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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

Patrons of Winter

This week the Church celebrates the winter Ember Days. We discussed Ember Days in September, and I won’t repeat myself now, but in short, these are the days the Church uses to consecrate the next natural season. In other words, this week the Church celebrates the beginning of winter.

Today we’ll look briefly at three images the Church identifies with winter.


st lucyFirst, the winter Ember Days are connected to St. Lucy. (Actually, they are more properly defined as the last full week before Christmas Eve. But the tradition likes to call them the week after St. Lucy’s, Dec. 13.)

St. Lucy makes a good patroness of winter. She’s one of the standard virgin martyrs of the early Church: like all the rest, the short version of her story is that she consecrated her virginity to Christ; but the Romans didn’t like people living beyond this world, so they killed her.

The standard iconographic symbol of Lucy shows that her eyes were gouged out. This may not be historically accurate, but even if it is a later invention, it points to a deeper intuition about how St. Lucy’s serves as a patroness of winter – and, perhaps, why the Church gave her this day for her feast day.

Her name, Lucia, means light, but the Church celebrates her at the beginning of winter. Lucy reminds us that the true light shines in the midst of darkness, the truest sight where our physical eyes cannot see. Thus St. Lucy calls us to see the darkness and desolation of winter as a sign of how, in this world, the truest light is faith, not sight; the truest sight sees God where the world sees emptiness.


St Martin of Tours3Another patron saint of winter is St. Martin of Tours. His feast day, Nov. 11, marks a transition from Autumn to Winter. Traditionally, it was the time of the Fall harvest, and so a harvest festival. But also the marker that the growing season had come to the close, and the time of winter scarceness was come. Thus it used also to be the beginning of one of the two great fasts, a kind of Lent that preceded Christmas.

It’s nice to notice the natural rhythm here. The Church embraces and sanctifies the rhythms of nature. In traditional societies, winter was a time of scarceness: so you have a few days and periods of celebration scattered here and there, to promise that we will survive the winter. But also fasts that were really quite necessary: there’s no food, so we might as well treat it as a spiritual discipline. The second winter fast, Lent, looks forward to when things finally start growing again.

St. Martin is a great saint, very popular during the Middle Ages. He was a soldier who converted, became a monk, then a very popular figure of sanctity – and then was made a bishop. He was a model bishop, travelling around to evangelize the countryside.

But the favorite story, the story that won him the name “Martin the Merciful,” is that one night as he was entering a town, he saw a shivering beggar standing outside, and gave him his own cloak. Jesus later appeared to him and proclaimed that he himself had been the beggar. Catholicism has always taken seriously Matthew 25: I was naked, and you clothed me.

As a patron saint of winter, Martin the Merciful reminds us to see in winter the neediness of those who still go without food and shelter. The desolation of winter reminds us of the true obligation of Christian charity. When we are cold, we think of those who are truly cold.


our lady of milleniumFinally, of course, the Church marks winter with Advent. In short, a time of waiting. Advent, of course, has a double orientation. In the immediate future, we look forward to Christmas, and our waiting for Christmas gives immediate meaning to the season.

But more distantly, we look forward to Christ’s final coming. In a way, Advent is a deeper marker of winter than is Christmas: in a sense, Christmas serves Advent more than vice versa. Advent reminds us that this world is a kind of winter – but that Spring will come. As our third “patron” of winter, Advent reminds us never to settle for winter, but always to look forward to the Spring of Christ’s coming.


Lucy, the true light that shines in the darkness; Martin, clother of beggars; Advent, the season of waiting. In the Church’s calendar, winter becomes a season pregnant with meaning.

But enough of my fancy words. How do you experience the spirituality of winter?

All Saints

All-SaintsToday is the feast of All Saints. Before beginning our next Friday series on living the spiritual life, let us pause to consider what sanctity means.

First, a word about words. England, and thus its language, has a funny history. First it was settled by Germanic tribes: the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes. In 1066, the French conquered, and pushed the German-speaking peoples to speak French. As a result, English is a funny mix of two languages.

This shows up in our religious vocabulary. Sometimes people try to draw a theological distinction, for example, between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost. But they are the same word. Spiritus is Latin, (esprit in modern French); Geist is German. The difference between Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost is only a difference whether you use the French/Latin word or the German word. Two words for the same thing.

The same is true of “holy.” Heilig is the German word. The Latin word is Sanctus, which the French make into Saint. “Holy” and “Saint” are exactly the same word. In Catholic theology (which is not principally done in English), there is absolutely no distinction. No distinction in Greek, or Hebrew, or in any other modern language. It’s just a funny part of English that we have a German and a French word for the same thing.


So what is a saint? Someone who is holy. Vatican II reminded us of the “universal call to holiness”: that is, everyone is called to be a saint – including you. That is what the word means. Part of the feast of All Saints is reminding us of the many ways to Sanctity.

But we still have not defined the word. Sometimes people say that holy means “set apart,” but I think this is misleading. First, because it seems extrinsic. The only difference between this cup and that cup is that this one is “set apart.” But the difference between us and the saints is not how they are used, it is what they are.

Second, holiness is not just in how we behave. Some kinds of Protestants use the word holy to mean that you don’t drink beer or play cards. There might be a right instinct in there somewhere, but again, it doesn’t go deep enough into the person.

The prophet Ezekiel says, “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). The first important part of this definition of sanctity is that it is a thing of the heart. Certainly how our heart is has consequences for our actions. But holiness is about the heart, not just about our actions.

Second, it is a thing of the Spirit. The one who makes us holy is the Holy Spirit. Holiness is about relationship with God. And to reach the heights of that relationship that Christianity promises is a work of God. Only God can unite us to God. Only the Holy Spirit can give us holy hearts.


The tradition likes to talk about three stages of progression in the spiritual life. We should not get too hung up on these stages, but there is an important insight here.

The first stage is often called “purgative.” St. Thomas Aquinas describes this as primarily focused on avoiding sin. At the beginning, it seems to us that holiness means we don’t do bad things. That is a beginning, but it is not the end: we should stop sinning, but we don’t understand holiness until we move beyond.

The second stage is often called “illuminative.” Thomas describes this as focused more on being good. Goodness goes deeper than just avoiding evil. The saints aren’t focused on how much they can get away with. They want to do good, to be good!

But the third stage is called “unitive,” and Thomas says this moves beyond trying to be good, into a focus on someone else: love of God. Mother Teresa was truly holy precisely because she got beyond trying to be holy. She wasn’t looking at herself any more. She was always looking at God, at Jesus – and at “his most distressing disguise,” in the poorest of the poor. True sanctity is focused on Jesus, not on the self.


Today’s solemnity of All Saints reminds us that there are millions of ways to be holy. “Star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41): sanctity looks as different as the millions of situations life puts us in. There is no formula, only the love of God at work within us.

What would sanctity look like in your situation?