Wednesday, 8 August 2012

St Dominic -- 8 August 2012

After the office of compline or night prayer, Dominicans traditionally salute Saint Dominic with a hymn which gives him the title, among others, of ‘preacher of grace’. In the two most important texts which describe his religious experiences, the Libellus or ‘Little Book’ of Jordan of Saxony and the record of the ‘Process of Canonisation’, the term grace is frequently used, along with cognate terms like ‘gracious’, ‘graceful’ and ‘graciousness’. With the term grace, a key word in his vocabulary, Jordan describes the freshness, enthusiasm, joy, freedom, light and gratitude that characterised the lives of Saint Dominic and his first followers whom he refers to as 'sons of grace, co-heirs of glory'.

The description of Saint Dominic as ‘preacher of grace’ can be understood in three ways. Firstly it might mean that he was gracious, attractive, encouraging, friendly and pleasant. Similarly we might speak of someone as a gracious person or use the word grace to describe the presence or performance of a speaker, artist, dancer or musician. Many witnesses to Dominic’s life support this understanding. Jordan talks about his delightful holiness, beautiful character and pleasant countenance which stirred all classes of people [Libellus 36, 103-04]. A witness called Brother Ralph says Dominic was happy, cheerful and pleasant [Process, 32]. Sister Cecilia paints a portrait of Dominic’s physical appearance as attractive and pleasant [Miracles of Saint Dominic, 15].

One might think ‘well, fans of Saint Dominic would say things like that’. Of greater interest here, though, are those testimonies which associate the ‘graciousness’ of Dominic with the experience of being loved by him or of coming to love him (Libellus, 21, 39, 104, 107; Process 36, 90).

A second meaning we can give to ‘preacher of grace’ is to take it that grace was a frequent subject of Dominic’s preaching. While none of his sermons have survived it seems clear that this understanding is accurate because of two things: his deep desire to reconcile people to the truth of God and his great compassion for those in distress. For Dominic God is a God of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, the God of grace.

A third meaning of ‘preacher of grace’ is that grace happened as Dominic spoke, acted and prayed. Once again this is confirmed by various witnesses: that the grace (now meaning power, light, help) of God was made present in those whose lives he touched. At Toulouse Dominic spent the night arguing ‘powerfully and passionately’ with an inn-keeper until ‘unable to withstand the wisdom and Spirit which was addressing him’ the inn-keeper was brought back to the faith ‘by the help of the Spirit of God’ [Libellus, 15]. A characteristic work of grace in the lives of many of the saints is a steadfastness, even stubbornness, when once they have reached a decision before God and this too is said of Dominic [Libellus, 103].

It is striking how quickly the story of Saint Dominic becomes the story of the first brothers and sisters of his Order and we find these three meanings of ‘grace’ recurring in their lives also. They are men and women of grace because among them are some very attractive, encouraging and inspiring personalities. Jordan himself, Reginald, Henry, Thomas, Diana d’Andalò, Cecilia and others are gracious, are united in friendship and make up a community characterised by enthusiasm and joy [for example Libellus 38 and 66].

The early Dominicans continue to preach God’s grace by proclaiming the compassionate, encouraging, challenging, grace-filled and reconciling Word of God. And finally grace continues to happen in and through them as they share with others the effects of the grace of God towards themselves [Libellus 58,69, 77-78; Process 24].

Closely associated with the term ‘grace’ in early Dominican sources is the term ‘joy’. As with the first followers of Saint Francis, the lives of the first Dominican friars and sisters was characterised by great freedom and joyfulness [Libellus 75]. Saint Dominic was remembered, among other things, for his joy in singing along the roads of Spain, France and Italy [Process 21].

The association of joy and grace is etymologically correct since in Greek the two terms are related: grace is charis and joy is chairo. In the annunciation to Mary the angel addresses Mary using both ‘grace’ and ‘joy’. ‘Hail full of grace’, he says, also translatable as ‘Rejoice highly favoured one’ [Luke 1.28]. As we will see, the moment of the annunciation in fulfilling the promised joys of the Old Testament is also the beginning of that grace which Christians believe to be at the heart of the gospel.

It has been like that in the history of Christianity ever since. Times of inspiration and fresh enthusiasm, what we might call ‘evangelical moments’, are times of new life among God’s people and they are always characterised by joyfulness. In Galatians 5.22-23 Saint Paul speaks of the experience of grace in terms of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. Against such things, he adds, ‘there is no law’.

Times of fresh enthusiasm and evangelical renewal always require also fresh thinking and theological creativity. In the life and work of Saint Dominic the Holy Spirit was active in a way that brought new life and enthusiasm to the Church. His evangelical experience was complemented brilliantly by the theological reflection of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the most outstanding of the second generation of Dominicans, by Saint Catherine of Siena, the outstanding Dominican of the 14th century, and by many other men and women since then, Spirit-filled followers of Christ along the way of Saint Dominic.

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