“Hounds of the Lord” they used to call them (from the pun, Domini canes, in Latin), these Blackfriars who began strolling Europe eight centuries ago. They were mendicants of the Order of Preachers founded by Dominic of Caleruega in Spain, pledged to a life of strict poverty, prayer, study, and teaching; to a war with ignorance and heterodoxy. They proposed to resume the task of the Apostles.
They were an urban phenomenon, in the main. Though drawn from many obscure places, their focus was the new towns, growing around the cathedrals, and re-occupying abandoned ancient sites, in the early thirteenth century.
For centuries before, Western Europe had been an Arcadian landscape, utterly decentralized under the local governance of monasteries and castles, their abbots and lords – imperfectly unified by the Christian religion. There were small cities, or proto-cities, in Italy, but beyond the Alps, perhaps Paris was the largest urban agglomeration, with a population of a few thousand. All that was changing.
It was a revolutionary age, in the Church, and around her. Through strata of time, we still recognize Franciscans as well as Dominicans from that period, who broke with the monastic tradition of aloofness; but many other orders were founded, which leave no trace today.
Monks and nuns had been meditatives, but also workers in their agricultural estates, whose innovations spread beyond monastic walls, and whose goods traveled. But they were no part of an integrated economy.
Great cities existed in the Islamic realms, and far beyond, appearing and also disappearing like mushrooms. Western Europe had been a place of extraordinary and enduring silence. Security of food, and against savage invaders, had molded the classic feudal system for which our environmentalists still pine. A hard life, dictated by the seasons; people for whom change could only be associated with destruction. Their arts, as their technologies, were directly to purpose, and nowhere “sophisticated” – except in monasteries where the heritage of past ages was jealously preserved.
Saint Dominic himself, high-born in a desert region of Old Castile, near the frontiers of the Christian Reconquest, was trained in the Augustinian, eremitical tradition, reaching back to classical North Africa, but itself looking forward to a thirteenth-century transformation.
Two dated books from my own shelves – Saint Dominic and His Work by Pierre Mandonnet (1944); Saint Dominic and His Times by M.-H. Vicaire (1964) – provide enthralling accounts of his age and mission, that penetrate beneath mere data. For these authors present a range, depth, and character missing in the scholarship of today.
In telling the life of the founder of their order, these authors are compelled to sketch this age of transformation, which Dominic came to serve. The famous struggle against the Albigensian heretics now covers our historical vision as a veil. The heroic labors of Dominic himself, and of his first cohort – debating the heretics on their own ground at risk of their lives – is itself an effective prelude to the story. But from the beginning the intention was more fundamental.
As the young migrated to the new universities of the towns – set up beyond the control of the older cathedral seminaries (Chartres was a magnet before Paris) – a new, profane intellectual order was emerging. To read of thirteenth-century student life in Paris, and elsewhere, is to encounter many features that have never changed, from youthful arrogance and rebellion, to the drinking and constant appeal for student loans. How often the hardworking of the towns hated and feared these young scholars, as dangerously smart delinquents.
The Dominicans set a standard for seriousness, and real intellectual zeal. They were commanded to exemplary lives under clear discipline. They were also commanded to the pursuit of truth, and in the legacies of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas – Margaret of Hungary, Catherine of Siena – we find a fearless patience that embodies the order’s ideal. The light of Faith was everywhere mingled with the light of Reason, against forces potentially very dark.
We see this on our campuses today, except, the forces of darkness now prevail. Faith is despised, and as the early Dominicans often were, shouted down with slogans. The Dominicans persisted. Far from retreating where they met hostility, they listened and confuted. Men can be animals, especially the young, but they may also be called to conversion, and a striking feature of the thirteenth century is the scale and speed of the Dominican expansion.
It answered to a spiritual hunger. It confronted doubt in new and potent forms, as Europe began to recover pagan learning through Arabic philosophers and Byzantine refugees. All that was good in Aristotle and the ancients was, by Dominicans and others they inspired, assimilated and Christianized, as they found that the “perennial philosophy” was in its own nature compatible with Catholic teaching, and helped us better understand it.
The Dominican approach was to muck in. It was a positive force of intellectual engagement. Christ sent his Apostles on the open road; did not tell them to hole up and wait. He made teachers, to the death. The world needs to be told the joy of Our Savior. It needs to be saved, from the Devil and from itself. It needs to know who is its Maker. It needs to test all things.
Saint Dominic himself was a man of broad learning. His way was not narrow. The scholastic methods Dominicans pioneered took questions whole, found answers methodically.
I hardly reject the Desert Fathers, or all that followed in the Benedictine traditions; all that they have accomplished and preserved. As thanks to Rod Dreher, the “Benedict Option” has become a thing, let me add that I applaud and accept it.
Yet I would juxtapose a “Dominic Option,” in resplendent contrast. We may never, as Christians, turn our backs on our neighbors, in their need. And Truth is something that is needed. There will always be obstacles to delivery; we must analyze them, and get through.