"The heretics are to be converted by an example of humility and other virtues far more readily than by any external display or verbal battles. So let us arm ourselves with devout prayers and set off showing signs of genuine humility and barefooted to combat Goliath."
It was just a stopover, really. Just a place to spend the night on his way from Spain to Denmark. But Dominic was already becoming known for his friendliness, and he struck up a conversation with the innkeeper. As it turned out, his host was an Albigensian who believed that two supreme beings, Good and Evil, dominate spirit and matter respectively. Whatever concerned the body, be it eating, possessing worldly goods, or even marriage, is essentially evil, the innkeeper told Dominic.
The young prior was amazed at the age-old heresy and spent the night discussing the man's beliefs with him. By daylight the innkeeper was ready to return to orthodoxy. And Dominic had a new mission: the conversion of the Albigensians.
Filling the needy
Dominic, Domingo de Guzman in his native tongue, was from a noble family in Castile, Spain. At 14, as was typical for those who did so, he was sent to the University of Palencia, where he studied arts and theology. He was an excellent scholar, and his books—carefully annotated in his own hand—were his only prized possessions. If there was something he loved more than scholarship, however, it was caring for the needy. He once sold his books to help war refugees.
"I could not bear to prize dead skins when living skins were in starving and want," he said.
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In his mid-twenties, Dominic was ordained a priest and served as a canon (a kind of traveling priest for parishes without one) for nine years. In 1199 he was elected subprior of his chapter, then succeeded the prior, Diego d'Azevedo, when he became bishop.
It was on a trip with Diego, to arrange a marriage of the prince of Castile to a Danish noblewoman, that Dominic met the Albigensians of southern France. Though the Albigensians thought of Christ as an angel in a phantom body and believed his redemptive work was only in his teaching true doctrine, they had a profound knowledge of the New Testament and the prophetic parts of the Old Testament. But because they believed everything corporeal was evil, they could be tremendously austere. So Dominic was shocked to meet some papal legates whose job it was to evangelize the Albigensians by trying to impress them with horses, regalia, fancy robes and costumes, great food, and plush living quarters. If you're trying to reach the austere, Dominic reasoned, you have to use other means.
"The heretics are to be converted by an example of humility and other virtues far more readily than by any external display or verbal battles," he said. "So let us arm ourselves with devout prayers and set off showing signs of genuine humility and barefooted to combat Goliath."
The priest from a noble family opted to live a life of poverty. He began by removing his shoes, preaching and traveling barefoot. He refused to sleep on a bed in favor of the ground, and one Lent he lived completely on bread and water; he even went so far as to whip himself. As one biographer noted, "They may have been done for show, but the hard floor was real, the emptiness in his stomach was real, the lashes he received were real."
Though the response was not overwhelming, Dominic did make many converts. In 1206 he opened the first Dominican convent, a hostel for women converted from the heresy.
Two years later, history took a bad turn. The papal legate in charge of the preaching mission to the Albigensians was killed by those he was ministering to. Pope Innocent III called for a seven-year crusade against the heretics. Though he did not ally himself against the church, Dominic regretted the crusade's bloodshed. "Logic and persuasion, not force," was the call he reiterated throughout his life.
At the end of the unsuccessful crusade, Dominic went to Rome, presenting a plan for an Order of Preachers to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. At first, this was not possible, as the council had prohibited the formation of any new religious orders. But Dominic got around that by choosing the Rule of Augustine for his order, and in 1216 the official sanction came from Honorius III.
On his trip to seek authorization, he reportedly received a personal tour of the Vatican's treasures by the pope. "Peter can no longer say, 'Silver and gold have I none,'" said Innocent III, referring to Acts 3:6.
Dominic, now wholly dedicated to his life of poverty, replied, "No, and neither can he say, 'Rise and walk.'"
Legacy of intellect
Dominic's group was popularly known as the Dominicans or the Blackfriars (from the color of their cloaks), but officially as the Order of Preachers. This was an important designation, for it meant that priests, not just bishops, could preach, and it indicated the group's primary function.
From its inception, the life of the mind has played a central role in its work. Two of its most famous members were Albertus Magnus (1200–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Upon returning to France, Dominic sent many followers to Paris, then the intellectual capital of the world. He sent others to Bologna, another university center, and he decided that each of his houses should form a school of theology.
With the sending out of his followers (others were sent to Spain and Rome), Dominic's chief work was done. Three times he was asked to become a bishop, but he steadfastly refused, believing he was called to other work. He spent his later years traveling barefoot through Europe, preaching and gaining converts. On one of these travels, he fell ill. He confessed his darkest sins (that, though he had always been chaste, he enjoyed talking with younger women more than older ones), and left his "inheritance" to his followers: "Have charity among you, hold to humility, possess voluntary poverty."
At age 51, Dominic died. A mere five years earlier, he had six followers. On his deathbed, he had thousands. But more important than the numbers, Dominic had created a new form of Christian life, with highly educated Christians whose job it was to preach the gospel.