If Chesterton was right about the "degrading slavery" of being children of our era, author Kevin Vost suggests the Order of Preachers is vital to the age
“The Dominicans are going to save the world,” a friend commented while waiting for a newly ordained priest’s first blessing on Saturday. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something along those lines – usually as commentary on the scene of young, stimulating, grounded, prayerful student brothers and priests filling the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Or the fact that what was once a residence for elderly and ailing priests at St. Dominic’s across town now houses those starting out instead, their numbers beyond the capacity at the DHS priory.
The Dominican order, founded by St. Dominic, is 800 years old this year. And so it was particularly fitting for the Eastern Province of St. Joseph to have its largest ordination class in 45 years. The eleven men were ordained two weeks ago by Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, also a Dominican, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. — the scene of a papal Mass and the Mass of Christian Burial for Justice Antonin Scalia in months past. Archbishop DiNoia, the highest-ranking American at the Vatican these days, called the men an answer to prayers. Pray for them and pray for more.
Kevin Vost is author of Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know, a bit of a practical primer to the 800th anniversary.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You wrote: “One way to counter modern pressures to conform to the world and to ignore God is to embrace the Dominican way…” What’s so special about this “Dominican way”? And is there any basic recipe to follow?
Kevin Vost: There is an old saying that “If you’ve met one Dominican, you’ve met one Dominican,” which suggests there is certainly more than one “Dominican way,” at least as far as how it is expressed though the personality and talents of each individual. There are several common denominators among Dominicans that do provide the basic recipe to bake up a Dominican, though. One of their mottoes declares their active mission: “To praise, to bless, to preach.” The traditional “four pillars” of the Dominican life are Prayer, Study, Communal Life, and Preaching. We can see then that perhaps the most essential ingredient appearing both times is that of preaching. And what is it that they preach? The pithiest of all their mottoes is simply “Veritas” (“Truth”).
Lopez: What’s with St. Dominic, Dominicans, and dogs?
Vost: St. Dominic is often depicted with a dog with a torch in its mouth by his side because his mother, Blessed Jane of Aza, had a vision before his birth the she would give birth to a dog that would go about with a torch in its mouth to enlighten the world. His order is officially called the Order of Preachers, but is known best as the Dominicans, because of St. Dominic’s name. They have long been called dogs or hounds of the Lord because of a pun on the Latin name Dominican, since Domini means “of the Lord,” and canis is the Latin for dog. The Dominicans then are “hounds of the Lord.”
Lopez: What does Thomas Aquinas mean when he says prayer is a most reasonable thing to do? Serving seems more so to most. Prayer doesn’t always seem to be the most reasonable thing. It may even seem like a waste of time to some.
Vost: Prayer may be seen as a waste of time if it is seen as an attempt to cajole or persuade God, of getting him to change his mind so that the events around us will conform to our own wills. Thomas sees prayer, though, as lifting our hearts and minds toward God. Through prayer we do indeed ask God to grant us blessings, but while bearing in mind that God knows far better than we do what will truly be to our benefit. Thanksgiving is also an essential part of prayer according to St. Thomas. As human beings, we are able to be aware of all the great blessings we have from God, including our very existence. Gratitude is actually is very great and noble virtue and prayer is one of the acts of religion whereby we give God thanks. With an attitude of gratitude, we are far more likely to spend less time grumbling and more time praising, blessing, and preaching. Dominicans will recall too that prayer is one of those four great pillars, and St. Thomas himself always preceded study with prayer. In fact, we have persevered to our day his beautiful prayer Ante Studium – Before Study. Prayer also preceded all kinds of service, so that such service would be performed as inspired by and for the glory of God.
Lopez: In writing about St. Catherine of Siena, you say: “God, in his providence, has so arranged the world that from vices in some spring virtues in others; from contrition for sin springs limitless mercy; from worldly suffering springs heavenly joy.” How might she – or other Dominican models — help us approach a more virtuous life, a more virtuous culture?
Vost: St. Catherine has pointed out that God gave us one another so that we might demonstrate our love of Him through our love of neighbor. So, how are we going to become patient, unless we encounter people who try our patience? How are we going to show mercy to others, unless we ourselves have succumbed at times, maybe many, many times, to sin? Many Dominican saints have written about these virtues with specific instructions for how to grow in them. All Dominican saints have modeled them for us in their lives.
Lopez: You wrote a whole book on virtues. Why are they so important? Do they need to make a comeback? How can they?
Vost: My book on virtues was called Unearthing Your Ten Talents and there I focused on ten virtues. The virtues do need a comeback in a big way, because they are perfections of the human powers good has given every one of us. My guess is the most people would be surprised at how much depth there is to the concept of virtue.
Lopez: Is there something the Dominicans uniquely emphasize or accentuate about the virtues?
Vost: Yes. They share with all Catholic the acknowledgement that the highest of virtues exceed the kinds of natural virtues we can build through our own efforts. The highest of virtues are the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, infused in our hearts by God Himself, and as St. Paul has told us, the highest of these is charity or love (1 Cor. 13:13). These are the virtues God uses to guide us back home to Him, and they should act to guide and direct all other manner of virtues. They are a gift freely given, but we must choose to accept them and to share them with others.
Ah, and there is that distinctively Dominican twist, to share with others the fruits of our contemplation. The world tells us not to be thinkers, whose motto is truth, but to be opiners, so to speak, entitled to express our opinions, but without obligation to be sure our opinions are grounded in truth. We are told not to be doers who get the job done for God, but to be spectators who watch on glowing screens of various sizes others who get their jobs done in order to entertain us, whether or not for the glory of God (and unfortunately, often not). We are told not to be lovers who give, but getters who receive and ask ourselves about everything, “What’s in it for me?” The Dominicans, rather, advise us and show us how to know God more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.