St. Dominic and the Life of Study

From a lecture (pdf) by Fr. Richard Schenk, O.P., given in 2006 at Ohio Dominican University.

II. The Place and Character of Study in the Early Dominican Order

Academic studies occupied a central place in the Order of Preachers from its very beginning, several generations before a definite ideal of wisdom began to interpret and shape them. To tell that story we must first recall St. Dominic, about whom many of you might already know a great deal. I ask for your patience. Despite contradictory claims made in the 14th century that tell us more about the course of the Order’s first completed century than about St. Dominic, Dominic was not a professor of theology at the papal curia or any other faculty (3 – Guy Bedouelle, Dominikus. Von der Kraft des Wortes [Graz et al., 1984] 171). And yet he was venerated from early years of the Order on as a “doctor veritatis”, who had “freely poured out waters of wisdom”(4 – Antiphon „O lumen”). Dominic was not someone for whom studies and books were a fetish. As a student, he had even sold his rare and expensive books to aid the victims of disease and drought (5 – Cf. Vladimir Koudelka, Dominikus [Olten et al., Walter 1983] Text 13, pg. 80 sq., citing Jordan of Saxony, Libellus, 10). Dominic discourses with skeptics of the Christian faith, at public gatherings and public taverns, but not as a professor at the university. And yet he came to see academic study as a necessary means to address directly a different kind of disease and hunger: the plague of disbelief, the hunger for genuine faith, both acute forms of suffering in his own day. Chosen in 1203 and again in 1206 as a socius for embassies of Diego, bishop of Osma in Spain, to Northern Europe, Dominic experienced the widespread inability of the people especially of Southern France and Northern Italy to believe fully in the Christian faith. Against the “Albigensian” heresy with its claim that our earthly history is largely cut off from the realm of a benign and providential God, there were bald counter-assertions of the truth of Christian truth, and soon there would also be military battles around it (and around the question of French unification), but there was little preaching or argumentative discourse by representatives of the Church willing to live a life as austere as the leaders of the heretical movements.

To characterize different kinds of saints, one could argue that there is one genus or family of those saints who seem to begin with the love of God or Christ and then move to the love of creatures; St. Francis is an example of this family of sanctity. And there is a second genus or family of saints, like Dominic, who move from the love of creatures to the love of God. Dominic was one of those many saints moved by the recognition of human misery to seek the mercy, the “misericordia”, of God. That is something he shares with all the saints of this second family. What sets him apart within this genus, the specific difference from most other saints of this kind, is this: the specific “misery” towards which Dominic’s own “misericordia” was directed was first and foremost the inability of so many in his age to believe aright. One remarkable sign of this is that nearly all of his prayers of which we have any report are prayers that seek God’s mercy: either directly for those weak in faith; or indirectly for them, namely for God’s grace on this new “Order of Preachers”, who could enter into fruitful discourse about the faith.