On Saturday I had the great joy and privilege of attending the solemn profession of four Dominican friars at the Priory of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful mass, and great to catch up with some of the friars I know at the luncheon afterwards, many of whom have been off traveling or working elsewhere during the summer. I also got to meet some very interesting people, including a Dominican priest who was in D.C. very briefly before making his way back to Nigeria, where he has been working on Christian-Muslim dialogue for around 40 years. For those following the news out of Nigeria recently, you know that his apostolate is probably more important in that country than ever.
If you have never attended a solemn profession before, one of the most striking things that occurs is when the friars professing their vows prostrate themselves on the ground. The image immediately puts you in mind of death, for when they rise from the ground they are new men, dead to self but committed to a life of permanent obedience with the Order of Preachers. The new man – whether he remains a brother or goes on to priestly ordination – will never be the same again, for his life is now inexorably tied to that of the Order.
One of my aforementioned “friar friends” came up with the design for the holy card handed out to those of us attending the profession, which on the front features the image displayed below. The Venetian painter Pietro della Vecchia (1603-1678) is not someone we would consider a major figure in art history, though he did have a knack for capturing nocturnal scenes illuminated by candlelight, as well as in portraying people with grotesque, particularly simian features. Thus it is not surprising that the monkey in this picture looks particularly animated. Della Vecchia portrays St. Dominic at work of an evening, with the monkey holding a candle that is getting down to the bottom of the wick. We can see that the wax is starting to drip over the monkey’s paw, and the monkey is wearing a somewhat anxious expression.
However do not be deceived, for this is not just some pet monkey keeping the founder of the Dominicans company. Rather it is an illustration of an old legend that the Devil came to torment the Spaniard one evening by attempting to distract him from his study of Sacred Scripture. One imagines the monkey jumping around and swinging from the rafters, making a cacophony of sound to try to keep the saint from his work. St. Dominic managed to get a hold of his infernal visitor however, and invoked Christ’s name to forced the furry demon to hold his candle, like a living candlestick, until its fur was singed and St. Dominic, now finished with his work, let it go. The Devil-monkey got a better deal than the monkey who bothered Indiana Jones and got to eat poisoned dates for his reward.
Before anyone from PETA starts – ahem – going ape over this, I should of course point out that the story deals with a demon in monkey form, not the torturing of an actual monkey. More importantly, whatever the truth of the tale, it illustrates a very good point. As Brother Mark Davoren, O.P. explains over on the English Dominican Province student blog Godzdogz, we can very easily be distracted from what we ought to be doing. Sometimes, as happened with St. Dominic in this story, it occurs while we are trying to work on something. I cannot tell you how many times I have started to write a blog post, or read a spiritual book, or try to help someone through an email or conversation, when something takes my attention and sends it elsewhere, often repeatedly.
During our moments of leisure, as well, it can be difficult to avoid distractions which come from bad places and bad motives. The Devil no longer needs to appear in person, or in monkey form, to catch us off-guard. He has television, the internet, and publishing houses at his disposal, among other things. We may start out watching or reading something that seems perfectly harmless, but we can so easily be drawn into viewing materials that with delicate subtlety are designed to make us question our moral beliefs, or to keep us from doing things which we know we ought to be doing – or indeed not doing.
Fortunately, as St. Dominic exemplifies in the story, the trick is to recognize your enemy and put him in his place. Most of us are not going to be in a position to use the Devil as our personal lampstand, in one-to-one combat. However we can certainly follow St. Dominic’s lead, and that of the newly professed friars in his Order. In the service of God, getting the Devil out in the open where you can see him, rather than allowing him to continue riding around on your back and distracting you, is the key to persevering and doing good.