I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Dominican fanboy.
Since I first read the Lives of the Saints when I was little, I have always been drawn to the story of St. Dominic, whose feast day the Church celebrates today. The medieval Spaniard who founded the Order of Preachers, known more informally as the Dominicans, was not only a fearless preacher of truth, a man who encouraged learning and education which gave rise to schools and universities, and moreover gave us the rosary, but his work later yielded tremendous fruits for Western civilization. Great men and women like the philosopher-theologians St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Albert Magnus; the Early Renaissance painter Blessed Fra Angelico; the reformer Pope St. Pius V, who convened the Council of Trent; St. Rose of Lima, the first person born in the Americas to be canonized a saint; St. Martin de Porres, the first black person of the Americas to be canonized a saint; and many others, were all Dominicans.
As my friends over at Dominicana magazine, the student-run publication at the Dominican House of Studies here in DC point out in a thoughtful piece published today, St. Dominic is sometimes not considered the easiest saint to like. This probably comes from his reputation as being a fearless preacher against heresy and moral relativism, which caused him no end of grief and indeed a number of attempts on his life, while he was working in Southern France. Opposition to what he was saying did not concern him in the slightest. In fact, he is rather famously quoted as having said, “It is better to be the hammer than to be the anvil.”
Of course, both the hammer and the anvil are essential, in order for the metal being worked between them to be made stronger. Yet St. Dominic is clearly alluding to the fact that for him, he preferred the active role of the hammer, which is constantly being swung up and down, right and left, to do its part of the work, rather than taking the more passive role of the anvil, which always remains where it is in order to do its job. This is why discernment of vocation in one’s life is so important. Those who are called to be hammers ought to be hammers, and those called to be anvils ought to be anvils, for you need both to be able to accomplish the task before you.
In a similar way, we can see that the relationship between St. Dominic and his friend, St. Francis of Assisi, bears a kind of balance between two very different types of men. They were both working on the same problems facing the Church and society, but tackling it in different ways, at the very same time and in the same place. In fact, the story of their first meeting is a rather touching one.
We are told by his biographers, for sadly little of St. Dominic’s own writing has survived, that one night when he was visiting in Rome, to try to get the Pope to give official approval for the Order of Preachers, he had a dream in which Christ was about to destroy the world for all its wickedness. The Blessed Mother then intervened, and pointed out to Christ two men who would try to save the world from itself. One of the two, St. Dominic recognized as being himself, but he did not recognize the other man, except that he was dressed in a rather grungy habit.
The next day, St. Dominic went to mass and spotted the very man he had seen in his dream. Unbeknownst to St. Dominic, St. Francis had the exact same dream the night before, featuring himself and a man dressed in black and white whom he did not know. Moreover, St. Francis was in Rome for the very same reason as St. Dominic, i.e., to get official approval for the religious order he had founded, the Order of Friars Minor, known informally today as the Franciscans.
Apparently St. Dominic ran up to St. Francis and embraced him, saying, “You are my companion: we will work together, supporting one another toward the same end, and no one will prevail against us.” St. Francis then immediately recognized St. Dominic as being the unknown man in his dream, and the two were friends from that moment on. To this day, Dominicans and Franciscans all over the world get together both today, and on St. Francis’ feast day, to mark that age-old friendship between their Orders. Imagine having a friendship that much in sync that nearly a millenia later, people are still commemorating it.
For my part, while I may have originally become a fanboy of the Dominicans because of their devotion to Our Lady and her rosary, something which has always struck me as deeply chivalrous and in the best of Spanish tradition, as I grow older and realize how much the world needs people to speak unpopular truths, I find that I draw even more deeply from the well of Dominican spirituality in doing what I do, on these pages and elsewhere. I would love for more of my readers to come to do the same, wherever you happen to be in your life at the moment. For St. Dominic’s example, fearless when on one’s own, but equally happy to work in tandem with others, is a great one for all of us.
Detail of “The Meeting of St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi” by Bl. Fra Angelico (c. 1429)