Devotion of Saint Dominic to the Blessed Virgin

detail of a painting of Saint Dominic de Guzman by Fra Angelico, 1437; Perugia Altarpiece; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe devotion of Saint Dominic and his companions to the Blessed Virgin is so well known throughout the entire Christian world, that, with a peculiar sense of fitness and appropriateness of title in which sentiments voiced by the people so often prevail, they have been called, not only Friars Preachers, but “Brothers of Mary.” What was the source of this pious distinction? The lessons of a religious mother, or that supernatural instinct so often observed in saintly hearts? Far more than either – it was a special grace, a gift reserved by Heaven for Saint Dominic in his capacity of founder of an Order – that he might better accomplish his great mission. And such is the subject on which I have the honor to address this noble audience, asking your indulgence for the imperfection of my words and the poverty of my thoughts.

The mission and the passion of Saint Dominic are revealed in the motto which is written on his standard – “Veritas.” This is why the liturgy proclaims him “Doctor of Truth,” Doctor veritatis; and one of the most frequent counsels of the Saint to his disciples is the following: “My friends, let Truth be dear to you above all things.”

Great mind, greater heart, he comprehended that the greatest charity is that of truth, and that the first of truths is that of the Word Incarnate, Redeemer, Saviour. To announce, above all to spread this truth, with the assistance of Mary, is the grand mission, the sublime apostolate which, on this occasion, it shall be ours to consider under a two-fold aspect – “The truth of Faith or the Sacred Scriptures, and the Truth of Christian piety.”

In the first place, there is nothing more attractive, and, at the same time more formidable, than this apostolate of Faith and Truth. The man chosen by God to engage in it, must meet as an adversary, upheld by his satellites, him to whom truth is a stranger, “in veritate non stetit.” To penetrate and confound this cunning and craftiness, it is not sufficient to bring to the faith a calm conscientiousness; it is necessary to have an exquisite intelligence, so to speak, a wonderful comprehension, which must assume towards dogmatic error, at once a deep penetration and a profound repulsion. Let us listen to what that great convert, Father Faber, has to say on this subject:

“In the judgment of worldings,” he says, “this repulsion for heresy is exaggeration, acrimony, indiscretion. It is called bigotry, intolerance, senselessness, immorality. Their soi-distant charity has a preference for those who are farthest from God, while, at the same time, they show themselves pitiless towards others. And, nevertheless, the integrity of faith constitutes one of the interests most dear to Jesus. Besides, a heart penetrated by sincere charity, suffers more than can be described when it hears the exposition of false doctrines. Every opinion which tends to make us forget Almighty God, to depreciate his grace, to diminish our regard for the Sacraments, to lessen the honor due his Holy Mother, to restrain the prerogatives of his Vicar here below, wounds the Hearts of Jesus even to the point of physical pain.”

This instinct, this animosity to error, Mary possesses to a degree almost divine, and the Church docs not exaggerate her power in this beautiful eulogy: “You alone; you have annihilated all the heresies of the world; cunetas haereses sola interemisti in universo mundo.”

If we consider her more especially in the mystery of her Immaculate Conception, the serenity of her brow, and the smile on her lips united to the strength with which her foot, firmly planted, she crushes the head of the serpent, and mark well, this attitude, does not represent two phases in the life of the same person. At the same moment, in the same attitude, she shows us the two extremes – Mary crowned, peaceful, smiling; Mary valiant, crushing the head of her enemy. What do I say? It is precisely because of this that she is peaceful and smiling, happy in becoming our liberator by the triumph of Truth: “Veritas liberabit vos.”

It is superfluous to relate here the revelation to Saint Dominic, in which he saw before him the monstrous errors of the Albigenses. At this spectacle his soul was filled with horror, dissolved in tears and sighs, yearning with the ardent desire of confounding those impious and calumnious dogmas, all the more from the fact that by their infernal logic these sectarians combated at the same time Jesus the Redeemer and Mary, His Mother.

We are assured that his book of doctrines submitted by him three times to the trial by fire, before the heretics, explicitly taught the immaculate purity of Mary. Three times the flames rejected it, uninjured – without even the least mark or stain.

This explains how the Blessed Jean de Vicence, beloved disciple of Saint Dominic, is represented in the ancient gallery of the Convent of Friars Preachers of Trevise (1352) holding in his hand a parchment, on which is inscribed in gold these words: “Sancta Maria sine labe.”

But, to banish the venomous serpents from the garden of the Church, is, for the apostle, but the negative portion of his task; it behooves him to pass to the opposite extreme, the positive, attractive, creative side; Evellas et destruas, aedifices et plantes; it is necessary to demonstrate luminous truth in a manner persuasive even to its adversaries, if they be not too obstinate to receive it, and even in this labor Dominic has the Blessed Virgin for his helper.

We can understand how, after having championed her purity, which is the glory of Heaven, he preached to the Christian people on her holy maternity, which gave salvation to the world, since the mystery of the Redemption could not have taken place without her. This was for Dominic a fundamental principle, one by which he was penetrated so profoundly that he never ceased commenting on the virtues, prerogatives and example of this Virgin Mother. It was for him an allsufficing theme; nothing from his lips was more efficacious in restoring piety and sanctity to all humanity, however humble it might be. The great Saint Augustine, whose rule he had adopted in his constitutions, had advocated this doctrine; he had presented it to the world under various forms, through the declarations of his spiritual son, Thomas Aquinas, as well as through the brush of Angelico de Fiesole, that brilliant, charming and immortal Friar painter.

To this end, ft is related, Dominic introduced the Ave Maria as the exordium of all his sermons, and in the Holy Tribunal he usually gave as a penance some practice in honor of Mary in order to produce in the soul contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Above all things, he was “a flaming and brilliant torch” given to the world by Mary, to dissipate the dense darkness of error and sin.

These characteristics of the mission of Saint Dominic appear in a charming environment when viewed with Rome as a background, in the Convent of Santa Sabina. The celebrated Master of Canon Law, Reginald d’Orleans, was on the ground, disposed to embrace the new Institute, when a violent fever seized and reduced him to the last extremity. But when all seemed lost, the Queen of Heaven appeared to him, and approaching his bedside, and anointing his feet, said to him:

“May this unction serve to thy feet as a preparation for preaching the Gospel of Peace.” Immediately afterward she gave him for all the sons of Saint Dominic a new kind of habit, the creation of the eternal love, and distinguished by the white scapular. We can easily understand that it was not only the simple Master Reginald who was here set apart, but each individual Friar Preacher, thus invested with the mark of his vocation. The prominence of the white scapular indicates not only the purity of life but also that of doctrine, which should shine particularly in the soul of a Friar Preacher. And, as it is not enough for an apostle to be the jealous guardian, the feet of Reginald, protagonist and avant courier of the grand company of Friars through the centuries, received, with the Virginal unction, a strength, a vigor, a promptitude, a wonderful intrepidity, in order to carry to the world the beautiful, pure and beneficent truth.

Another marvel of Santa Sabina further confirms this demonstration. Saint Hyacinthe d’Odrowatz received the white habit from the hands of the patriarch Saint Dominic himself, remaining thereafter but a short time within the sheltering arms of this venerated cloister. Almost as soon as he had been clothed in body and soul with the mantle of his Father, he went forth to evangelize the countries of the North, in spite of ice and snow, almost impassable rivers, and hordes of Tartars; and that with such perseverance that he four times made the tour of the then known world. What renders this fact more striking is that he crossed the Dnieper with dry feet, carrying in his arms the Holy Eucharist and the statue of Mary. This statute recalls the mystery of the Immaculate Conception in that it shows us Mary, Queen of the world, beneath her the serpent conquered by the cross, conformably to the words of the sacred liturgy: ex morte Filii tui praevisa eam ab omni labe praeservasti. The miraculous statue of which we speak is of alabaster, and is preserved in the Convent of Friars Preachers of Leopol in Galicia, where it is held in great veneration.

As eulogistic of Saint Dominic in his character of apostle of true piety, noble in its principles, simple in its developments, practical and salutary in its results, Rome offers to our consideration another of his sanctuaries, that of Saint Sixtus on the Appian Way, the history of which can be given in a few words.

At that time there were in the Transtevere a certain relaxed Order of Religious women distracted, impatient of the yoke, enemies of the cloister, slaves of family affection. The august authority of Pope Honorius the Third was not sufficient to restore them to fervor. At the request of the Pontiff, Dominic addressed himself to the work, and by the beauty of his discourses the influence of his kindness, and the menace of Divine judgments, he led these Religious to repentance and to renounce their follies. They consented to become his adopted daughters, to conform to his rule, and cloister themselves at Saint Sixtus.

Meanwhile they had one regret; they were parted from the miraculous image preserved in their church of Santa Maria of Transtevere – a few words descriptive of this painting may not here be amiss. La Vierge de Saint Sixte is one of those called Acheropite, that is to say, not painted by the hand of man.

Diverse chronicles have placed it among those claimed to have been painted by Saint Luke; Mabillon mentions seven venerated at Rome; a subsequent writer has enumeratd twelve. * * * The image of which we speak is painted on wood on a gold background; the features somewhat long, the complexion dark, the expression animated, the eyelashes almost black, the forehead rather broad, the nose straight and pointed, the lips like coral, the hands long, the whole picture noble and majestic. The tunic is blue, the mantle of red bordering on violet, with a hood drawn gracefully over the head. The Virgin does not hold the Infant Jesus in her arms, but beneath her shoulder, surrounded by a kind of framework of finely embroidered gold decorations, appear the Greek words: IC. XC. NIKA.; and a little farther over a silver star. The virgin holds the left hand extended on the breast; the right is raised as if in blessing.

To return to Saint Dominic, who, in reply to the expressions of regret for their beloved image made, by the Religious, said: “As to the picture not being your own, we will take it with us, and if, as we are assured has formerly happened, it will return itself to its own place, you shall be at liberty to return also.”

The transfer was made at midnight, in order not to antagonize the populace. Dominic went first carrying the Holy Image close to his heart; at his side walked two cardinals, his intimate friends, then the nuns two by two, all bare-footed. The picture was put in place and remained there – the foundation was complete; but, we mistake, not complete, only beginning. The moral work which the Friar Preachers had begun was yet to be finished, and Mary here again, in her own personality in the hearts of the Sisters, reproduced her own virtues in the souls already prepared for their reception by Saint Dominic. And it is but justice to say that the same applies to similar Institutions wherein male or female, under all difficulties, through all time, including our own, provided they have not allowed themselves to be seduced by liberal ideas, forgetting their one end and aim. Pausing before a retreat peopled by these saintly souls, the passer-by may perhaps inquire, “What do they do there ? What but boast of their humanitarian works, or at least of the new practices of piety which have their origin in their own imagination – high-sounding phrases invented to attract the crowd.” Without doubt they cherish all forms of virtue, but, as far as themselves are concerned, in their humility and gratitude they never cease to cry out, funes cenderunt mihi in prceclaris. Their mission is to elevate, to adorn, to fill with incense and harmony, sometimes joyous, sometimes plaintive, the temple of true piety, with Mary as the central figure, the object of their daily praise. Thus may they say in all truth: “I live no longer, but Mary lives in me.”

In effect, the Blessed Virgin lives in them through the unity and diversity of the mysteries. In them lives Mary Immaculate by the virginity, which, from their tenderest years they have cherished, cultivated, preserved, embellished. Mary lives in them, as the seat of wisdom, by their application to the study of the grand masters of asceticism and by their avidity in listening to the Divine Word, whether from without or from within, seated at the feet of their Virginal Mistress, whose silence ever is a sermon and a lesson. Mary lives in them through Calvary, whereby beings innocent and pure as they are, do penance unceasingly for poor sinners; suffering in their hearts ineffable torments, and identifying themselves with our Blessed Mother and her sorrows. In them Mary lives through the Cenacle, by their fidelity in mediating upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit, making them to dwell in hearts desirous of perfection, making these gifts to pervade every practice of their daily lives, whose excellence is a species of silent heroism, causing these chosen souls to diffuse even through the outside world celestial perfumes and ineffable benedictions. In a word, they are faithful mirrors, living continuations cf the life of Mary, of the goodness of Mary, of the truth of Mary, cf the beauty of Mary, ever ancient and ever new. Now, then, ye passers-by, of whatever kind; simply curious, philosophers, economists, statisticians, law-makers, you who demand to know the why and wherefore of such retreats, such dwellings, now that you know it, may you be able to understand it et nunc, reges intelligite. Princes and rulers of this world, be also wise; leave to those who dwell within these sanctuaries, if not temporal favors, at least, peace. Give them, ye rich men, earthly bread to eat, and ye, O priests, the supersubstantial and heavenly bread of doctrine; for well you know that their piety is beneficial for all, as it has the promise of this life and the life of the future. Here, on earth, indeed, they are a defense against the anger of the most High. And there, above, perhaps it may be revealed, to their great atonement and no less great joy, that the nineteenth century, which seemed to work them so much ill, as well as the twentieth, which is still more doubtful, will count among the most glorious in the Church, thanks to the silent reparations and interior elevation of these predestined souls.

Furthermore, to whom do they owe it? To you, to you, O Virgin Immaculate; you, who, in deigning to crown their virtues and their deeds will have crowned but your own gifts.

– text taken from the article in Dominica magazine, April 1905, being a sermon by Father Hyacinthe-Marie Cornier, O.P. delivered before the Marian Congress at Rome, Italy in December 1901, translated by Mary E Mannix