St. Dominic, historically speaking, is an interesting figure. Or, rather, the lack of history surrounding him is interesting. Unlike many religious orders which seek to emulate their founder, the Dominicans are less interested in becoming an alter Dominicus. He was born, gave us the Order of Preachers, poured his life out for the sake of others, and went on to his eternal reward. Nevertheless, we do know a few things. He was born in Castilian territory around 1171 (though possibly as late as 1173). Before his birth, his mother received a vision of a dog leaping from her womb with a torch in its mouth, setting the world on fire. This signified that St. Dominic would go out and set the world on fire with his preaching. He was brought up to be a priest – his education having been the responsibility of his uncle, an archpriest. He first founded a community of women (who had converted from being Cathars to Catholics and were thus distanced from their families) in Prouille in 1206, and finally the Order of Preachers in 1216. He was known to spend long nights in the chapel, weeping and asking God, “What will become of sinners?” He died on August 6th, 1221. His feast on the traditional calendar is August 4th and on the new calendar is today, the 8th. So this week is doubly blessed by St. Dominic’s presence.
My favorite story about St. Dominic comes from Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum (Book on the beginning of the Order of Preachers). Dominic had traveled to Fanjeaux, a town in France which was a known Cathar stronghold. Public disputations with the Cathars were common. Jordan writes:
24. One day a famous disputation was being held at Fanjeaux and a large number
of the faithful and unbelievers had gathered. Many of the former had written their
own books containing arguments and authorities in support of the faith. After
these books had been inspected, the one written by Blessed Dominic was
commended above the others and unanimously accepted. Accordingly, his book
and that produced by the heretics were presented to three judges chosen with the
assent of both sides, with the understanding that the side whose book was chosen
as the more reasonable defense should be regarded as having the superior faith.
25. After much wrangling, the judges came to no decision. Then they decided to
cast both books into a fire and, if either of them was not burned, it would be held
as containing the true faith. So they built a huge fire and cast the books therein.
The heretical book was immediately consumed by the fire, but the one written by
the man of God, Dominic, not only escaped burning, but, in the sight of all, leaped
far from the fire. For a second and a third time, it was cast into the fire, but each
time it leaped back and thereby openly testified to the truth of its doctrine and
the holiness of the person who had written it.