The Success (and Failures) of Saint Dominic

Although Dominic had hoped to journey to barbarous lands to preach and eventually to achieve martyrdom, this was denied him.
~ from The Lives of the Saints, ed. Father Joseph Vann (1954)

Baptism is about death. We disguise it as a cleansing ritual, and it is further camouflaged by white garments, candles and flame, and the wailing of a cute baby who doesn’t like to get wet. But Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that Christians are “buried together with him by baptism into death” (Rom. 6.4a). When the water is poured over an infant’s head, and the baptizer intones the Trinitarian formula, that child is with the Lord in the tomb. And tomb means dead.

Of course, the Lord’s burial was followed by a Resurrection, and the baptized get to participate in that as well – something Paul himself goes on to acknowledge:

As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life (Rom. 6.4b).

And it’s totally understandable that we prefer to focus on baptism’s transmission of new spiritual life rather than the sacramental death that accompanies it. Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the fact that the new life was won through a death, and that’s an unsettling fact we might prefer to downplay – especially when the baptized is still in diapers.

Yet my new godson is named after St. Dominic. That poses a problem when it comes to downplaying the death side of the baptism equation.

When we think of St. Dominic, we think of white habits, and a religious order dedicated to preaching and education and academic pursuits. Dominicans are the ‘Dogs of God,’ after all, tenacious in their pursuit of truth and defense of the Faith.

But Dominic himself, it turns out, was a bit of a reckless nut in his heyday. I recently read up on my new godson’s namesake, and I was surprised to learn that the saintly founder had been a fiery young priest who deliberately put himself in harm’s way in service to the Lord.

The young Fr. Dominic de Guzmán had been selected to accompany a bishop on a delicate diplomatic mission from Spain to southern France, and there they encountered the Albigenses – a branch of the dualist Catharite heresy. Following the conclusion of their mission, the two clerics returned to the Albigensian stronghold of Languedoc to engage the heretics in further disputation and to proclaim the fullness of the Faith to the confused multitudes.

This being the Middle Ages, the predominant approach to settling disagreements was through armed conflict, and combating Albigensianism was no exception. Backed by the Pope, Catholic Lords waged war on religious radicals of all stripes, and the Albigensian Crusade, while successful in diminishing the rebellion, wreaked havoc on cities, countryside, and the population.

But Dominic knew that fighting and force wouldn’t achieve true victory, saying that the “enemies of the faith cannot be overcome like that.” Instead, he recommended prayer as a weapon “instead of a sword; be clothed with humility instead of fine raiment.” And he meant this quite literally, choosing to live among the Albigenses, preaching the truths of the Catholic Faith whenever he had a chance, and moving about openly despite the many threats made against him. When asked what he’d do if he were cornered by his enemies, Dominic bravely answered this way:

I would tell them to kill me slowly and painfully, a little at a time, so that I might have a more glorious crown in Heaven.

For the young St. Dominic, martyrdom wasn’t something to shy away from; it was something to be chased after! What better way could he demonstrate his tremendous love for Jesus? What could top dying for Him who had Himself died for the world?

Alas, it was not to be. Dominic eventually organized a group of like-minded followers, and, in 1216, the Pope recognized the saint’s efforts by approving a new Order of Preachers – now known as the Dominicans. Needless to say, the saint had charge of the operation, and, as it grew, he had to spend more and more time traveling about, establishing foundations, and guiding his spiritual sons in their apostolates of teaching, preaching, and prayer.

So, in the end, Dominic became the consummate leader, and he even served briefly as a kind of chief of staff in the Pope’s own court. And thus, the brash young priest, intent on achieving martyrdom, became just another administrator. He failed in his youthful quest. Sad, isn’t it?

Well, yes, sad, if that were the end of the story – if Dominic’s story was simply about a frustrated pious death wish. But that’s not what it’s about.

Instead, it’s the story of one who sought out Jesus with his whole being; a story of conversion and sanctification and conforming to Christ – truly the greatest adventure story there could be, martyrdom or no martyrdom. And here’s a little secret: That’s also the story of all the baptized – including my new godson. “Having become a member of the Church,” the Catechism teaches us, “the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us.” Little baby Dom, as of last weekend, has already died to self and risen with Christ, and who knows where that might lead? Martyrdom, perhaps. Something much more mundane, most likely. Who knows? In fact, who knows for any of us?

Only Christ knows, but in the meantime, we have to keep marching forward in faith, trusting the Lord to work out all the details along the way – just like St. Dominic did long ago. The saints are signs that the march can come to a successful conclusion, and we look to them as models for how to carry it out.

Yet, the saints don’t just rest on their laurels – as if sanctity were a ticket to a comfy retirement in the hereafter. No, St. Dominic is now in a position to do something even more useful than arguing with Cathars and preaching the Gospel: He can join me in surrounding little Dom with prayer – indeed, I’m counting on it, based on what the saint himself told his confreres on his deathbed:

Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.

Perhaps the young St. Dominic was indeed disappointed that he was not chosen for a martyr’s crown, but his union to Christ was completed nonetheless. Martyrdom, in other words, was never the true goal, and Dominic always knew that. The goal was – and is – Christ Himself.

St. Dominic, pray for us.

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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