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St. Dominic on the value of quiet preparation before making big decisions

St. Dominic

Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. | Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/14/23

The amount and endurance of our future work depends on the developed character and formation that we bring into the process.

When St. Dominic was born, his mother had a strange vision of her son as a dog holding a burning torch in his mouth. He broke away from her and set the world on fire. If her vision eventually came true – St. Dominic did indeed change the world – throughout his youth and into early adulthood there were absolutely no signs of it coming to fruition. As a boy, he was unremarkable and untroublesome. He enjoyed quietly reading, was neither popular nor unpopular with other boys, and showed a normal piety, devout but not excessive, when it came to church. Like other small children, he pretended to play Mass and, further, was much impressed with the idea of becoming a cloistered monk. He seemed destined for a quiet life.

When he went to the University of Palencia, he was known as an even-tempered, studious young man. Around the age of 25, he was ordained a priest. His assignment took him to the town of Osma where he lived in a semi-monastic group of priests attached to a parish. For nine years, Dominic lived with brother priests and serenely followed the rule of St. Augustine. It was a peaceful and holy life. It was a rather unremarkable life.

In his biography of Dominic, Bede Jarrett remarks, “This seems, perhaps, a very gentle, even monotonous, beginning for a career…” If that was the way his life had continued to proceed, he probably would have died happy but completely unknown.

That’s not what happened. Not at all. Today, St. Dominic is one of the most famous saints of his era, often mentioned in the same breath as St. Francis. The religious order he began has adherents worldwide who call themselves Dominicans in his honor.

What happened?

Here’s what happened. After his quiet years in Osma, Dominic became a traveling preacher. He did this for 13 years, going from town to town. During this time, his public profile was raised but he still hadn’t formed a religious order. Again, if he had lived out his life as a circuit preacher, he probably would’ve died happy but his name would be unknown today.

He only began his religious order in the year 1216. He built it for five years — that was it. One massive, inspired burst of activity. Five short years and then he was called home to his Lord. His religious order outlived him and influenced the course of history.

What surprised me when I became acquainted with his story is that the vast majority of Dominic’s life was spent in preparation. Then, in that one, decisive choice, that one pouring out of all his energy into one activity, he transformed his vocation. He was a late bloomer but left a lasting imprint.

Quiet preparation

All my life, I’ve been impatient. I want to make decisions quickly and act on them right away. I don’t like to be slowed down or feel like I’m wasting time. At work, I’ve always wanted to be the boss right away. I wanted to race through my education and get out into the real world. I was always jumping out of my skin with the formation process in seminary because I was itching to get out into a parish and become involved. I wanted to skip ahead to what I considered the real work. To this day, I have almost zero attention span for meetings and long decision-making processes. For so long, I’ve considered decisiveness and promptness to be over-riding virtues that I’ve neglected the importance of patience and quiet preparation.

The life of St. Dominic, though, reveals how important it is to lie fallow and properly prepare. Maybe he got started later than would be expected, maybe he was even frustrated and felt like life was passing him by, but once he got going he traveled fast and far.

In his biography, Jarrett writes, “It was a crucial time for the saint in enabling him to gauge the depths of his own character …” and that Dominic possessed, “a patient and hidden life before the public ministry began.”

Looking back at all the preparatory moments in my own life – usually the times I was frustrated and impatient – they were all enormously helpful to my development. The bosses and formators I questioned always knew more than me, the people in the meetings who slow down the process with questions, the many people who have taught me to examine issues from multiple angles. Most of all, that time was never wasted because I was undergoing character development. As the life of Dominic shows, the amount and endurance of our future work depends on the developed character and formation that we bring into the process. Achievement is a matter of preparation.

As Jarrett concludes, “Only a man who has built carefully his character may hope one day to build the world.”

DominicansSpiritual Life
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