A Guest Post for the Feast of Saint Dominic

By Father Dominic McManus OP.

There is an ancient tradition that Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, the fathers of the mendicant reform of religious life in the 13th century, met while at Cardinal Ugolino’s while awaiting approval for their respective Rules. There’s a lot of the history to be legitimately doubted: that we swapped belts, for instance, or changed Constitutions. Whatever did or didn’t happen in the Cardinal’s garden that day, however, a longstanding tradition was born. On the Feast of St. Dominic a Franciscan is invited to preach at the Dominican priory; likewise, on the Feast of Saint Francis, a Dominican is invited to the Franciscans. I am not a Franciscan, but in honor of the tradition I want to begin with cinematic anecdote of Holy Father Francis.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon has its critics, and rightly so. It’s a pretty pastel version of a very peculiar saint whose life more closely resembled an action adventure than a holy card. But even a campy movie can get some things right. Oddly enough, one of the things that Brother Sun, Sister Moon manages very well is vocation: why people come, why some leave, and why others stay.

My favorite scene opens up on the friars begging in the streets. Some people offer them food, others throw garbage their way, but most simply jeer and shout. Francis predictably breaks out in a spontaneous sermon which he closes with a song; a kind of litany to the joys of Lady Poverty and Sister Want. One of the brothers, however, hangs back. We find him peering in the window of a house at one of Assisi’s local lovelies, her blouse having come open as she kneads a loaf of bread. It’s unclear whether the brother is taken with this portrait of domesticity, or just the expanse of cleavage open to his view, but in any case he’s caught by one of the other brothers and brought to Francis, who gives a rather profound if not very technical exhortation on vocation. “We’re not all meant to be monks,” he tells the wayward friar. “If celibacy tempts you more than marriage, then leave, marry, and be happy for it!” Francis ruffles the brother’s hair and the one departing realizes a moment of prophesy: Francis had never tonsured him alongside the others. The scene closes with the friars taking up their joyful song again, this time to joys of Sister Chastity.

As silly as it sounds, there’s deep insight in this scene. Besides the obvious fact that not everyone is called to religious life, Francis’ exhortation is dead-on. If the observances of the life make it harder for you to be a good Christian, then you really ought to leave, and be happy for having figured it out. This is true whether the observances in question are fundamental to religious life as a whole, like poverty, chastity, or obedience, or if they’re more particular to the community in question, like whether they let you wax or bleach your mustache, or whether you occasionally can have a beer or an ice cream.

What I think is even more profound in the movie’s portrayal of vocation here, is more implicit than explicit. If one is bound to leave because the structures of the life militate against your own growth in virtue and holiness, then why would one ever enter to begin with? Here the film is precisely right: because it’s meant to make the Christian life easier. Religious life lived aright is nothing other than the Christian call to holiness, organized and institutionalized to serve the needs of particular people in a particular place and at a particular time.

I didn’t really understand this until long after I’d entered religious life. I started in a class of nine, of which I am now the sole survivor. Each time another brother would leave, we who remained would be faced with a two-headed monster. Why is he being called to leave? And more importantly (at least for me), why am I being called to stay? But as life has gone on and my classmates have discovered other vocations: to diocesan priesthood, to marriage and family life, to other religious communities, and to service as single men in the Church, they’ve all reported that the transition out of the life was not so different than the transition into it.

We were all drawn to Dominican life, under some description, because of what the Order these days calls the Four Pillars: prayer, common life, study, and ministry. But of course, long before we entered we were all men of prayer; if not the Divine Office, at least regular daily prayer, the rosary, Adoration, and obviously Mass. We all were part of various intentional communities, whether among our own families, or close-knit groups of friends, various confraternities, or the KCs, or even the Boy Scouts. We were all men of study, especially concerning the Faith, otherwise we wouldn’t have been drawn to the Dominicans to start. And we were all men of action, who at the very least volunteered, if not actually worked, in some ministry or apostolate. And as my brothers have moved on with their lives they have remained men of prayer, of study, of common life, and of ministry. And we in the Order would expect nothing less.

Saint Dominic, whose feast we celebrate, would have a special care for the women of Leonie’s Longing. First of all, he was a failed vocation, at least in the sense that he started as a priest in one place under one bishop and felt dissatisfied. The life of a canon regular ceased be an aid to his salvation and became a liability. And since there was yet no way of life in the Church designed for the work which did give him life, he had to invent it. And together, wittingly or not, Saint Dominic and Saint Francis changed the way the Church thinks about religious life altogether.

One feature of this new way of life that Saint Dominic proposed that I imagine can be of good use here at Leonie’s Longing, is the principle of dispensation. This doesn’t mean that Saint Dominic let the brethren get away with murder; far from it, he was kind of a hard-ass, but he deliberately crafted our Rule and Constitutions such that they would not bind under pain of sin. Why? First, because he wanted all of the brothers and sisters of the Order, both superiors and subjects, to keep the end in mind all of the time. He didn’t want me, as a priest, to have to scroup over Confessions going past time and me missing Vespers, though he would expect me to make it up later. Why? Because the reason for Vespers is for the sake of the penitent in the confessional! But there was a deeper, more profound meaning to Saint Dominic’s take on the law. He wanted the observances and discipline of the life to be undertaken freely, so that they could best dispose the spirit of the individual to the graces necessary, not only for their own salvation, but for the salvation of all souls.

Dominic spent ten years in southern France trying to get the Order started, with nothing but a handful of nuns and his own brother for company. How often during that decade of waiting do you think he thought himself a failure? If he was anything like me, it’d be six times before breakfast. And yet God turned that work into a tradition now 800 years old! You might feel like a failure today, and maybe your transition out of the life was due to something you did, or something they did, or more likely, a bunch of things both of you did. What matters now is how God is going to turn this seeming failure into a success, how He longs to make a saint out of the sinner you see in the mirror.

So when you’re tempted to dream about what once was, or to return internally to long-dashed hopes, or to groan in frustration because the baby’s cry won’t let you whisper Compline to yourself, think on Dominic and Francis. And think not so much on the life they lived as on the motivations, the desires, and the intentionality with which they lived it. Don’t dwell on why you left, but give thanks for why you came. And be happy, as Francis exhorts the brother with the unshorn head, that you’ve learned something new about the God who loves you, and about how He longs to bring you home.

Father Dominic McManus is currently Adjunct Instructor of Liturgical and Sacramental Theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in Missouri. His major areas of interest are liturgical theology, especially cross-ritual studies, and preaching, and he recently published the book, The Mission of LOVE – A Sacramental Journey to Marital Success.

October 4th: Saint Francis of Assisi

 From The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by Paul Sabbatier, published 1919.

Among the numerous chapels in the suburbs of Assisi there was one which Francis particularly loved, that of St. Damian. It was reached by a few minutes’ walk over a stony path, almost trackless, under olive trees, amid odors of lavender and rosemary. Standing on the top of a hillock, the entire plain is visible from it, through a curtain of cypresses and pines which seem to be trying to hide the humble hermitage and set up an ideal barrier between it and the world.

Served by a poor priest who had scarcely the wherewithal for necessary food, the sanctuary was falling into ruin. There was nothing in the interior but a simple altar of masonry, and by way of reredos one of those byzantine crucifixes still so numerous in Italy, where through the work of the artists of the time has come down to us something of the terrors which agitated the twelfth century. In general the Crucified One, frightfully lacerated, with bleeding wounds, appears to seek to inspire only grief and compunction; that of St. Damian, on the contrary, has an expression of inexpressible calm and gentleness; instead of closing the eyelids in eternal surrender to the weight of suffering, it looks down in self-forgetfulness, and its pure, clear gaze says, not “I suffer,” but, “Come unto me.”

One day Francis was praying before the poor altar: “Great and glorious God, and thou, Lord Jesus, I pray ye, shed abroad your light in the darkness of my mind…. Be found of me, Lord, so that in all things I may act only in accordance with thy holy will.”

Thus he prayed in his heart, and behold, little by little it seemed to him that his gaze could not detach itself from that
of Jesus; he felt something marvellous taking place in and around him. The sacred victim took on life, and in the outward silence he was aware of a voice which softly stole into the very depths of his heart, speaking to him an ineffable language. Jesus accepted his oblation. Jesus desired his labor, his life, all his being, and the heart of the poor solitary was already bathed in light and strength.

This vision marks the final triumph of Francis. His union with Christ is consummated; from this time he can exclaim with the mystics of every age, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.”

But instead of giving himself up to transports of contemplation he at once asks himself how he may repay to Jesus love for love, in what action he shall employ this life which he has just offered to him. He had not long to seek. We have seen that the chapel where his spiritual espousals had just been celebrated was threatened with ruin. He believed that to repair it was the work assigned to him.

From that day the remembrance of the Crucified One, the thought of the love which had triumphed in immolating itself, became the very centre of his religious life and as it were the soul of his soul. For the first time, no doubt, Francis had been brought into direct, personal, intimate contact with Jesus Christ; from belief he had passed to faith, to that living faith which a distinguished thinker has so well defined: “To believe is to look; it is a serious, attentive, and prolonged look; a look more simple than that of observation, a look which looks, and nothing more; artless, infantine, it has all the soul in it, it is a look of the soul and not the mind, a look which does not seek to analyze its object, but which receives it as a whole into the soul through the eyes.”

Lord God, You made Saint Francis of Assisi Christ-like in his poverty and humility.

Help us so to walk in his ways that, with joy and love,

we may follow Christ Your Son, and be united to You.

We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ.


The Feast of Saint Clare of Assisi

From The Rule of Saint Clare, Chapter VI:


After the most high heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart to do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed Father, Saint Francis, I, together with my sisters, willingly promised him obedience shortly after his own conversion.

When the blessed Father saw we had no fear of poverty, hard work, trial, shame, or contempt of the world, but, instead, regarded such things as great delights, moved by compassion he wrote a form of life for us as follows:

“Because by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the Most High King, the heavenly Father and have espoused yourselves to the Holy Spirit, choosing to live a life according to the perfection of the holy Gospel, I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers to always have that same loving care and solicitude for you as I have for them.”

As long as he lived he diligently fulfilled this and wished that it always be fulfilled by his brothers.

Shortly before his death he once more wrote his last will for us that we or those, as well, who would come after us would never turn aside from the holy poverty we had embraced. He said:

“I , little brother Francis, wish to follow the life and poverty of our most high Lord Jesus Christ and of His Holy Mother and to persevere in this until the end; and I ask and counsel you , my ladies, to live always in this most holy life and poverty. And keep most careful watch that you never depart from this by reason of the teaching or advice of anyone.”


Saint Clare, pray for us!