Over the summer I was living in St. Dominic Priory in Washington, DC, while doing hospital ministry across town. Since I could not stay around for the community Mass, I would catch one of the parish Masses early in the morning before heading off to visit the sick. On the first morning I sat down in some random spot on the left side of the sanctuary, a reasonable position to serve the Mass from if I needed to. Then I looked up and decided to scoot three feet to the right. I had found my spot, the place I would sit every weekday the rest of the summer.
St. Dominic Church has a massive crucifix that hangs high above the altar with sculptures of Mary and John grieving beneath the crucified Jesus. My initial seat was a bit behind the crucifix so that I could not see the corpus, so I moved for a better view and ended up parallel to the cross staring up at the feet and the pierced side of the crucified Lord. This was not simply a better view than looking at the back of the cross. This was a pretty fair replica of the view that St. Dominic would have in Fra Angelico’s depictions of him kneeling at the foot of the Cross, an image of our founder I have meditated on more than any other.
I found something quite moving about imitating the position of St. Dominic, even if it was only imitating this artistic depiction of him. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that a son of St. Dominic would be edified by imitating Our Holy Father, but there are aspects of Dominic’s habits of prayer that can seem strange.
I occasionally find myself repeating the somewhat simplistic comparison I learned early on in the Order that while the Franciscan ideal is to duplicate the life of Francis the Dominican ideal is to live the way of life Dominic founded in his Order. On the whole this is true, at least as it characterizes Dominicans, especially when you see that Dominic himself took on many practices and penances that he did not impose on his brothers and submitted himself to their judgment in certain aspects of organizing the Order. Still, even if the internal legislation of the Order leaves a great freedom to the friars in how they are to conduct private prayer, it behooves us to look at the particular way that St. Dominic prayed.
We know so little about the interior life of St. Dominic as so few of his personal writings survive. Everything we know about his prayer comes from the witness of his brethren who watched him pray. What that witness reveals is remarkable and edifying in such a holy man from a different age, even as it can sometimes appear unfamiliar. In the small treatise “The Nine Ways of Prayer,” the early biographies, and the canonization proceedings, St. Dominic’s prayer is described as being very physical. He practiced loud verbal cries, persistent whispering, profuse weeping, prostrations, and genuflections. Prayer was not always a matter of stillness and quiet for St. Dominic but an expression of his entire being, body and soul.
It is naïve to hope that simply imitating the externals of St. Dominic’s prayer will elevate us to the intimacy with God that they clearly manifested in him. Nevertheless, it is equally naïve to think that we cannot profit by learning to take seriously the physical aspect of our prayer, where we are, how we position our bodies, what we look at, what we might say, and how we might say it. There are libraries of beautiful reflections on various ways to prepare and order the mind for different situations and types of prayer. Is it so hard to imagine that we might noticeably change our position and posture to reflect the different ways that we come before God? Prayer is ultimately a gift of grace inspired by the Holy Spirit, but we should not be too quick to try and dictate exactly how that gift should manifest itself in the comportment of either our minds or our bodies. This truth was brought home to me in imitating an image of St. Dominic. I pray that I can learn to imitate the saint himself, first and foremost in his holiness, but perhaps in some of his habits of prayer as well.
Image: Crucifix at St. Dominic Parish in Washington, DC