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Lacordaire, Life of St. Dominic. Chapter 02

Parentage of St. Dominic

St. Dominic (1170-1221)

In a valley of Old Castile, watered by the Douro, and about equidistant from Aranda and Osma, stands a simple village, called in the language of the country Calarnega, and Caleroga in the softer language of many historians. There was St. Dominic born, in the year 1170 of the Christian era. After God, he owed his existence to Felix de Gusman and Jeanne d’Aza. At Calarnega this pious and noble pair possessed a residence, in which the saint first saw the light, and part of which building is still in existence.

In 1266 Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile, in concert with his wife, sons, and leading grandees of Spain, founded a convent of Dominican nuns on the same spot. In this edifice are to be seen apartments of more ancient date, and differing in style from the rest of the building: a medieval tower, bearing the arms of the Gusmans, a fountain named after them, and many other vestiges, designated in the traditional language of the neighborhood the Palace of the Gusmans. The chief seat of the Castilian branch of this noble house was a few miles distant; their place of sepulture, also near Calarnega, was in the Cistercian church at Gumiel d’Izan. Thither were born, after death, Felix de Gusman and Jeanne d’Aza, And they were interred in adjoining crypts. But the veneration in which they were held became erelong the cause of their separation. About the year 1318, John Emanuel, Infanta of Spain, caused the body of Jeanne d’Aza to be removed to the Dominican convent erected by him at Pennafied. Felix remained alone in his ancestral tomb, a faithful witness to the illustrious blood inherited by St. Dominic, and Jeanne rejoined the spiritual family of her son, that she might share in the glory he had acquired by preferring a heavenly to an earthly posterity.

A wonderful sign heralded the birth of St. Dominic. His mother dreamt that she saw her child appear under the form of a dog, holding in its jaws a lighted torch, with which he kindled the whole world. Alarmed by this obscure presage, she frequently went to pray at the tomb of St. Dominic of Silos, formerly abbot of a monastery of the same name, not far from Calarnega, and, in gratitude for the consolation vouchsafed her there, she bestowed the name of Dominic on the infant who had been the subject of so many prayers. He was the third child of this holy woman. The eldest, Antonio, dedicated his life to the service of the poor, and by his great charity adorned the priestly office to which he had been raised; the second, Mannes, died in the habit of the order of Friar Preachers.

When Dominic was presented at the baptismal font, a new sign manifested his future greatness. His godmother, mentioned by historians merely as a lady of noble birth, beheld in a dream a radiant star on the brow of the newly baptized, the brilliancy of which seemed to remain on Dominic’s countenance; and it was remarked, as a singular fact that a constant radiancy illumined his brow, attracting the hearts of all beholders. The white marble font in which he had been baptized, was transported to the monastery of Friar Preachers at Valladolid in 1605, by command of Philip III, who desired that his son should be baptized therein. At the present day it is at St. Dominic’s in Madrid, and many Spanish infants have there been initiated into the life that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

No strangers milk nourished St Dominic; his mother would allow no blood but her own to circulate in his veins; at her breast he drank in his chaste nourishment, and from her lips he received the words of truth. In his maternal intercourse there was not to fear, save the softness of his apparel, and those tender attentions which even the most Christian mother sometimes lavishes too freely on her child. That indwelling grace made him speedily revolt from any such yoke. As soon as he could move without assistance, he secretly left his cradle and took his rest upon the floor, as if he were already conscious of the misery of mankind, the difference of their lot here below, and was so moved with love for them that he could not endure that his couch should be better than theirs, or that, initiated in the secrets of Bethlehem, he desired a cradle like that of his Lord. We know nothing more of the first six years of his life.

Early in his 7th year he quitted the paternal roof, and was sent to his uncle, Gumiel d’Izan, arch-presbyter of the church in that place. There, near the tomb of his ancestors, and under the twofold influence of authority and relationship, Dominic passed the second portion of his childhood. And historian remarks: “Ere the world had breathed on this child, he was entrusted, like Samuel, to the teaching of the church, that he might benefit by her salutary discipline; and the result was, that, grounded on this firm foundation, he grew in stature and in wisdom, daily advancing in the paths of virtue.”

The University of Palencia, in the kingdom of Leon, the only one Spain then possessed, was the third school in which Dominic was trained. He went there at the age of 15, and for the first time in life found himself alone, far from the happy valley where, beneath the walls of Calarnega and Gumiel d’Izan, he had bidden adieu to the happy memories of home.

He remained at Palencia 10 years, of which he devoted the first six to the study of literature and philosophy, as they were then taught. “But,” says another historian, “the angelic youth, although easily mastering all human science, was not enchanted with it, because he found not there the wisdom of God, which is Christ. No philosopher has ever revealed this wisdom to man; none of the princes of this world have known it; therefore, lest he should consume the flower and strength of youth in fruitless labours, and that he might quench his ardent thirst, he turned to the deep wells of theology, invoking and praying Christ, the Wisdom of the Father, that he would open his heart to the true science, his ears to the teaching of Holy Scripture. So sweet was this divine word to him, with such avidity and desire did he receive it, that he passed his nights almost without sleep, giving to study the time he took from rest, and that he might drink the more worthily and with chaster lips from the fount of wisdom, he abstained for nearly ten years from the use of wine. It was a wondrous and pleasant sight to behold this man, with the outward marks of extreme youth, but with the mature conversation and strength of character belonging to advanced years. Superior to the pleasures of youth, he sought but for righteousness, and anxious to lose no time in aimless studies, he turned to his mother the church, preferring the breasts of her consolation and the repose of her tabernacles, and passed his time in diligent work and prayer.

God rewarded him for the fervent love with which he kept the commandments, by inspiring him with a spirit of wisdom and intelligence which rendered the most difficult questions easy for him to solve.

Of his sojourn in Palencia 2 traits remain. During a famine that ravaged Spain, Dominic, not content with giving to the poor all that he possessed, even his very garments, sold the books annotated by his own pen, so that he might give away the money he received for them; and when surprise was manifested at his depriving himself of the means of study, he uttered these words, the first that I have been handed down to us: “How can I study from dry parchments and there are human beings dying of hunger?” Incited by his example, the university professors and students generously came to the relief of the unfortunate ones. Another time, seeing a woman, whose brother had been taken prisoner by the Moors, weeping bitterly at her inability to provide his ransom, Dominic offered to sell himself in order to redeem the captive; but God, having reserved him for the spiritual redemption of a great multitude of human beings, did not permit him to carry his perfect purpose into effect.

When, at the close of autumn, the traveler passes through a country cleared of all its harvests, he at times meets with some fruit that has escaped the hands of the laborer, and this remnant of past fertility suffices to enable him to judge of the unknown tracts through which he has passed. Thus Providence, while leaving in obscurity the youth of his servant Dominic, has nevertheless willed that history should preserve some traits, incomplete but touching revelations of a soul where purity, grace, intelligence, truth, and every virtue was the effect of a superabounding love to God and man. Dominic had almost attained his twenty-fifth year without any manifestation as yet of God’s will concerning him. To the man of the world life is but a short space, that he traverses in the slowest possible manner and by the most pleasant road. Not so does the Christian view it; he knows that each man, as vicar of Jesus Christ, must, by self-sacrifice, labor for the redemption of the human race, and that in the plan of this grand work each has his place assigned from eternity, a place which he is free to accept or refuse. He knows that if he voluntarily desert the place Providence has offered him in the ranks of useful beings, that place will be given to a better than he, and he himself abandoned to his own self-guidance along the broad, short path of egotism. These thoughts occupy the mind of the Christian who as yet knows not to what he is predestined, and convinced that the surest way of learning it is to desire to accomplish it whatever it may be, he holds himself in readiness for all that God may will. He despises none of the offices necessary to the well- being of the Christian Republic, because in all may be found the three things on which their real value depends: the will of God, who imposes them; The good resulting from the faithful exercise of the duties attendant thereon, and the fidelity of him to whom they are entrusted. He believes firmly that the least honored are not necessarily the least noble, and that the crown of the Saints never descends so swiftly from heaven as when destined to encircle the brow of the poor, a brow grown hoary in lowly and humble service. Little cares he where God shall mark his place; It is sufficient for him to know what is the will of God. God had prepared for young Dominic an intermediary worthy of himself, who would not only reveal to him his vocation, but open to him the gates of his future career, conducting him by unforeseen paths to the place of action where Providence was awaiting him.

Among the means of reform had recourse to by such as desired the re-establishment of ecclesiastical discipline was one specially recommended by the Sovereign Pontiff, to wit, the introduction of community life among the clergy. Thus had the Apostles lived; and St. Augustine, their copyist, has bequeathed to us the famous rule that bears his name. Community life is neither more nor less than family life carried to its highest degree of perfection, and it is impossible for it to be faithfully practiced without those who have devoted themselves to it being inspired with those sentiments of fraternity, poverty, patience, and abnegation, in which the very soul of Christianity consists.

For about a century and a half, they gave the name of canons-regular to priests leading this kind of life. They did not form one body under one head, but each house had its own prior, amenable only to the Bishop. The one exception is the order of canons-regular of Premontre, founded by St. Norbert in 1120. Now, the Bishop of Osma, Martin of Bazan, desirous of contributing to the restoration of discipline in the church, had recently converted the canons of his cathedral into canons-regular, and learning that there was at the University of Palencia a young man of rare merit belonging to his diocese, he conceived the hope of attaching him to his chapter and interesting him in his plans of reform. He entrusted the negotiation of this matter to the person who had been his chief support in the arduous work he had just accomplished, a man illustrious by birth, genius, learning, and the venerable beauty of his life, and who later on united to these qualities, not peculiar to himself alone, a title that none can dispute. For six centuries the Spaniard Don Diego de Azevedo has reposed in a tomb which I have not even seen, and yet I never utter his name with but with profound respect, for he was the intermediary chosen by God to enlighten and guide the patriarch of a dynasty of which I am the child; and when I trace back the long chain of my spiritual ancestors, I behold him as the connecting link between St. Dominic and Christ.

History has preserved no record of the early conversations between Don Diego and the youthful Guzman, but the result makes it easy to divine them. At twenty-five a generous soul seeks but to sacrifice itself, and, full of love and vigor, only demands of heaven and earth a noble cause to serve. And if this be true of a soul indebted for its character to nature alone, how much more is it true in him whose soul Christianity and natural disposition blend together as two pure streams, not one drop of whose waters has been lavished on vain passions! It is easy for me to picture Don Diego and the noble student of Palencia. He learnt in few words what no book, no university, could teach: the existing struggle between good and evil in the world; the deep wounds inflicted on the Church; the general tendency of things; and, in fine, all that constituted the inner secret of the age. Initiated into the evils of the time, by a man who understood them, Dominic doubtless felt the necessity of devoting himself soul and body to the cause of suffering Christendom. He saw at a glance his place and his work: saw them to be in the ranks of that priesthood according to Melchisedec; that he was to follow the steps of Jesus Christ, sole Savior of the world, sole Source of all truth, goodness, grace, peace, self-devotion, and whose enemies, take what name they may, are the eternal foes of the human race. He saw that this divine priesthood, defiled by many, unworthy of their consecration, needed to be re-exalted in the sight of God and man; and that this could only be effected by a revival of Apostolic virtues in those who had been admitted to and honored with the priestly office. And as the first step in all reforms is to be oneself what one wishes others to be, the heir of the Gusmans dedicated his life to God in the reformed chapter of Osma, under the direction of Don Diego, prior at that time.

“Then,” says the Blessed Jordan of Saxony, “he appeared among his brethren, the canons, as a shining light, foremost in sanctity, but in his own esteem lowest of all, shedding around him a life-giving odor, and a perfume, sweet as incense in summer-time. His brethren, admiring so lofty a piety, elected him sub-prior, in order that his exaltation might render his example more visible and more potent. He, like a flourishing olive-tree and growing cypress, remained day and night in the church, applying himself constantly to prayer, and scarcely ever quitting the cloister for fear of shortening his time for contemplation. God had given him a deep sorrow for sinners, for the afflicted and the miserable, whose woes Dominic enshrined in his inner sanctuary of compassion, and the deep loving sorrow he felt for them was so intense as to seek relief in tears. His almost constant habit was to pass the night in prayer and communion with God; and so great at times was his emotion, that from his closed chamber audible proofs of the same proceeded one thing he was asked often and earnestly from God; it was that he would bestow on him a true charity, a love that would render it easy to give up all for the salvation of men, convinced that only then would he be a true member of Christ when he should consecrate himself with all his powers to win souls, after the example of the Savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our redemption. He was reading a book entitled Conferences of the Fathers, treating a vice and spiritual perfection, and in perusing it he strove to know and follow all the paths of righteousness. By God’s grace this book enabled him to attain to an unusual degree of purity of conscience, abundant light in meditation, and a very great perfection.”

Though Dominic’s life was to be but short, Providence was in no hurry, and allowed him to spend nine years at Osma in order to fit himself for the as yet unknown mission which he was destined to fulfill. In this interval, in the year 1201, Don Diego de Azevedo succeeded Martin de Bazan in the episcopal see. Almost at the same time Dominic began his public preaching, but without going far from Osma; and probably continued this ministry, regarding which we have no particulars, until 1203, the solemn moment when, at the age of 20-4, he quitted Spain and went forth all unconsciously to meet his destiny.

Here ends the training of St. Dominic, that is to say, the chain of events by which his mind and soul were fashioned, and which prepared him for the end which Providence intended him to accomplish. Each man has a particular training, suited to his future work in the world, the knowledge of which is requisite to the full understanding of his character. Friendship opens up to us those deep recesses where the mysteries of the past and future are concealed; confession also reveals the same, but in another intent; history too makes her search there, in order to seize events at their fountain-head and trace back their clue to him who created the germ and enriched it with its countless forms of good. Called by God to be founder of a new Order that should edify the world by poverty, preaching, and heavenly wisdom, Dominic’s training was in conformity with this predestination. He is born of a noble family, because voluntary poverty is the more striking in one who renounces the rank and riches which are by his birth. He is born in Spain, far from the land which should be the scene of his apostolate, because one of the greatest sacrifices to an apostle is the quitting his native land in order to enlighten nations whose very language is unknown to him. The first ten years of his youth are spent at the University, that he may acquire the learning necessary for the evangelical office, and transmit it to, and cause it to be held in high esteem by, his Order. During the following nine years he conforms to the observances of community life, so that by thoroughly understanding its difficulties and its virtues, he may at a future day impose on his brethren no yoke but such as he himself had long borne. From his very cradle God endows him with an instinctive love of rigorous self-denial; for how shall the Apostle endure the fatigue of long journeys, heat, cold, hunger, imprisonment, blows, and misery, unless he early subjects his body to the rudest trials? God also gives him an early and ardent love of prayer; for prayer is the omnipotent act which places Heaven’s might at man’s disposal. Heaven is inaccessible to violence; prayer brings Heaven down to us. But, over and above all, Dominic receives the gift without which all other gifts are not: the gift of charity, so great that it impels him day and night to devote himself to the salvation of his brethren, whose afflictions move him even to tears. In fine, God sends him a man of marked strength of character, who becomes his friend and his Bishop, and who, as we shall ere long see, will introduce him to France and to Rome. These few connected and important facts from a circle of thirty-four years, and molded by their influence, Dominic attains, unblemished, the most perfect form of manhood to which the God-fearing man can aspire.

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