What is a Dominican Friar?
Stephen of Salanhac, O.P., once described the Dominican friar as “a canon by profession, a monk in austerity of his life, and an apostle by his office.” Although an apt illustration, Stephen’s words require a fuller explanation.
Dominicans are not quite canons regular (as are the Norbertines), but we do find great joy in the prayerful recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. All of our priories and communities pray the office in choir, offering our praise to God throughout the day.
Dominicans embrace a life of Gospel poverty and simplicity, just as Benedictine or Trappist monks do, but we are not bound to one cloister. As followers of the Rule of Saint Augustine, and exhorted by Saint Dominic’s last will and testament, we “hold all things in common” (as did the first disciples in the Acts of the Apostles).
Finally, Dominicans share in the office of the apostles by proclaiming the Gospel in every time and place – evangelizing, combating heresy and error, and performing the spiritual works of mercy – but Dominicans are not diocesan priests.
Nourished by our life in common, plus many hours at study and prayer, Dominicans offer our very lives for the sake of preaching the Gospel. What we receive from the Lord, we pass on to others; sharing the fruits of our contemplation, so that all may come to know and love God.
So what, then, is the Dominican friar? He is a contemplative preacher.
Early Dominicans by Fr. Simon Tugwell, O.P.
Characteristics of Dominican Prayer
The Eucharist and the Divine Office
Before founding the Order of Preachers, Saint Dominic was intimately involved in the official prayer of the Church. Everyday he offered the Eucharistic sacrifice, and participated in the Divine Office. Dominic looked to Christ in his perfect prayer to the Father, knowing that it is through such an orientation that mankind begins to be saved. He passed this belief and tradition on to his followers, recognizing that our prayer in common–at daily Mass and in the choral recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours–was necessary for the flourishing of our common life.
In the middle ages, many people saw study as an obstacle to prayer, which was regarded as a pious exercise of the heart. Dominic, however, saw study as an opportunity to enlighten the mind and direct the heart towards God. For the Dominican, study is meant to be contemplative. This is not an emptying of the mind, but a more loving exploration of the created world as it reflects the grandeur of God. In order to do this, one’s mind must first be informed by Christ, as revealed in Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers and the Saints.
For centuries the Order of Preachers has promoted the rosary among the faithful, helping establish the Rosary Confraternity and prayer groups around the world. Everyday Dominicans recite at least five decades, fostering devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and asking for her intercession. As we pray and meditate on the words and actions of Christ and his mother, we reflect on the mystery of salvation and our mission to proclaim the good news.
In addition to our prayer in common and hours of study, Dominicans spend at least half-an-hour in private meditation each day, usually more. This period of mental prayer often occurs during adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, but may be done at any time. It is an opportunity for lectio divina, spiritual reading, silent reflection, or other devotions.
The Nine Ways
Still another feature of Dominican prayer is its use of the body. The Eucharistic liturgy, with its delicate blend of movement and gesture, engages the whole person in worship. Dominic incorporated these gestures (standing, bowing, sitting, genuflecting, kneeling, raising his arms) into his private prayer, developing what we commonly refer to as the nine ways. Members of the Order of Preachers continue this tradition today, enriching our common and private prayer
The Dominican Intellectual Tradition
The Constitutions of the Order of Preachers states that “St. Dominic, in founding the Order, was truly innovative; he intimately linked study to the ministry of salvation” (LCO, 76).
Thus for 800 years the Dominicans have fiercely devoted themselves to the rigorous study of Sacred Scripture, philosophy, the natural sciences, and theology. Our study, however, does not remain in the realm of arcane speculation. Instead it is handed on for the salvation of others through our preaching and teaching.
For the Dominican, “study is ordered to preaching, and preaching to the salvation of souls” (De Vita Regulari, VIII). Blessed Humbert gives an extensive list praising the usefulness and goodness of study, a list which cannot thoroughly be exhausted here:
–Study “forms the interior man” and gives life to the exterior practices of religious life.
–Study is useful for others since “we are not able to preach, or give counsel, or hear confessions, or sow spiritual truths, unless vigorous study dwells among us.”
–Study allows us to love God more since “the more we know about God, the greater occasion we have for loving and serving Him.”
–Study, especially of the Scriptures, refreshes and comforts the soul of the student.
The Dominicans pay particular attention to the study of St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., since his works provide a systematic and deeply profound account of creation, human nature, morality, the spiritual life, the mystery of the Triune God, and the person of Jesus Christ. His masterful adaptation of philosophy into his theological work gives his writing an unmistakable depth and clarity in the manner which he is able to speak about God.
As perhaps the most brilliant human mind that the Church has ever seen, Aquinas’ teaching rings with a trustworthy, authoritative voice throughout every time and place that theology is studied. In fact, the Code of Canon Law exhorts all students of theology “to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of salvation, with St. Thomas in particular as their teacher” (CIC, 252, §3).
Dominicans in every century have adapted, developed, and rediscovered the magnificent thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in their work of preaching the truth of the Catholic faith. Today’s friars are sent into the modern world as preachers of the Truth equipped by the vast wisdom accorded to them by the Angelic Doctor, whom his brothers now rely on for heavenly intercession.
One Mind and Heart in God
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common.”
This passage from the Acts of the Apostles (2:44), which describes the life of the early Christians, also serves as the model and foundation of our life in common as Dominicans. In addition to living together in priories and convents/houses, we embrace poverty and divest ourselves of all personal belongings. But this is only part of what it means to live in community.
In his Rule, Saint Augustine states that “the chief motivation of your sharing life together is to live harmoniously in the house and to have one heart and one soul seeking God.” While it’s true that we hold everything in common, our fraternal life is not simply the sharing of possessions. We must also strive to be of one mind and heart in God. This goal is only possible when we look to the first community of persons — the Trinity. As such our fraternity is strengthened first and foremost when we come together for prayer.
This fraternity is further supported when we share the work of our brothers, and when we meet to discuss matters of importance. Learning from our elders, who pass on the wisdom and traditions of the Order of Preachers, as well as their own knowledge and experience, we discover the connection between the quality of our life and the quality of our witness to the world. These periods of common study, conversation and recreation serve as a reminder of our mission. “The brothers, of one mind through obedience, and bonded by a higher love, thanks to chastity, more closely dependent on each other, thanks to poverty, ought first of all to build in their own convent the Church of God, which by their efforts they must spread throughout the world” (LCO, 3).
The Life of a Preacher
Saint Thomas Aquinas, O.P., famously wrote in his Summa Theologica that “as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate” (II-II.188.6co). This sharing of what has been contemplated is precisely the kind of preaching typified by the Dominican life.
Dominicans are called to a profound life of contemplation in order to engage in contemplative preaching. The term “preaching” is often used today as a broad term to mean many different things, but traditionally, preaching can be understood in four categories: (1) catechetical, which instructs about the faith; (2) moral, which exhorts people to live the faith; (3) apologetic, which seeks to remove obstacles to faith; (4) contemplative (or holy), which seeks to lead the faithful to an encounter with the living God.
This preaching “should normally draw the listener toward contemplation,” notes Fr. Thomas Phillippe, O.P., in The Contemplative Life. The Dominican should be able to play “matchmaker” between God and the faithful; to inspire in his audience the love of God. As our own Fr. Antoninus Wall, O.P., states in The Mixed Religious State in St. Thomas: “Preaching passes on to others the interior perfection of contemplation in the most complete manner since it not only moves the intellect to know the truth, but also the will to an affective and effective love for it.”
For the Dominican, this profound ability to move hearts and minds towards the love of God is brought on through a loving and faithful adherence to all of the elements of the Dominican life.