A new biography of Dominican saints has recently been published, Dr. Kevin Vost’s Hounds of the Lord (Sophia Institute Press, 2015)—the title based on an early Latin nickname for the Order, Domini canes, dogs of the Lord. Though educated by Dominicans as a young boy, the idea for his present book came from a bookmark, given him by the Nashville Dominican sisters, announcing the Order’s 800th Jubilee. The fruit of his labor is both fun and intelligent, accessible and informative, full of quaint stories and Thomistic theology woven together.
To begin at the beginning, we can defy cliché warnings and “read the book by its cover.” That’s because it’s a great cover. The image, called “The Genealogical Tree of St. Dominic” (pictured above and, in its entirety, below), is an oil painting on wood, and dates from 1675. It is the work of J. Rolbels and now adorns the Swiss monastery of Dominican sisters at Estavayer-le-Lac.
Here is the first lesson of the book (and painting): saints are made saints together. Not only do their examples inspire us today, but they inspired each other while still living. Many of these Dominicans knew each other personally, all part of one intertwining family tree. Take one branch of the tree, for instance, the early Dominicans:
- Jordan of Saxony, the successor to Dominic, went to confession to him in Paris and asked advice on his vocation
- Before Jordan died in a shipwreck in Syria, he attracted Albert the Great to the Order by interpreting in his homily the student’s fearful, undisclosed vocation dream of the previous night
- Sent to teach in Cologne, Albert became the teacher of Thomas Aquinas, who later taught in Paris alongside the young Dominican Peter of Tarentaise, who became Pope Innocent V
All Dominicans, all on the same tree.
Vost’s biography shows how Dominic’s greatness is not personal achievement. The saint, who died young, was a saint with “faith in the future.” He is like the trunk or rootstock of the family tree, whose own holy desires blossom in the lives of his sons and daughters:
- As Dominic dreamed of preaching missions to the pagan east, Hyacinth, whom he received into the Order in Rome, would return to Poland and travel 25,000 miles on foot as a missionary
- As Dominic had sent brothers to the universities of Europe, Thomas Aquinas would not only learn the doctrine of the Church, but deepen it for the Church
- As Dominic remained in Rome, laying the foundation of the Order with papal negotiations, Catherine, a girl in her 20s, would march her way to Avignon and persuade the pope to come back home
- And though we have no records of Dominic’s own preaching, his style and genius (shared by all early Dominicans) is preserved in a long treatise by Humbert of Romans. Vost summarizes this work, listing the many spiritual and practical elements of preaching, and even includes charts of scriptural images that Humbert used to describe preachers as eagles, horses, angels, snow, mountains, and even “a powerful soap”
After the early years, the charism of Dominic and the theology of Thomas grew into a great tree that has spanned hundreds of years and across many seas to the New World. Rose of Lima and Martin de Porres were contemporaries in Lima, Peru (they were even confirmed by the same bishop). Even there Dominican preaching was well known, and as children, each saint learned the teachings of Catherine of Siena, who herself learned Thomas’s theology and dressed it in her own passionate language. The biography ends with Pier Giorgio Frassati, an athlete and a student, who died with a copy of Catherine’s Dialogues at his bedside table.
Finally, if theology or history aren’t your keenest interest, there are plenty of colorful stories to keep you turning the pages, including but not limited to:
- Which Dominican originally wrote the lyrics for “Day by Day” in the musical Godspell
- Which Dominican had 24 brothers and sisters, yet still managed to have her own room
- Which Dominican became pope and saved all of Europe from a Muslim invasion
- Which friar became famous for a wooden spoon he once gave a convent of nuns
- How one sister joined the Franciscans—until the Virgin Mary appeared, her arms full of stones, telling her to build a Dominican convent instead
- How a certain girl chose the Dominicans after being visited by a black-and-white butterfly
- How one friar escaped pressure to become a bishop so that he could remain an angelic painter
- How one friar accepted the office of bishop but never took off his hiking boots
- Which famous American author had a daughter who joined the Order after a failed marriage
- Which friar started a hospital for dogs and would bi-locate to attend med school in Europe
So if you’ve heard the name St. Dominic but don’t know much about him or his family, check out Kevin Vost’s biography. There you can begin to learn more of a history 800 years strong and still growing!
Image: J. Rolbels, The Genealogical Tree of St. Dominic
Thanks to the sisters, we can now identify the many saints depicted in this Dominican family tree. They graciously contacted the Dominican friars of Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, who located in their archives a Flemish engraving (by Théodore Gall, d. 1663) of the same painting and containing the names of all but one saint.