of the owner, and this may be also the case with the other goods we have mentioned. The fourth reason is this: true happiness wells from within, but the goods we have mentioned come from external causes and often from good luck.

Thomas has often been invoked as a defender of orthodoxy – of orthodox Catholic ideas; but this quote and others would indicate that he was a defender of an orthopraxy (right practice of the Christian faith) that includes a skepticism about riches, fame, and power.


The quote above is taken from a collection of quotes from Aquinas gathered by the late Father John Kavanaugh, SJ, in America,  here.


Knowing the loving artisan

albertSt. Albert the Great, whose feast is today, is most known for a comment he made about his most famous student, Thomas Aquinas, in response to the name some of Thomas’ confreres had given him for his taciturnity: “You call him a Dumb Ox: I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowings will fill the world.”

But Albert was, in his own right, one of the most learned men of his age. He not only knew philosophy and theology, but he was intrigued by the natural sciences and wrote on astronomy, chemistry, geography, botany, and biology.  He explained how the earth had to be a sphere.

But he was not like those whom the book of Wisdom warns about in today’s reading (13: 1-9):

All those who were in ignorance of God were foolish by nature and, from the good things seen, were unable to know him who is, nor from studying the works did they discern the artisan…

We could see the good things of this world and praise the Maker of all that is. This combination of knowledge of the world and love of God influenced not only St. Thomas Aquinas but the Dominican mystical theologians Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler.

A selection from his Commentary on Luke, found in Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary,  gives us a glimpse of the source of his holiness. Commenting on Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of Me,” he wrote:

No precept could be more lovable. For this sacrament begets love and unity. Is it not the greatest proof of divine love that Christ gives himself as food? It is as thought he were saying: “I love them so much, and them me, that I want to be within them, and they want to receive me so as to be one body with me.”

Finally, nothing more closely resembling eternal life could be enjoined. For, the essence of eternal life is God sweetly giving himself to the blessed.

St. Albert recognized that the artisan is “God sweetly giving himself” and sharing in that is real life.

He reminds us that the Eucharist is a foretaste of eternal life – God wanting to be within us.

But for Albert this also had consequences for the way we lived. As he also said,

“An egg given during life for love of God is more profitable for eternity than a cathedral full of gold given after death.”

Rose of the Americas and love

Santa Rosa de Copån, 2007

Santa Rosa de Copån, 2007

Rose of Lima, the first canonized saint of the Americas, is widely loved, especially here in Santa Rosa de Copán but she is an enigmatic figure. Her mortifications, her self-mutilation, her bulimia are troubling. But there is still something very attractive about this young woman from Lima who died young.

Her parents denied her wish to enter the convent and so she made of her little room a convent. When her parents’ fortunes plummeted, she helped the family by embroidery and raising flowers for sale. 

She had a deep devotion to the Cross and spent long times in prayer.

But, at some point she began taking in children of the streets and the sick elderly.  Her love of Christ opened her to love of the poor.

For her it was simple. In The Catechism of the Catholic Church,  ¶ 2449, it is noted that

When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and the sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her: “When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.

In that way she lived out Jesus’ response to the scribe in today’s Gospel:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

May Saint Rose and her contemporary in Lima, Saint Martin de Porres, remind us of these two great commandments and inspire us to love.

Preaching, poverty, and prayer

Saint Dominic – Domingo Guzman – was a contemporary of Saint Francis. Like his contemporary he saw the necessity to preach the Gospel while living in poverty and simplicity.

Dominic began his ministry in southern France, where the dualist Cathars had attracted many, especially by their simple way of life. Dominic saw preaching effectively should include a simple way of life. He and his bishop preached barefoot and did not travel in the fancy carriages of other preachers. They also established a house for women which became the source of the Dominican sisters.

Eventually Dominic and male followers established the Order of Friars Preachers, first with diocesan approval and then later with the approval of the pope.

In one sense Francis sought to personify the Gospel by his life and his preaching, which we witness especially in the stigmata which he bore in the last two years of his life.

Dominic, on the other hand, sought to preach the Good News and saw his followers as disciples and missionaries. For this task, he saw the need for study, something that distinguished him from St. Francis.

But both Francis and Dominic saw the need to live poorly, to witness to the Gospel in the way their friars lived – wandering about preaching, living simply, and begging.

Dominic’s legacy includes great theologians, like St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The mystic St. Catherine of Siena was a lay Dominican. Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the great advocate of the indigenous in the Americas, joined the Dominicans, probably in part because of their strong preaching against slavery. In our days, the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez joined the Dominicans after many years as a diocesan priest in Perú.

Preaching the Gospel does not only demand knowledge of the scriptures. It is not only nurtured by careful study. Preaching the Gospel demands a simple life, a life where poverty has a part.

As he lay dying, Dominic addressed these words to his brothers, as cited in Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Saints :

My dear sons, there are my bequests: practice charity in common, remain humble, stay poor willingly.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, has a slightly different version:

 All my children, what I leave to you: have charity, guard humility, and make your treasure out of voluntary poverty.

If we would follow these words, our witness and our preaching would be much more credible. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis is so inspiring.

But such ministry must also be based in deep prayer.

In the Dominican friary of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico and his students painted frescoes on the walls of the friars’ cell. In the bottom of a fresco of the Mocking of Christ is found the image of Dominic, sitting, meditating on the Scriptures.

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

In the sight of the suffering Christ, we are called to meditate on God’s Word – listening to the voice of God.

With this base, we can live the Good News as Francis and Dominic did – in the light of God’s love for us.


Loving our neighbor

In the 1990s Algeria was torn apart by the violence. Among the victims were Trappist monks, other men and women religious, and a bishop, Monseigneur Pierre Lucien Claverie, Bishop of Oran, who was killed on this day in 1996. He was the last Catholic leader killed in Algeria.

He was born in Algeria of French parents. He was very sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence in the 1950s.

After studying and being ordained a Dominican priest in France, he decided to return to Algeria in 1967.

He directed a center for Arabic and Islamic studies which attracted Muslims and ot only Christians.

For Bishop Claverie, his love embraced all.

As he wrote shortly before his death:

“There is no life without love. There is no love without letting go every possession and giving oneself.
“That is probably what is at the basis of my religious vocation.
“I wondered why, throughout my Christian childhood when I listened to sermons on loving one’s neighbor, I had never heard anyone say the Arabs were my neighbors.
“It is my conviction that humanity can only exist in the plural. As soon as we claim to possess the truth or speak in the name of humanity we fall into totalitarianism and exclusion. No one possesses the truth; everyone seeks it.”

Today, we need to be reminded that all people are our neighbors and we are called to love them all – not with pious intentions, but with a love that seeks their good and the good of all peoples.

Today, love your neighbor – and, if you really want to be a follower of Christ, love your enemy.


Humble Father of the poor

Whoever makes himself out to be great
will be humbled,
and whoever humbles himself
will be raised up.
Luke 14: 11

Image of St. Martin in Lima, Peru

Today the Catholic Church remembers St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican lay brother who lived in Lima, Perú.

In an age when Indians and blacks were denied entry into the priesthood Martin entered the Dominican priory in Lima as a lay helper. Later, when the community recognized his gifts of service and healing he was accepted as a lay brother. The prior wanted to violate the law and accept him as a full member but Martin saw himself as a “poor mulatto” and refused the offer.

What is extraordinary about St. Martin is his sense of his role as a servant. Perhaps a little of the racism and classism of his day influenced his way of articulating his humility, but he offers us an example of one who recognized the importance of the humility of Jesus, who washed the feet of his apostles.

Martin, poor and humble, served not only his Dominican brothers, but was known for his care for those at the margin of society in Lima – the poor, the blacks, the indigenous, the slaves. His love and care for him earned him the title of “Father of the Poor.”

But he saw that only by living humbly, not trying to be great, can one really serve the poor. We must come to the poor as their servants, not seeking to do things for them but seeking to serve them.

Martin is an example of this humility.

But his humility was not a debasing kind of humility that bows and scrapes before authorities. This story is indicative of his spirit.

St. Martin used to take some of the neediest sick and care for them in his cell in the priory. His superior forbade him to do this but Martin persisted. When the prior found out and reprimanded Martin, he answered:

 Forgive my mistake, and please be kind enough to instruct me. I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.

Martin had the humility to see the priority of love and so continued to care for the poorest, even in his own small cell.

May we imitate St. Martin’s obedience to the law of love, in a spirit of humility and service – not bowing to those who would place law above love, but bowing in service to the poor among us.


Joy in the midst of suffering

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Dominic Guzman, the Spaniard who founded the Order of Friars Preachers, better known as the  Dominicans.

There is much to admire in Dominic. As a student he sold his books and furniture to feed the poor in a time of famine. As a missionary preacher among the Albigensians in southern France, he admonished the warrior Bishop Fulk that the weapons to convert these heretics should be prayer and humility, not the sword and fine clothes. As a preacher among the Albigensians he lived austerely,  traveling on foot, begging for sustenance in contrast to the papal legates who arrived in fine clothes and were aligned with the political powers of the day. As a traveling preacher he had more success with the austere and inspiring Albigensians.

But what struck me as I read about him this morning was his joy in the midst of suffering. As Blessed Jordan of Saxony, one his early followers, wrote:

 Nothing disturbed his equanimity except a lively sympathy with any suffering. A person’s face shows whether he or she is really happy. Dominic was friendly and joyful. You could easily see his inward peace.

This reminded me of a chapter in an inspiring and challenging book by Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls Us Home, that I’m reading.

She writes, reflecting on her life with refugees in Romero House in Toronto. “To discern the presence of Christ we need to look for that mysterious gospel sign of joy in the midst of suffering.”

Reflecting on “The Smiling Christ” in Xavier, in the Basque region of Spain, she notes that the crucifix was fashioned in the midst of the Black Death and church corruption of the fourteenth century, “a time of great suffering and spiritual confusion.”

 And yet. And yet. Christ is smiling in the midst of his own suffering and the suffering of the dark age of Europe. When we can smile like that. we know we are where we are meant to be.

The spiritual life is not joy or suffering. It’s joy in the midst of suffering, allowing the suffering and the joy of the poor and marginalized we meet – Maria, José, Samara, Omin – to touch our hearts and reveal the joy that God has placed deep within us that can be unveiled in the often disconcerting presence of the other person whose suffering we share.

That is the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection – not joy alone, not suffering alone, but joy in the midst of suffering.

And I have been blessed with this grace here in Honduras.