A Perfect Storm: St. Dominic

by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem.


“A stormwind came from the North, a huge cloud with flashing fire enveloped in brightness … [and] from the midst of the fire, something gleamed like electrum.”

This is how Ezekiel’s prophecy begins. He is that unbelievably vivid prophet from just before the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. He gives us his gorgeous depiction of his encounter with God, with the four living creatures, with the cherubim, and he’s one of those prophets who even acted out in his own life the things he prophesied, a sort of Old Testament “holy fool.” But what’s striking about the beginning of his prophecy is that it comes out of the most ordinary of things—a specific storm on a very ordinary day. He even tells us exactly which day it was (“the fifth day of the fourth month of the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile”); there he is, a storm blows in, and all of a sudden he’s swept up by the presence of God.

“Heaven and earth are filled with your glory,” we pray in the psalm. The prophets have a particularly keen ability to penetrate the ordinariness of everyday life and to witness the presence of God breaking through. But God’s presence is always and everywhere penetrating your life and mine too, my friends, in the ordinariness of our lives, even if God isn’t choosing us specifically to be His prophets in the same way that He chose Ezekiel. In other words, today, this very day, heaven and earth, your life and mine, are filled with God’s presence and His glory, His providential designs, His fathomless love, and His grace. Right now He is moving us and speaking to us, directing us toward the end He has in view for us. Right now, even if there is a storm brewing on some horizon, God is busy about His lovely work of making us into the saints He so wants us to be.

And there are storms brewing! The world is a mess, our political climate is a disaster, our holy religion is assailed on all sides, and I’m sure you could enumerate a long list of storms. It’s almost like we’re there with the prophet Ezekiel by the river Chebar while that firestorm is blowing in from the North. If you’re anything like I am, when you look around and consider the threatening storms, you might wonder, “How on earth are we ever going to get out of this alive?”

Well, the great St. Dominic teaches us how to face the storm. He says that the best way to do it is with genuine humility and a life of devout prayer. Genuine humility and devout prayer—it’s a pretty simple recipe, but for St. Dominic, humility and prayer put us into alignment with God’s holy will and set us on a path to greater holiness in the midst of the storm. When he became aware of the storm of heresy assailing the South of France—the widespread and pernicious errors of the Albigensenians—he discovered that God was calling to him too in the midst of that disaster. He writes, “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 go barefooted to combat Goliath.”

So that’s what he did. He took what was best from our own primitive Premonstratensian Order, our monastic discipline and our early statutes, that is, genuine humility and a life of devout prayer, and he allowed these to serve as the bedrock upon which he built his own new foundation of Friars Preachers, to push back that Albigensian storm.

What storm is looming on your horizon? Maybe you face the challenges of preparing for another academic year; maybe you are steeling yourself for a few weeks of the hard manual labor of general cleaning; perhaps the prospect of packing up and moving away to Toronto or to Rome (or to San Pedro, or to Santa Paula) makes you uneasy or afraid. St. Dominic would encourage you and me to fortify ourselves against the storm with genuine humility and a life of devout prayer. Then he would have us cling to our rosary and look to our Lady, because in the midst of that storm we just might, like the prophet Ezekiel, hear the voice of the Lord and see angels, and even the Queen of the Angels, glorious there on high. From that place, so glorious and so filled with God’s presence, they are calling to us and assisting us here in the midst of our own very ordinary storms. They just cannot wait for us to join them there on high, where the clouds will break, that new eternal day will dawn, and together we will forever praise the name of the Lord, for His majesty is above heaven and earth.

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At the beginning of today’s Gospel, Jesus says to the twelve: “Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” After signaling to John who it is, but not hearing the answer, Peter hears Jesus say to him: “Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.” One imagines that Peter understood Jesus to be answering John’s question by identifying him as the soon-to-be traitor.

5th Week of Lent

5th Week of Lent

Today, on this Passion Sunday, we are nourished by the dramatic scene of the recapitulation of all things in Christ Jesus made manifest by the dialogue of Christ with an adulterous woman. Here, an adulterous woman’s secretive life moves from hidden to revealed, from revealed to acknowledged, from acknowledged to forgiven, from forgiven to infectious.

The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses.  It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”

Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import.  In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid.  Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.  

But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man.  Man has to leave one place to go to another.  God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one.  The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one.  And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.

The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son.  Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is.  Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home.  Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.

The reaction of son and father are perfect.  The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his.  He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.

When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love.  We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism.  The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation.  Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel.  “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.”  In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.

This is the happiness of our eternal Father.  His food is our salvation.  His joy is our redemption from sin.  As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.”  This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints.  And it is for us every time we go to confession.

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