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St Dominic’s prayer postures are a yoga dedicated to Christ

In a recently rediscovered text the founder of the Dominican order shows how we can unite body and soul in prayer, says Angelo Stagnaro

By on Thursday, 6 September 2012

St Dominic, depicted here by El Greco

St Dominic, depicted here by El Greco

Consider for a moment the breadth and scope of the mysteries of our religion. We believe that 2,000 years ago, a Jewish virgin gave birth to a long-awaited Messiah who suffered, died and was resurrected three days later. This God-man revealed Himself to be one Person of a Triune Being who created the universe for no other reason than because He is love itself. And before parting this mortal coil, He placed His complete authority in the least likely of His Apostles, thus founding God’s living Universal Church, which has lasted even to this day and is the largest single religion in human history. As He promised, this Church would survive even the Gates of Hell. This Church would then take as its headquarters the capital of a soon-to-become extinct empire that unsuccessfully used all of its resources to exterminate it.

Considering the magnificently odd and miraculous nature of our beliefs, it would seem that Christians would be almost inured to anything that would otherwise appear “unlikely”, such as the recent discovery of a manuscript attributed to St Dominic de Guzmán, the 12th-century Spanish founder of the Dominican order, in a German monastery basement. It seems the mystic dictated it to an Italian nun before he died. But the manuscript was almost immediately lost for eight centuries until a German friar, rummaging in the basement of his monastery, came across a curious document. He exclaimed “Gut Gott in Himmel!” when he realised he held in his hands, the only extant copy of a hitherto unknown document composed by St Dominic himself.

The provenance, loss and rediscovery of this manuscript make the grand mysteries of our Faith seem almost disappointingly blasé by comparison. Novelist Dan Brown has yet to write a more intriguing plot because truth is stranger than fiction.

The Nine Ways of Prayer of St Dominic was written sometime between 1260 and 1288 in Bologna, the city in which Dominic died. Sister Cecilia of the Monastery of St Agnes at Bologna, who personally knew Dominic and who received her vows, was the source of this biographical information. Contemporary Dominicans are the first and practically only Christians who are aware of the text since its recent re-discovery.

The book describes nine forms of prayer which mostly require a certain physical posture. Though, of course, these prayer forms can be used by any Christian, I suspect that men will be more attracted to them as they are physical in nature, lending themselves to a man’s inherent nature. The nine forms outlined by Dominic are:

1) Humbling oneself before the altar of God;
2) Lying prostrate upon the ground;
3) Concentrating upon the suffering of the world/one’s death;
4) Contemplating upon the crucifix and genuflecting;
5) Standing before God;
6) Standing in the cruciform position, contemplating Christ’s Passion and death/ praying the rosary;
7) Praying with hands held high in humble supplication;
8) Spiritual reading;
and 9) Meditation as preparation to contemplation.

Interestingly, though Dominic described nine forms of prayer, he only intimated a 10th, more perfect prayer – contemplation – though he never described it. Those spiritual warriors among us who have sought to meet God in prayer understand that contemplation is not only very difficult but can never be forced. It’s one of God’s pure gifts and can only be bestowed upon the humble of heart. Presuming upon God’s good graces is a clear path to failure in this regard.

The original manuscript of The Nine Ways of Prayer were illustrated with tiny drawings to illustrate the various postures St Dominic took while he prayed. The Codex Rossianus, a Spanish manuscript preserved in the Vatican Library, was painted in vivid colours and is still in excellent condition.

The Nine Ways of Prayer has often been printed as a supplement to Theodoric of Apoldia’s Life of St Dominic, though the two documents are clearly separate. The confusion was the fault of Conrad of Trebensee, Provincial of Germany. He first encountered The Nine Ways of Prayer during a general chapter of the community in 1288. He brought a copy of the treatise to Germany and gave it to Theodoric who was starting to work on Dominic’s hagiography.

The document is actually very short and is more historical and hagiographic than a how-to text. Throughout it, the reader comes to appreciate how the life of prayer absorbed Dominic and was his principal focus. It was this prayerfulness that energised him to accomplish all that he did in his life, including founding the Order of Preachers and converting a large percentage of the Albigensians back to the Faith.

St Dominic used these nine forms of prayer during the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and mostly in private prayer in chapel and when he travelled. He was often seen in ecstatic moments as he dedicated a great deal of time in prayer. This treatise explores how the soul is moved by the body and how the body responds back. To be specific, ecstatic prayer is not merely an experience for the soul. Rather, it affects both the soul and the body because the two are intimately connected. After all, Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and its ultimate reunification with the soul.

There are a great number of books currently on the market that foist pseudo-mysticism and a warped understanding of Christianity on hapless readers. There is a fundamental difference between manipulative magic and supplicative religion.

It might be tempting to refer to St Dominic’s nine prayer forms as a type of “Catholic yoga”, but this is both inaccurate and misleading. Yoga is a Hindu philosophy which involves exercises for attaining bodily and mental control and supposedly offers well-being to those who practise it. It is claimed that by practising these exercises one is able to suppress all activity of body, mind and will so that the self may realise its distinction from them and thus attain liberation. Some gurus suggest you can even attain “magic powers” by performing yoga. None, thus far, have been willing to demonstrate these powers under controlled conditions. To be frank, if all it took to become enlightened and to “see Jesus” was to hook my ankles behind my neck, I’d be in the position for the rest of my life. We should all be careful of people who insist that religious experience isn’t as unique and all-consuming spiritual experience it has been taught to be for the for past two millennia. In short, if you are looking for magic tricks, hire a party magician.

The goal of yoga and Zen is the annihilation of the ego so as to be freed of samsara, the perpetual cycle of reincarnation. This may seem like Christian contemplation but it isn’t. In contemplation, a Christian calls the Holy Spirit to empty him so that He may fill in that void. With this new identity, the Christian can then be a conduit and witness for God’s love in the world.

Why, instead, do athletes, both professional and amateur, often engage in flamboyant, narcissistic, immoral, violent, unhealthy and illegal behaviour? Many athletes are at the peak of physical perfection, including “yogic flexibility”, but none of that translated into an iota of common sense let alone morality or “enlightenment”. Further, Christians can point out hundreds of thousands of examples of physically ill and disabled individuals who have attained the highest degrees of sanctity. St Thomas Aquinas. St Ignatius Loyola, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St Bernadette Soubirous, St Teresa of Ávila, Blessed Herman the Cripple and St Lidwina of Schiedam. None of these people enjoyed physical health or yogic flexibility. In addition, most Christian martyrs, like the Saviour Himself, died horrible, painful deaths. Edith Stein and St Maximilian Kolbe were both tortured to death in Auschwitz. Christians from the first to the 21st century have experienced horrific tortures. Yoga’s expressed purpose is to make you “feel” good. Authentic Christian spirituality, on the other hand, may or may not make you feel good but it’s designed to make you a good person. Instead of insisting that yoga is “yet another means by which to attain sanctity”, it’s more logical to look for what all people who have attained sanctity had in common. Specifically, emptying oneself of one’s self-destructive ego and dedicating oneself to God. The sure signs of success in this endeavour is the personal joy one experiences in prayer and the growth in virtue as one dedicates oneself to helping those in need. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us: “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.”

Though St Dominic’s nine prayer forms involve physical movements and postures, they are meant to unite body, mind and soul, not separate them, as yoga teaches. In a way, one can say that St Dominic’s nine ways of prayer legitimises and sanctifies yoga by stripping it of its empty exotic pseudo-mysticism and, instead, dedicating it to Christ.

So though St Dominic’s 10 ways of prayer aren’t yoga in the Hinduistic sense, they are, however, a means to unite body, soul and mind for the sake of becoming united with God, shedding one’s ego and becoming a better person, thereby assisting God in bringing about His Kingdom into the world. Dominic’s 10 prayer forms are what yoga cannot be: a path to God.

Dominic died on August 6 1221, at the age of 51, at the convent of St Nicholas at Bologna. He refused to rest in
a bed and, instead, chose to lie upon some sacking stretched upon the ground. With his last breath, he exhorted his friars to have charity for each other and for all mankind, to guard their humility, to make their treasure out of poverty and “to speak only of God or with God”. The Dominican community kept its word to their founder as is evidenced by their motto: Laudare, benedicere, praedicare. (“to praise, to bless, to preach”).

Angelo Stagnaro’s book, Praying Like a Dominican, is published through Paraclete Press (Paracletepress.com). It has received an imprimatur and nihil obstat from Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn

  • ReferencePointGold

    Sir,
    You are trying to digest Hindu (Sanatan Dharma) into christianity. By trying to claim yoga as christian in origin, you are trying to remove the essence of Yoga.

    I can bet you that this is a doctored find.

    Also you try to remove the mystifying element of yoga thus christianising yoga? Whom are you trying to fool?

    This bit was awesome – ‘empty exotic pseudo-mysticism of Yoga’. Lincoln said this once,’You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.’

    Bob Dylan said this,’Half of the people can be part right all of the time, 
    Some of the people can be all right part of the time, 
    But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time’
    You and your church are liars. Speak the truth and do not try to plagiarize from Hindu Dharma. 

  • long johny

    Sir,

    Dont you western white racist creed have nothing else than to propagate stupid ideas as Christanity which itself is a socio economic political dogma of an insignificant population of a desert ? first of all Europeans are fools to have taken christianity as their religion instead of a much better and scientific local religions that were existing. Look at the pathetic greeks who had forsaken their original religion and had taken to this stupid desert rantings as their religion. Now you people who claim to follow abrahamic religion fight with another monster of the same desert, Islam, which too is supposed to be of the same abrahamic foundation. what a pity? why dont you merge Judaism, Christianity and Islam as one abrahamic religion ? Then you can peddle everything on earth as its creation. I dont know how stupid you can be when you say that Yoga doesnt take you to God. Hatha Yoga is the preparation of this body towards Godliness. It is for self control and making the bodily vehicle fit for the spiritual experiences and at the same time for realizing self control and not becoming an Asura. (turning evil). All Hindu practices are scientific and if pondered from the present point of view implies on reducing one’s carbon footprint too, to be too simplistic. 

    Spirituality is personal and it only needs a master to guide us. All the names of christian saints whom you have mentioned are none other than just christianity marketing agents or sales representatives who have conned people world over and nothing more. there is neither spirituality nor scientific thinking in christianity. All scientific ideas of europe came only after reading the Hindu Scriptures in Sanskrit and translating it. Till then Europeans were complete fools and kept as such by the church. The papal organisation is the biggest marketing institution in the world selling a fake brand called Jesus and making money in the process. Thats it and nothing more. 

    Have you ever stopped eating dead flesh, which you people eat raw, cooked, steamed, grilled, steamed or any other process ? if you have not done so what right have you got to talk about spirituality and godliness. You are a shameless dead flesh eater and have no right to talk about God. Know that. 

  • Author

    I never plagiarized Hindu dharma as it offers nothing of note or interest. Nor have I suggested that yoga is  of Christian origin.As worthless as yoga is as a spiritual function, it was invented without ANY Christian input thus it’s spiritual worthlessness. Please reread my article and you’ll note how wrong your assessment is. If I’m incorrect and yoga has actually produced incredible humanitarians and mystics, please do point out all of the wonderful hospitals and schools for poor children yoga masters have built in the West. I, on the other hand, shall point all of the free hospitals and schools for poor children in largely Hindu India. A religion or a pseudo-spiritual function that doesn’t fill the bellies of poor people is worthless. In fact, it’s worse than worthless—it’s dangerous. As the Epistle of St James in the New Testament tells us:

    My friends, what good is it for one of
    you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith
    save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have
    enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you!
    Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life?
    So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (Jam
    2:14-17)

  • Author

    You speak very angrily and uneducatedly for an “enlightened” creature. I tried to remove the vitriol and hatred from your posting but realized all that was left was empty flatulence and ignorance. If you have proof of any of your claims, I will convert to whatever form of nonsense you’re peddling. If you cannot prove every single one of your claims, then I recommend abandoning this worthless faith of yours that teaches you to hate and to avoid helping the poor. Does your faith recommend you make up wild claims and false facts and “feelings” in order to “prove a point.” I recommend instead abandoning this nonsense of yours and to embrace the love and peace that Christ offers and which His Church, the Roman Catholic Church, teaches. Apparently, your faith has done little for you. Mother Teresa showed Hindus how to love totally. Where is the Hindu who will teach us poor, ignorant and violent Christians to love and be more generous than we’ve already been? Have you ever read the mythologies that Hinduism propagates? Your petty gods are jealous adulterers (read the origin story of Ganesha and find the truth) perverts, murderers, thieves and liars. None of the stories Christians use to teach about Christ talk about His sins. You’re worshiping beings that are evil and that will never help you become a better person if your gods act as badly as you do.

  • church digests dharma

    Dear author, your christian missionaries have done lots of  damages to hindu dharma. your christian europe has swindled indian wealth. why do you think europeans traveled to india starting 17th? Its because india was a rich nation both in terms of knowledge and in terms of wealth. You raped mother india and now accuse india for its today’s poverty? More over, this post is about Yoga Vs prayer postures. why are you bringing in your hospitals and school building evangelistic activities and ideas into the discussion?

    if you want to do good, silently do it.. why are you selling your god in return for the hospitals? Isnt this spiritual prostitution?.

  • Parasum

    There are illustrations in the 1967 New Catholic Encylopedia from this “rediscovered” source. (I think it’s the NCE – the pictures of him in different positions are certainly not new.)

  • (Fr) Brendan Kelleher svd

    Dominic’s Ways of Prayer is not a recent discovery, I have a copy of it from the 1980′s, and Simon Tugwell avers to it in his writings on prayer written in the 70′s and 80′s. As for the yoga connection, I’d say highly tenditious.
    Brendan Kelleher svd (Japan)

  • Pawel

    Dear Author, I cannot believe the ignorance and arrogance of these words of yours below:

    “To be frank, if all it took to become enlightened and to “see Jesus” was to hook my ankles behind my neck, I’d be in the position for the rest of my life.” – how can you be so superficial and impertinent to utter such nonsense!?!

    “As worthless as yoga is as a spiritual function, it was invented without ANY Christian input thus it’s spiritual worthlessness.” – do you believe Jesus and the Church itself would share your opinion as regards various noble religious & spiritual traditions by means of which spiritual self-denying men have been trying to find their way to God?

    “Supposedly offers well-being to those who practise it.” – try it for yourself & you will see the results; you are perhaps too proud to do this; maybe in the future an ailment of some kind that no phisician will be able to deal with & God himself will not respond to your prayers for healing, maybe only then will you pick up some of the eastern wisdom and take up yoga to eventually get better over the time in a systematic practice of asanas.

  • Simcilla

    Humility and serenity much??? 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NHS4UG2ZOMGCTP4PQF5FJIY2J4 Allan

     Wow, few people who understand so little write so much.

  • TieHard

    wow ….what a revelation .how have we been so stupid.. lucky you posted this and put us right