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