St. Dominic and the Rosary

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7Tomorrow is the feast of St. Dominic (1170-1221). I must acknowledge that he is far and away my favorite saint (after Mary), the driving inspiration of this Web site.

Recent scholarship has not been kind to the tradition that St. Dominic invented the rosary – or that Our Lady gave it to him, and he promoted it. Dominic was a great lover of Mary in an age when Mary was greatly loved, but none of the myriad stories of his time make any mention of the rosary as we now know it. Bl. Alain de la Roche (1428-75), the great promoter of the rosary in the fifteenth century, is the first one to tell stories of Dominic and the rosary.

Nonetheless, we can learn much about both St. Dominic and the rosary by thinking about their connections. We might even be able to uncover Bl. Alain’s basic insight.

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Dominic founded an Order of Preachers. His mission began in an inn in southern France. The innkeeper had embraced the Albigensian heresy, which claimed an evil creator of the material world. Dominic talked with him through the night to bring him back to Christ, our incarnate Creator and Redeemer.

Dominic realized that bad ideas can destroy our spiritual life, and that good ideas lead to spiritual life. Dominic was not an academic, nor was the innkeeper. The mission of preaching is no “intellectual exercise.” It was preaching: speaking the truth about Christ, believing that that truth is saving, and healing, and redeeming. It was about nurturing faith by setting forth the image of Christ in all its richness.

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In truth, Dominic’s mission begins before that night, as an Augustinian canon in Old Castile, in Spain. Before Dominic was a preacher, he was a contemplative. He lived the life of Scripture, praying the Psalms and pondering the saving words of divine truth.

Dominic discovered, first in his own spiritual life, that Christ is worth contemplating, worth discovering in all his richness.

Modernity (and perhaps some significant parts of modern Catholic spirituality) has lost some of this richness. We tend to think pictures are more valuable than words, and feelings more real than truth. The problem is that the pictures are of our own making; the Word is from God. And the Word can take us deeper into the reality of Christ than any of our pictures, nice as they may be: only words can tell us “this is my Body,” “my Lord and my God.”

Dominic’s Scriptural spirituality – truly the traditional spirituality of Catholicism, in every era before the modern one – begged Christ to tell us about himself. It found in his Word a God infinitely more wonderful than we can imagine.

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Today we (heirs, really, of nominalism) use “intellectual” as a bad word, to mean someone who cares about ideas more than reality. Or at best, we say things like “men, like fish, are caught by their heads”: as if the word serves to “catch” men, but isn’t part of their real encounter with Christ. Once we convince them, it sometimes seems, they enter into a vague, word-less spirituality.

With Dominic it was not so. He was in no sense an academic – indeed, his most faithful, immediate successor as Master of the Order, Bl. Jordan of Saxon, was famous for dragging men away from the university, to the life of radical poverty and total devotion to prayer and preaching, and the early rules of the Order prohibited even the liberal arts except insofar as they aided the study of Scripture.

But Dominic was a preacher, who gave his life to using words, especially the words of Scripture, to speak to ordinary people about Christ, and to lead himself and others to Christ.

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Dominic did not preach the rosary as we now know it, with its cycle of mysteries. But we do know that at his time people prayed Hail Mary’s on cycles of beads, as a stand-in when they did not have access to Scriptural prayer. (There were 150 Hail Mary’s to match the 150 Psalms.)

Bl. Alain seems to have invented the cycle of mysteries to facilitate the praying of the Hail Mary. But Dominic knew the value, for simple people and university professors alike, of meditating on the words of Scripture, especially that most central proclamation of the Gospel, the Hail Mary.

Bl. Alain added the mysteries to help us enter into the words, just as the images in church help us ponder the words of the liturgy. The real insight of St. Dominic, and of the rosary, is that those words are the Gospel truth.

How could you better listen to the words of Christ?

eric.m.johnston

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