How often we misunderstand the saints! We often read about them wishing we could be as they were, but thinking it is not possible to reach those heights. This is regrettable, because every saint was just as fallible as you and me, and each one started life as every other person does. Unlike what is implied in some ‘misleading’ hagiographies, they were not born more special than anyone else and were not given an advantage such that they had a greater ability to grow holy then ‘ordinary folk.’ What they did, however, was to love God so much that they applied themselves greatly to prayer and service in some way or another. One could say they excelled in holiness because they loved so well. They loved Jesus so very much that they had to express it in every way they could, depending upon the unique gifts they had been given. If we allow ourselves to love well, we will grow in sanctity as they did. It is as simple as that.
August 8 is the feast of St. Dominic Guzman, one of those saints who loom large in the spiritual history of the Church. I do not have Dominican spirituality, but it is interesting to realize that many of my favorite saints did. There is the incomparable artistry of Bl. Fra Angelico, (Br. Giovanni da Fiesole) who was a Dominican of the 15th century. There is St. Catherine of Siena, who was a Dominican tertiary, (which is a third order style of living, consecrated by vows, yet living as a lay person), who had visions of Jesus, wrote a book (though illiterate!) and served the poor with almost reckless abandon. There are Saints Martin de Porres and Rose of Lima, well known for their service to the poor of Peru. And then there is Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, to whom I have a great devotion, a third order Dominican (layperson) of the early 20th century, who lived what appeared to be an ordinary life, but was devoted to issues of justice. With all these Dominican connections, I decided to reflect upon St. Dominic, not from a historical point of view, but rather from the standpoint of holiness.
The focus, then, is not on Dominic’s brilliance as a preacher or organizer of a religious order, but rather his life of prayer and the humility with which he lived.* For example, he was known to live humbly by taking the worst of accommodations, deferring the better places to others. When his followers observed him at prayer, they found that he had nine different postures with which he prayed rather systematically. But his prayer was not merely methodical, it was heartfelt. He was often seen in such rapt devotion that he was oblivious to anything else around him. He was said to cry out some phrases or words from the scriptures upon which he was meditating. Though some of his practices are not regarded as healthy today (such as self-flagellation, which, however, was consistent with the teaching in his day), he did understand that posture in prayer has an effect that literally moves us to opening to God in a deeper way. In other words, our body can give expression to attitudes that go beyond our words, such as humility, reverence, and love. He reminds us that to be a person of prayer we need to be self-disciplined: prayer needs to be habitual if we want to grow in intimacy with God. Anyone can do this, but we have to work at it, just as with any other relationship.
St. Dominic teaches us that anyone can grow in holiness if we set our hearts to it. He is associated with education and truth, and indeed those are important. But what really sets Dominic apart is that he knew it was his heart that needed to be centered on Christ, not just his head. Just as Fra Angelico expressed the fruit of his prayer in exquisite paintings which overflow with the beauty which stemmed from his intense love for God, as St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer gave rise to volumes on philosophy and theology, as St. Catherine of Siena expressed her prayer in the love that enabled her unyielding service to the poor, sick, and plague ridden, and as Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati was moved by his intense daily prayer to love so much that the expression of it was in devoted service to the poor, so can our prayer find expression through our actions. We do not have to pray in nine different postures in order to grow in holiness, but we do need to be intentional about the One to whom we pray and how we approach Him. There are times when it is appropriate to be formal in prayer, but we certainly want to meet the Lord as we are no matter when we pray. This means that we speak to Him as to any friend. No matter how we approach it, to pray simply means being who we are with the One we love. Prayer is an act of love, not obligation: we do it because we love Jesus, not because we are commanded to do so. Indeed He loved us first, so we are actually responding to His love.
St. Dominic was led to preach and to foster education so that there would be many good preachers of truth. Other saints were moved to action in different ways. If we want to grow in holiness there are a multitude of ways we can be moved to action as well, but no matter what it is, the source of our action must always be the love of God. Saints are the ones who allow God’s love to so flow through them that it is obvious to those around them that their love is extraordinary. St. Dominic points out to us that this takes desire and effort. All of us are supposed to grow in holiness throughout our lives, though we are not meant to become perfect since that is impossible. Rather, we should desire to become more like Jesus, learning from His teachings and actions. Jesus' disciples were so touched by His love for them, that in responding to that love, they began to have deeper love for those they met. His love literally propelled them to choose a life of sharing what they had received with others. If we are also His disciples, our encounters with Jesus can propel us outward, too.
When one is filled with love, it cannot but spill over. However, God knows (literally) just how difficult it is for us to continuously love, given our weakness and brokenness. In this week’s Sunday gospel Jesus said: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him [her] on the last day. It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45) It is evident, then, that we need to turn to the Father in order to learn from Him, and therefore to discover how to use our gifts which are the tools with which we are to love one another. That is, we are each called to respond in different ways, given our personality, circumstances, and giftedness. He gives us what we need, but we have to work with God in order for our talents to grow and be used.
There is so much in the world that needs healing, assistance, and mercy. Our efforts to be peaceful, loving, and of service are how we bring that love to life in the world. We are indeed called to holiness, but not for holiness sake: we are called to holiness because the world needs it in a dire way. Our goal is not to be holy simply because we want to be the object of admiration, but we want to become holy because it glorifies God and it helps His people. Holiness is not an end, it is the path. The goal is God, and God is found in His world because our love helps to make His love present. This is why it is important to learn from St. Dominic and those who imitated his specific quest to make the truth of God’s love present in the world. St. Dominic learned from Jesus that the truth sets us free. The truth is that God loves us and cares for us. The truth is that God wants to be present to us, heal us, forgive us, lead us to Heaven, and to have mercy, compassion, and love for us. God wants us to be present to Him so He can do these things, since He does not force Himself upon us. He wants us to help Him to work against evil and suffering, and we do this by being a person of prayer and therefore of love. It means we must have the discipline and intentionality of St. Dominic in our prayer in order to open ourselves to love and to sharing that love with others. Let us allow the truth of God’s love to transform us that we can bring it to those we meet through our words and deeds, and like St. Dominic, be drawn to the Father.
May we be inspired by the saints, such as St. Dominic, to seek after and love the Truth, who is our God! May we ask the intercession of the great Dominican saints so that they can continue to assist the world in the work of preaching, healing, and peace! May we learn to come to God as we are in our prayer and in our work, allowing His love to take root and grow in our hearts! May we be true disciples of Jesus, choosing to humbly offer our gifts in whatever capacity we are able! And may we let Jesus draw us to the Father! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus where all love and truth dwells! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*If interested, you can read about St. Dominic and his life at these sites: http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/Saint.aspx?id=1101
The photo at the beginning is mine. It is a patch of lavender taken near Copper Mountain, Colorado.
The next two paintings are by one of my favorite painters, Bl. Fra Angelico. I chose these because Fra Angelico was a Dominican and it seemed fitting to display his works when I used him as an example. The first is called Seventeen Blessed of the Dominican Order and Two Dominican Tertiaries. It can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/musette1960/fra-angelico/
The second is called St. Dominic at the Foot of the Cross and it can be found at https://christbearers.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/st-dominic-at-the-foot-of-the-cross/
Next is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols, an icon called Beato Fra Angelico Patron Of Artists. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/beato-fra-angelico-patron-of-artists-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally are two photographs, the first of which is mine. It was taken at Big Bend National Park in Texas. The second was taken by my husband Tony while we were in southern New Mexico.
Heart Speaks to Heart