The reality of sanctity often shines brighter through unrealistic stories, for sanctity belongs to a higher reality. For this reason, the legends of the saints often bring a fresh element to the lives of the saints, for such fables allow such folk to appear clearly as citizens of two worlds. Holy lore renders the invisible side of sainthood more visible, giving these heroes a dimension that rises above humanity and history; for the pious exaggeration of the extra-ordinariness of the servants of God emphasizes the reason why they are saints of God.
The good St. Dominic stands tall among this great assembly—and is, therefore, not without his tall tales. One of these is so strange it dares to drive at the heart of this saint’s very sainthood. Of course it does not cover the facts of St. Dominic’s life, for that would not be fantastic.
The first fact of Dominic’s life is, however, a fantastic fact: his mother had a dream of giving birth to a dog carrying a torch that set the world afire. In Calaruega, Spain, 1170, she actually gave birth to Dominic de Guzmán. After a brilliant and serious career studying at the University of Palencia, Dominic was ordained to the priesthood and appointed canon by the Bishop of Osma to assist in the reformation of the cathedral chapter. Dominic’s piety and devotion to the Rule of St. Benedict quickly elevated him to prior superior of the chapter, and at length he was called to leave the solitude of his chapter house to join the bishop in speaking out against the Albigensian heresy and reforming the Cistercian Order.
Upon the murder of the papal legate by the Albigensians in 1208, Innocent III launched a crusade against the heretics. Dominic followed in the wake of the pope’s forces, preaching and teaching with all his heart. In 1215, he established an order devoted to the conversion of the Albigensians and spreading the light of the Gospel to the ends of the earth under the rule of prayer and penance: the Order of Preachers—the Dominican Order—was born.
For the rest of his life, Dominic traveled across Italy nurturing his growing brotherhood with great success, and constantly and fervently preaching the salvation of Christ and His Church. Conversions abounded as the intellectual life was ingeniously implemented in everyday life, together with the championing of the Holy Rosary, to supply the deficiencies of a benighted people. Dominic died on August 6, 1221, and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1234.
A legend is told of St. Dominic that serves as an icon of the peaceful fortitude of sanctity against the primal force of evil. Thus it runs.
Late one night, St. Dominic sat up to write deep within St. Sixtus priory. A noisy night it was, with growling clouds and growing shadows, but still, St. Dominic sat up to write. A single, quivering candle lit his page and his sober vigil. Not even the unruly elements could check the rapidity of his pen or dull the purpose of the Preacher. There he wrote in a ruddy patch surrounded by gloom; and there, in that dark dormitory, the Prince of Darkness was hid, grinding his soul to find the saint awake and writing through the night. No premonition chilled the bones of St. Dominic; but anon, a figure came loping into the candlelight that would offer any man, howsoever magnanimous he be, some astonishment.
The pen was laid upon the page. The snow-white robes were smoothed for war. St. Dominic raised his eyes once more as a shaggy bulk pushed into his candle’s glowing globe. A great shape loomed, covered with coarse hair where fearsome teeth and fiery eyes flashed forth, and gangly limbs dangled beneath a crooked back—’twas the Devil in form of an Ape.
St. Dominic beheld this rival, took up his quill, and still sat up to write. The Ape unleashed a savage shout and smashed its paws on the flagstones, beating its chest, shaking the cell with its roar, while a terrible song issued from its terrible mouth:
Dost thou here write when all do sleep?
O vanity of vanity,
To drive men to insanity,
With teachings of inanity–
Far better would it be to sleep!
St. Dominic raised not his head and bade the Devil-Ape, “Be still.”
The Monkey raged around the desk, snarling and scratching, with thump and thud on stone, and uttered another vile verse:
Dost thou here muse when all do sleep?
O, thou, dim-witted Dominic,
Thou dost neglect the poor and sick,
For thine own liking dost thou pick–
Far better would it be to sleep!
St. Dominic’s meditation remained intact. He raised a hand and, scolding, said, “Be still.”
The Ape gawked and gaped as it slapped the walls and pounded the ground, shattering the silence with its chattering and its loathsome rhyme:
Dost thou here pray when all do sleep?
O scribbling scrabbling Pharisee,
Are thy prayers of such quality
They merit immortality?
Far better would it be to sleep!
St. Dominic was not afraid. Instead he laid his finger to his lips and spake, “Be still.”
The Monkey then racked that monkish cell with screams that made it shudder in every stone. Up and down the room it careened, teeth gnashing ear-to-ear, and wailing aloud until St. Dominic said, “Enough.”
The Ape froze in its frenzy as Dominic commanded it to take up the candle in its hand. “Thy name,” the prior sternly pronounced, “was Lucifer before thy fall, and light again thou now shalt bear and be, at least, of some use.”
The sheepish Ape trembled beneath this sentence, and took up the guttering candle in its claws; and there it stood and stooped, like a thing bewitched, casting light on the work of St. Dominic who wrote on at ease. The Devil was in dismay—hour after hour passed, and still the Ape held aloft the light and still the saint wrote on. But as the night wore on, the Ape watched the flame chase down the wick and the waxy pillar melt. It cursed its fate as it glared at the glim and wished that the fire were burning less nigh to its hand. But no sound it made—too a-feared to dare defy the word of Dominic.
Then heat began to sting its fingers. The flame was licking its hand! A howl of pain broke from the Ape with a shriek of hate as fire flowed up its hairy arm. It lashed and writhed and rolled its eyes, for consumed it was with hellfire from head to toe. Again it thundered at the indifferent St. Dominic and swirled in a blaze of wrath.
The saint then responded, “Begone!”
St. Dominic took up a stick and beat the Ape across its back. With blows that resounded like those upon a bloated bladder, St. Dominic chastised the Ape; and with each crack, the fire and smoke flared and fell until the Ape was reduced to nothing more than a pile of sour-smelling ash.
St. Dominic put by his rod and opened wide the casement boards, and found dawn blushing in the sky’s pale cheek. A bell saluted the sun, and the blessed father closed up his book and to the chapel went straightway. But as he went, his mind turned on a wondrous truth: the fallen Fiend must always serve the servants of the Lord High God.
It is written that St. Dominic would make impressions of the grimacing, galumphing Ape whenever recounting this story to his brethren, and thus do the heroes of God regard the foe. This story, whether deemed amusing or appalling, whether literal or legendary, is symbolic nonetheless of the security of sainthood; an image of a faith that can move mountains—or monkeys, as the case may be.
Such was the faith of St. Dominic; a faith that led him to be a humble helper to those in need and a terror to those who would terrify him in his vocation to praise, to bless, and to preach. Though he had the power to command the legions of hell, Dominic never wielded that power towards the lambs of heaven. The legend of St. Dominic and the Ape reminds the world of the faith that animated the life of St. Dominic—a faith that arises not from self-regard, or even self-confidence, but from a meekness that breathes with the might of the Holy Spirit.