Several weeks ago a call came from Nashville, Tennessee. The Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of Saint Cecilia had asked me to give a talk for the Aquinas College faculty retreat. I jumped again at the chance. I had spoken to them two years before about whom of all Saints, but St. Dominic de Guzman himself. Still, I was a bit daunted when I was told my topic would be revealed in a conference call the next week.
The day of the call arrived and three holy and learned sisters revealed to me the topic – “What is the Dominican heart?” My first impulse was to fire back a quip, “Dominican heart? I thought that the Dominicans are all about the mind?” (After all, their very motto is “Veritas!” or “Truth!”). One of the sisters did not miss a beat. “For the Dominicans,” she responded, “the way to the heart is through the mind!”
Veritas et Caritas
I had to admit Sister had me. After all, right across my Aquinas College coffee mug was emblazoned the motto “Veritas et Caritas,” truth and the love of charity! Okay, so Dominicans have heart, but “what is the Dominican heart?”
Here were three learned professors who had given me as my topic a test of sorts with only one question. If I were to give the wrong answer, that would be like getting a zero! So the student in me emerged and I decided to approach the question as a multiple guess, treating if from multiple angles, offering several answers in the hope that at least one might be right, or at least come close.
The sisters knew well that I had just written a book called Hounds of the Lord about great Dominican saints and blesseds in honor of their Order’s upcoming Jubilee of 800 years (indeed, one had written the Foreword!), so I figured I’d look at that book again to see if what I had written might contain some clues. “Control+F” revealed to me that I’d used “heart” and its variations a full 98 times, almost on every other page!
The Dominican Heart of St. Rose of Lima
Shortly after, I remembered a story of the life of St. Rose of Lima and the day she discerned her call to become a Dominican. Rose at age twenty felt the calling to a deeper commitment to Christ and desired to join a religious order. Archbishop (and later Saint) Turibius Mongrovejo suggested Rose join a convent of Poor Clares, newly founded by his niece. The Augustinian Convent of the Incarnation also actively sought Rose out, and she apparently decided to join them. When she went to the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary and knelt down in prayer to bid the Blessed Virgin farewell, she found herself unable to rise, even with the help of her brother. She decided to go back home instead of to the convent and found herself able to rise.
Rose saw this as a sign from heaven, and she soon received a second sign as clear as day in black and white. That day in her garden, amid a sea of flowers and multicolored butterflies, a black and white butterfly, (the colors of the Dominican habit), came and fluttered around her heart, leaving a mark on her dress in the shape of a heart. Rose believed in her mind and heart from that moment on that she was to follow in the footsteps of Saint Catherine of Siena and join the Third Order Dominicans. Rose joined them, donned the black and white habit, and lived as a daughter of St. Dominic the last eleven years of her life.
St. Rose had been given a Dominican heart. So I asked myself, what then was the Dominican heart that the butterfly had traced on St. Rose?
I decided to tackle the question with four main approaches: 1) to examine the nature of the actual physical human heart for some clues, 2) to examine the metaphorical meanings of the word heart, 3) to reflect on how the Dominican heart was shown to me throughout the education in my own childhood under the tutelage of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Il and through my interaction with Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of Saint Cecelia and the faculty and students of Aquinas College itself, and lastly, 4) to examine the meaning of the Dominican heart as revealed in the lives and writings of those hounds of the Lord themselves, some great Dominican saints and blesseds.
(In the remainder of this article, I’ll address points 1 and 2. Two follow-up articles will address points 3 and 4 respectively.)
Dominican Cardiology 101
1.) As for its structures, the human heart has four chambers, the left and right atria up on top that receive blood and the left and right ventricles below them that pump the blood out to the body and lungs. Well, the Dominican heart has four chambers too, but they have always called them “pillars,” namely, study, prayer, preaching, and community. Prayer and study are the atria that pull draw in God’s graces and preaching and community are the ventricles through which they pour out those graces to all of mankind and to each other. Preaching is that mighty left ventricle that pumps the life-giving blood to all of the body of Christ. Community, according to the Rule of St. Augustine that Dominicans follow, means to be gathered in one house in harmony and unity so that they may be of one mind and one heart in God.
The human heart muscle has two main functions: systole where the muscles of the chambers contract to pump out blood and diastole where the chambers dilate and suck in blood. We see these functions measured in blood pressure readings which are a fraction of the pressures of systole over diastole. I once encountered a man who claimed that his heart had not two but three functions early in my career of disability evaluation. He gave me the name and phone number of his doctor so I could call him to get information. When I called I asked the “doctor” if anyone had ever told him he sounded just like his patient, but he told me that nobody had. Well, I was pretty sure the man was impersonating his own doctor, so I thought I’d see how he responded to a ridiculous question. When asked if he’d taken the patient’s blood pressure, he said yes and gave me some numbers. I asked if that represented his systolic pressure over his diastolic pressure and he said that it did. I then asked him if he’d gotten around to measuring his patient’s “hyperstolic” blood pressure, (a word I had just made up). When he assured me that he did and gave me the number, I knew this guy was no doctor!
Yet I am about to aver that the Dominican heart does have not two but three main functions that reveal the Dominican heart, a motto of St. Dominic himself, not systole, diastole, and the fictional hyperstole, but “Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare!” (“To Praise, To Bless, To Preach!”) These are three key functions of the Dominican heart. That’s what the study, prayer, community, and preaching prepare them to go out and do.
2). Moving on from lessons drawn from anatomy and physiology, we know that to get at the heart of something means to get at its essence, its innermost meaning, its core. After all, the Latin word for heart is cor. Proverbs advises us to write God’s Commandments on the tablets of our hearts (Proverb 3:1-3). When we know something by heart, it has become a part of us, etched in our memories. Christ tells us we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, that is, with all that we are (Matt. 22:37). So, I think we can safely assume that whatever kind of thing a Dominican heart might be, it defines what it means to live as a Dominican.
Real-Live Dominicans Sharing Their Hearts
I’d also like to share a few anecdotes of my own experiences of the Dominican heart as a child going through a Dominican grade school, as an adult who considered himself an atheist for 25 years of his early adulthood, and later to his surprise, was drawn back to the Church because of another great Dominican mind (and yes a great heart too.)
As the Dominicans themselves are sometimes wont to say: “If you’ve met one Dominican, you’ve met one Dominican!” In our next article we’ll meet some unique and memorable Dominicans. We’ll see how they revealed their hearts to me and to my fellow students long away, but not so far away, in the still wavy wake of Vatican II all the way up today.