Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

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Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

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The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

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Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.

Blog Tour: Saints Who Battled Satan by Paul Thigpen

I’m honored to be a part of the blog tour for author Paul Thigpen’s latest, “Saints Who Battled Satan”, published by TAN Books. In this compendium, Thigpen looks at the lives of seventeen saints who took the devil by the horns, and won. In the process, he also provides examples and teaching moments, not only about coming to terms with the existence of evil, personified, but also about how men and women throughout the centuries have dealt with that reality in ways that kept them close to God.

As one might expect, if one is a regular reader of these pages, I wanted the chance to review the chapter on St. Dominic, being the Dominican fanboy that I am. Despite the enormous impact that he had, not only on the Church but on world history, St. Dominic is someone who is not as well-known as his friend and contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi. Most Catholics can recall stories about St. Francis preaching to the birds, receiving the stigmata, or setting up the first Christmas crèche, yet if they know anything about St. Dominic at all, it is that he gave us the rosary. Not a bad thing of course, as attributes ago, but as Thigpen points out in his chapter on the saint, St. Dominic became a personal target for the devil as soon as he set foot in Albigensian territory.

As a form of neo-Manicheanism, the Albigensian heresy in 13th century France was well-suited to Satan’s purposes. Believing, inter alia, that there was a good god or spirit who created the spiritual world, and a bad one who created the material world, and that the material world was therefore subject to the whims of the bad fellow, the Albigensians in their puritanism almost paradoxically invited satan in to take things over. Thigpen selects several accounts of how, in his work against this heresy, St. Dominic was not only able to perceive, but easily cast out the devil, even when those around him were enthralled to the enemy. The stories of how he did so strike the modern reader as being somewhat fantastical in nature, I admit. However, as neither you nor I were there at the time, I think we can try to remain humble, recognize that God can do what He wants, and leave the details to the ages.

Interestingly, in some of the instances recounted by Thigpen, St. Dominic does not immediately perceive the devil at work, realizing later what is going on. At other times, the saint actually engages the demon, one on one, and fearlessly. Thigpen is quick to point out, lest the reader begin holding ideas above his station, that St. Dominic was somehow uniquely protected from infernal attacks in a way that most of us are not. Thus, when he realizes the devil is prowling around his priory like a lion, St. Dominic is able to take the beast on a walk around the building, so he can get a satan’s-eye-view of what is going on there, and how the devil takes advantage of opportunities to distract the friars from prayer and good living. It is only the chapter room, where the friars go for confession, that the devil refuses to enter.

One comes away with the impression that St. Dominic was someone keenly aware of the fact that the devil is all around, but who more importantly recognized that in the end it is God alone who triumphs: he believed in the power of God’s Word, not in physical manifestations of the power of evil, an evil which will ultimately be subjugated. St. Dominic’s unflappability provides a great source of encouragement and strength, even when, as happened to St. Dominic himself in the stories recounted by Thigpen, we are set upon by those who would seek to do us harm. We should come through those trying times, as St. Dominic did in one instance, through trust and confidence in what is above, by singing joyfully to God.

As a final note, the reader is encouraged to make use of the appendices in Thigpen’s book. Most of the time, these sections are of little use to anyone other than the specialist reader. Here, however, the author collects a number of brief stories about various saints, and their own encounters with the devil. He also gives a number of quotes and passages written by the saints, on how best to deal with temptations and attacks that may come from below. Even after one has read the entire book, these sections in the back will be a wonderful source of inspiration not only for the average Catholic, but also for writers, homilists, and speakers to use as jumping-off points for further exploration and discussion.

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Two Great Ways to Explore Dominican Spirituality

If you have read this blog for at least some time, then you are probably well-aware that I am a self-proclaimed Dominican Fanboy.  I have always had a deep affection for St. Dominic and for the religious community he founded, the Order of Preachers.  And I am very blessed indeed to have developed a number of friendships with Dominican friars over the years.  I therefore want to bring two upcoming Dominican events to your attention, gentle reader, asking for your support.

First, the student brothers’ Schola Cantorum at the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington has recorded their first album of chant and choral music, entitled “In Medio Ecclesiae” (“In the Midst of the Church”) which I hope you will consider supporting as I have.  The online version on their “Dominicana” label will be released on iTunes this Friday, November 1st, which is the Feast of All Saints.  I understand from chatting with the friars last night that there will be printed CD’s available for purchase in limited quantities later in the month.

Donors of $50 or more will receive a CD copy of the album as a thank-you, but all donations and prayers are very welcome.  The brothers hope to use the funds raised to pay for the costs associated with creating this first album, as well as to funding a follow-up album, if there is interest. To listen to a beautiful, ethereal sample of the brothers’ forthcoming release, to learn more, and to contribute, please go to the Let’s Rally for Dominicana Records site.

Second, if you happen to be in the Washington area, I would urge you to consider putting off your Halloween revels until Friday or Saturday night, and join me tomorrow night at 7:30 pm for the annual Vigil of All Saints at Dominican House.  If you have never attended before, over the years this has become one of the most popular devotional events in the Archdiocese, held in the beautiful main chapel of the Dominican Priory.  There will be readings and reflections from the lives of four saints chosen by the student brothers; the singing of Compline, the ancient nighttime prayer of the Church; a candlelit procession through the cloister of the Priory with the chanting of the Litany of the Saints; and a reception afterwards where you can meet the friars, who  – I assure you from personal experience – are wonderful, extremely gracious hosts.  All are most welcome, but get there early if you hope to get a seat!

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