Monday, August 8, 2011

Let St. Dominic teach you how to pray a holy hour!

August 8th, Feast of St. Dominic
Nearly every Catholic – in fact, nearly every person in general – wants to know how to pray better. We know that prayer is all powerful, because it derives all its power from the omnipotent Godhead. Still, we may wonder, How do we pray well? And, more specifically, How do we pray a holy hour (or any serious length of mediation) well?
When it comes to such a serious question, one which results in nothing less than eternal life or eternal death, we must turn to true masters: The great saints of the Tradition! Among them all, St. Dominic stands out as a true master of the spiritual life – the spirituality of St. Dominic, together with that of St. Francis, carried the Church from the medieval period into the modern age. Today, his feast day, it is fitting that we should look to the saint of the Guzmán family, and learn from him the way of prayer.

The nine ways of prayer of our holy father Dominic
“The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic” were composed by a Bolognese author (around the year 1260). The work describes the ways of prayer of which St. Dominic himself made use. [see the complete text of The Nine Ways of Prayer, here]
“Holy teachers like Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, Hilary, Isidore, John Chrysostom, John Damascene, Bernard, and other saintly Greek and Latin doctors have discoursed on prayer at great length. […] In learned books, the glorious and venerable doctor, Brother Thomas Aquinas, and Albert, of the Order of Preachers, as well as William in his treatise on the virtues, have considered admirably and in a holy, devout, and beautiful manner that form of prayer in which the soul makes use of the members of the body to raise itself more devoutly to God. […] Saint Dominic often prayed in this way, and it is fitting that we say something of his method. [...]
“The following, then, are the special modes of prayer, besides those very devout and customary forms, which Saint Dominic used during the celebration of Mass and the praying of the psalmody. In choir or along the road, he was often seen lifted suddenly out of himself and raised up with God and the angels.
The first way: “Saint Dominic's first way of prayer was to humble himself before the altar as if Christ, signified by the altar, were truly and personally present and not in symbol alone.”
The second: “Saint Dominic used to pray by throwing himself outstretched upon the ground, lying on his face. He would feel great remorse in his heart and call to mind those words of the Gospel, saying sometimes in a voice loud enough to be heard: O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. [Luke 18:13]”
The third: “At the end of the prayer which has just been described, Saint Dominic would rise from the ground and give himself the discipline with an iron chain, saying, Thy discipline has corrected me unto the end [Psalm 17:36]. This is why the Order decreed, in memory of his example, that all the brethren should receive the discipline with wooden switches upon their shoulders as they were bowing down in worship and reciting the psalm Miserere  [Psalm 50] or De Profundis [Psalm 129] after Compline on ferial days.”
The fourth:After this, Saint Dominic would remain before the altar or in the chapter room with his gaze fixed on the Crucified One, looking upon Him with perfect attention. He genuflected frequently, again and again. He would continue sometimes from after Compline until midnight, now rising, now kneeling again, like the apostle Saint James, or the leper of the gospel who said on bended knee: Lord, if Thou wilt, thou canst make me clean [Matthew. 8:2].”
The fifth: “When he was in the convent, our holy father Dominic would sometimes remain before the altar, standing erect without supporting himself or leaning upon anything. Often his hands would be extended before his breast in the manner of an open book; he would stand with great reverence and devotion as if reading in the very presence of God. Deep in prayer, he appeared to be meditating upon the words of God, and he seemed to repeat them to himself in a sweet voice.”
The sixth: “Our holy father, Saint Dominic, was also seen to pray standing erect with his hands and arms outstretched forcefully in the form of a cross.”
The seventh: “While praying, he was often seen to reach towards heaven like an arrow which has been shot from a taut bow straight upwards into the sky. He would stand with hands outstretched above his head and joined together, or at times slightly separated as if about to receive something from heaven. One would believe that he was receiving an increase of grace and in this rapture of spirit was asking God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the Order he had founded.”
The eighth: “Our Father, Saint Dominic, had yet another manner of praying at once beautiful, devout, and pleasing, which he practiced after the canonical hours and the thanksgiving following meals. He was then zealous and filled with the spirit of devotion which he drew from the divine words which had been sung in the choir or refectory. Our father quickly withdrew to some solitary place, to his cell or elsewhere, and recollected himself in the presence of God. He would sit quietly, and after the sign of the cross, begin to read from a book opened before him. His spirit would then be sweetly aroused as if he heard Our Lord speaking, as we are told in the psalms: I will hear what the Lord God will speak to me. [Psalm 84:9]. As if disputing with a companion he would first appear somewhat impatient in his thought and words. At the next moment he would become a quiet listener, then again seem to discuss and contend. He seemed almost to laugh and weep at the same time, and then, attentively and submissively, would murmur to himself and strike his breast.”
It is good to note that St. Dominic never made use of these first eight forms of prayer in public - We think of G.K. Chesterton's words about St. Dominic's greatest son, St. Thomas Aquinas, "For he was, like a sensible man, a mystic in private and a philosopher in public."

The ninth way of prayer follows at the end of our little article.
What is particularly notable about all these ways of prayer is that the body is united to the soul in offering worship and adoration to the living God. This is one reason why many fail in prayer: They do not realize that the postures of the body are generally necessary for the disposing of the soul toward meditation. This is why Archbishop Fulton Sheen insisted that a holy hour be done kneeling, rather than seated.
How to make a holy hour with St. Dominic
If we wish to know how to make a profitable holy hour, we may well consider the teaching of St. Dominic (which he gave more in actions than in words). Specifically, we look to the first four ways of prayer which follow successively one upon the other to form a unified whole, such that they make up a single period of meditation which tends at the end toward infused contemplation.
In a holy hour we must first (as in, St. Dominic’s first way of prayer) humble ourselves as though Christ were truly present before us, even as the holy man St. Dominic humbled himself before the altar. This is the period of immediate preparation: To recognize the presence of God, not only in the world but especially in our soul through habitual grace. What a gift that the Holy One should dwell within us – the mystery should elicit an act of humility on the part of the creature, who has done nothing to deserve this intimate union with his Creator.
Then, in the second place (i.e. the second way of prayer), we ought to consider the infinite goodness of our God who has even come to dwell among us as a child – thus our father St. Dominic would recall the mystery of the Epiphany, “When those devout Magi entered the dwelling they found the child with Mary, his mother, and falling down they worshipped him.” Humility and adoration must be the immediate preparatory acts for a holy hour or period of mediation.
Thirdly (we refer to the third way of St. Dominic), the soul offers acts of love to the Almighty in restitution for all the offenses the Majesty receives from ungrateful men. St. Dominic would employ the discipline (beating his back with an iron chain), we may well recall that an act of love does more to console the Heart of Jesus than any amount of blood. Still, little acts of mortification will serve to declare the infinite glory of our Savior, to discipline our sensible passions, and to direct the heart and mind to the things which are to come. But, above all put on love! It is love for which the Sacred Heart of Jesus so longs, and love alone will appease Him!
As faith must give place to sight, so too mediation must lead to contemplation – and hence we proceed to the fourth movement of prayer (i.e. St. Dominic’s fourth way): The simple and loving gaze of the beloved soul upon her Lover. As our father Dominic would “gaze upon the Crucified One”, he was often rapt in ecstasy. The simple gaze of love, beyond discursive reasoning, is the highest form of prayer – but it is only gained after the long period of purgation in the first three ways.
It is in this fourth way that St. Dominic would offer prayers also for his brethren – teaching us that the union of love is meant to fill the soul with such confidence and trust in her Lover that she may ask for all that is good. Genuflecting before the greatness of our God, St. Dominic would then rise to implore the divine blessings and genuflect again trusting in our Savior’s mercy: “Thus there was formed in our holy father, Saint Dominic, a great confidence in God's mercy towards himself, all sinners, and for the perseverance of the younger brethren whom he sent forth to preach to souls.”
Thus, we see the four movements of every holy hour: adoration and humility, consideration of the mysteries of salvation, acts of love, contemplation and petition.
How to converse continually and familiarly with God
Lest any should think that the period of daily meditation were alone sufficient to the Christian soul (as though continual union with God throughout the day were not necessary), our holy father St. Dominic taught us the ninth way of prayer:
“Our Father, Saint Dominic, observed this mode of prayer while traveling from one country to another, especially when he passed through some deserted region. He then delighted in giving himself completely to meditation, disposing for contemplation, and he would say to his companion on the journey: It is written in Osee I will lead her (my spouse) into the wilderness and I will speak to her ear [Osee 2:14]. Parting from his companion, he would go on ahead or, more frequently, follow at some distance. Thus withdrawn, he would walk and pray; in his meditation he was inflamed and the fire of charity was enkindled. While he prayed it appeared as if he were brushing dust or bothersome flies from his face when he repeatedly fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross.
“The brethren thought that it was while praying in this way that the saint obtained his extensive penetration of Sacred Scripture and profound understanding of the divine words, the power to preach so fervently and courageously, and that intimate acquaintance with the Holy Spirit by which he came to know the hidden things of God.”

Why waste our time listening to music while driving in the car? Rather, we ought to reach for our Rosary and use it well - recalling that God gifted St. Dominic with great insights during his travels.

St. Dominic, Pray for us!


jeremyschwager said...

It is easy to forget how important bodily posture is in prayer. especially in the USA, where comfort and convenience are seen as superceceding almost every other right.

Petrus Augustinus said...


What do you mean by the last paragraph? We should do the Rosary while driving our car? That sounds kinda dangerous.. :)

Jeanne G. said...

Father, do you have any advice about mortifications for those of us who are not called to the "discipline?"
Thank you,
Jeanne G.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

My favorite mortification to recommend comes from St. Josemaria Escriva: "The heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and... up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body. If, with God's help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day."

In other words, to get out of bed immediately, to make a spiritual act (as the first thought of the day, e.g. "Jesus I love you!"). To this I generally kneel down and add three Hail Mary's (following St. Alphonsus).

Of course, fasting from some food or drink is also good - especially to fast from meat on all Fridays.

Hope this helps! +

Jeanne G. said...

Thank you for your quick response.

I feel like you know me, because my snooze button is my best friend. I am a postulant to the Lay Fraternity of St. Dominic and I remember in formation that we read a quote from St. Vincent Ferrer "[rise promptly]…as if the bed were on fire, and kneel and offer to God a few prayers to rekindle…devotion." I thought at the time "What a great idea..." but I haven't really followed through. I guess this is my next task.

I already fast from meat on Fridays (except some solemnities), and I find this does not seem like a sacrifice anymore after two and a half years of doing it... it is just a habit. I think I need to remind myself why I do it.

Thank you again, and God bless you!

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to St. Dominic, if anyone did those things in public today, they would be committed to a psychiatric hospital for observation and analysis. Then they would be subjected to endless and silly "counselling sessions" directed by people who needed help more than they did.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I should have been more clear - St. Dominic did not use these forms of prayer (the first 8 at least) in public.
We know about them because some of the monks peeked in at the Saint (something like through a window of the church or through the key hole of the sacristy) - thus, Dominic thought he was alone.

When in public his prayer was more subdued, as is proper.

Peace and blessings! +

Angela said...

Thank you so much for this post, Fr. Ryan. What I am understanding from this is that the way of silence seems to be very powerful. I am at Adoration for an hour every Friday, and had wondered if praying from a prayer book before the Blessed Sacrament is more effective and proper than just "being there" with the Lord, and as you have pointed out about St. Dominic, just gazing at the Crucifix. I had done this last week because of an inner prodding to not use the prayer book. I just knelt before the Blessed Sacrament wordlessly for about fifteen minutes due to physical limitation, but continued on while seated, and I felt so filled with something when I left. I experienced something like a hint of indescribable joy. Since then, I had wondered if I should continue doing that, and this article seemed to have answered my question.
Also, thank you for answering my question in your previous post about St. John's virginity. I was enlightened by the information you gave.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Fr. This question is only tangentially related to your excellent post on St Dominic.

I went to Confession this AM and the Pastor did not use the approved form of absolution but instead just said, "I absolve you of your sins."

I assume that, although incorrect in Form, that the absolution was granted, right?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I am not Spartacus,
The proper words are: "I absolve you from your sins."
It sounds like this priest switched "from" for "of" (many many priests make this mistake) - it is a rather serious mistake on his part, but does not affect the validity of the sacrament.

So yes, although the priest fooled around (presumably intentionally) with the earlier part of the prayer and messed up (presumably unintentionally) even the essential words of the prayer, the absolution was still granted.
[because the essential meaning of the essential words was wholly and indisputably maintained]

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Very good!
We can say that, though it is certainly a gift from God, the forth way of prayer of St. Dominic (which is the way of infused contemplation) is meant to be in the norm ... the first three ways (i.e. meditation) prepare the soul to receive the gift of contemplation.
Peace and blessings! +

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear FR. Thank you. I always regularly go to Confession, especially before taking a plane trip, but because I went to a Parish where the Pastor has a reputation as orthodox, I did not arrive with a print-out of the right form of absolution and so I didn't have a chance to hand it to him and ask him to read it after he had changed the words.

As for my practice of going to Confession with a print-out of the words of absolution.."God the Father of mercies..." I have given that to at least four different Priests over the years and they not only read it to absolve my sins, they asked to keep it indicating to me that a lot of Priests were never taught what the proper form of absolution is.

Julia said...

"What is particularly notable about all these ways of prayer is that the body is united to the soul in offering worship and adoration to the living God. This is one reason why many fail in prayer: They do not realize that the postures of the body are generally necessary for the disposing of the soul toward meditation. This is why Archbishop Fulton Sheen insisted that a holy hour be done kneeling, rather than seated."

This is something I've wondered about. I have heard before that it's best to pray in a position that's comfortable for a long period (such as sitting), so that it doesn't serve as a distraction while you're praying. On the other hand, if kneeling begins to hurt or is uncomfortable, it seems like that can be offered up with your prayer for the glory of God.

I like to kneel in prayer, but if I am praying for a long period or it becomes uncomfortable, I sit instead (though I still conclude prayer on my knees). However, in the religious community I am entering, the hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament are made entirely kneeling on hard wooden kneelers (no padding) or on the stone floor. When I was visiting, I could begin prayer normally, but eventually the pain would become quite acute and it was really quite a struggle to make it through the hour. The older sisters seemed used to it, but for the younger ones it was obviously still difficult -- they would struggle and stagger in standing up again afterward (as would I!).

I don't think either is wrong, but I find the difference interesting. Do you have any thoughts on this? If prayer becomes little more than patient endurance of the discomfort of kneeling, offered up for the love of Christ, is that just as good and grace-filled as "normal" prayer?

Thank you, Father!

Larry said...

Why is there such a seeming hostility, or even incredulity, towards 'the discipline' today? It was once a very standard practice among faithful Catholics, especially those especially drawn to our Lord.

If one cannot fast well due to a health condition, but already abstains from meat on Friday and does a number of other acts of self-denial daily, and yet feels called to do still more - what other forms of mortification do you recommend?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Certainly the discipline remains a very important part of our Catholic spiritual practices. It is very much "in the norm" ... but that does not mean that most people should use it most of the time.
Probably best to run the idea by a confessor or spiritual director before using the discipline.

A few other forms of mortification:
1) Rising first thing in the morning (the heroic minute of Escriva)
2) Using cold water for a defined period of time in the shower
3) Abstaining from alcohol on specific days.

There are, beyond these, many many others.

N.B. I don't necessarily discredit the idea of a "moral fast" (e.g. "fasting" from gossip), but I do emphasize that fasting is principally about food and drink (and, in a secondary sense, can include other forms of physical abstinence).

Hope that helps! +

Larry said...

I wish I could fast more, but my heart arrythmia can't take it! Thanks for the advice - alas, I gave up alcohol, and drugs, and other bad things, some years back, thanks to the God's Grace! I may try the cold shower.

I pray that I may find a spiritual director soon. I've been begging one of our FSSP priests to carve out some time for me!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I see that I missed your earlier comment, apologies!

My main bit of advice would be to follow the direction of the older sisters and (especially) of the novice mistress.
You are very right that the disciplining of the body will be difficult at first - and may even be a distraction - but we must remember that we cannot fly before we learn to walk.

It is one of the most common pitfalls in the spiritual life that beginners try to attain to contemplation before they have learned the more basic forms of prayer and gained fortitude of both body and soul (which is especially won through discipline).

As far as whether the prayer will be as good and grace-filled ... obedience will gain you more graces now and glory in heaven than you can possibly imagine, take comfort in this!

Blessings to you, especially as you enter religious life -- it is the greatest of most blessed vocation! +

Marco da Vinha said...

Dear Fr.,

Everytime I hear of St. Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer, I am reminded of a book I read some time ago - Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer Accroding to the Patristic Tradition, by Gabriel Bunge.
All these "methods" are mentioned there, as well as their origin. Apparently these physical aspect of private prayer is still somewhat alive in the Eastern Churches.
And yes, the Fathers stressed that such methods were for PRIVATE prayer only.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for drawing my eyes toward this, Father. I wouldn't have minded if you couldn't get to it. Please don't feel the need to answer if you are busy or tired or simply disinclined.

"As far as whether the prayer will be as good and grace-filled ... obedience will gain you more graces now and glory in heaven than you can possibly imagine, take comfort in this!"

I'm sure I knew that this is the case, but there is something very reassuring and comforting in being told so. Thank you very, very much.


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