Any casual observer of Dominicana will eventually notice a theme or image that, at first, may seem odd or out place: dogs. They can be found in Dominican art, legends, and even historical documents from the beginning of the Order to this very day. One might rightly wonder: “What on earth do dogs have to do with St. Dominic and his Order?!” It’s a good question; one I’ve pondered myself.
Dominicans, especially friars, have been referred to as the “Hounds of the Lord” for centuries. Part of this is a Latin pun on our name in that language: “Dominicanes.” If you break that word in two, it makes the phrase: Domini canes, which, in Latin, means: “dogs/hounds of the Lord.” Yet, it was more than a pun that inspired the symbolism. Bl. Jordan of Saxony, the second Master of the Order and a friend of St. Dominic, relates that our holy father’s mother, Bl. Jane of Aza, had a dream when she was pregnant with St. Dominic. Supposedly, she dreamed of giving birth to a dog with a torch in its mouth, which then ran through the world setting it ablaze. The Order has traditionally seen this event as a prophetic foreshadowing of the man that St. Dominic would later become: Praedicator gratiae – “Preacher of Grace.”
Later Dominicans, including early members of the then young Order, would also follow in this line of thinking. Many early friar preachers reading Scripture saw evidence for a “canine” dimension to their vocation in ancient “glosses” (i.e. marginal commentaries in Biblical manuscripts) on Isaiah 56:10 and Psalm 59:7. This association could also be found in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Gregory the Great wrote in his Exposition on the Canticle of Canticles: “[H]oly preachers are at times referred to as dogs because their assiduous preaching, like troublesome barking, forces the adversaries to abandon the flock of sheep.” St. Augustine of Hippo, considered a father-figure in the Order due to his monastic rule being one of our founding documents, also wrote famously: “Good watch dogs keep guard and give tongue for the house and master, for the flock and shepherd.”
Many others over the centuries, including those outside the Order itself, have noted a certain “similarity” between traits exhibited by Dominican friars and, well, dogs. It may seem silly at first, but, as any dog owner can tell you, dogs have a number of positive instincts that humans have valued for millennia. They are incredibly loyal, even to the point of sacrificing their lives without thinking to protect their owners. Despite being excellent hunters, they can be surprisingly gentle and comforting too. Generally, dogs are also quite content with simple things. Some owners have even said that they’re convinced that all their dog wants in life is to simply be by their side.
These traits, in many ways, echo traditional values and roles played by the Order. Dominicans are known as being loyal to the Church and dedicated to accurately preaching her teachings; even to the point of martyrdom! Moreover, our intellectual training gives us the ability to “sniff out” false teachings or erroneous views. Yet, at the same time, our life in common teaches us the values of mercy, gentleness, and charity. Ideally, these balance out to make us both tireless in opposition to falsity, but also gentle and respectful with those who disagree or with whom we debate. Additionally, our vow of poverty leads us to value simplicity in our lives and goals. Biggest among such goals is to be faithful servants of Christ and to simply “dwell” at his side.
As a dog-lover, I found these quaint similarities to be rather inspiring. I am proud to call myself and to be called a “hound of the Lord,” and I hope to serve and love both Christ and his people with the unflagging devotion that dogs instinctively exhibit. It is perhaps this desire–reflecting our active-contemplative way of life–that motivates all Dominicans in some way. That commonality among us over the centuries likely helped to fuel the canine imagery that is seen across the spectrum of Dominicana in many forms.
I’d like to end this post with a quote from a renowned Dominican friar and preacher of the early twentieth century, Fr. Humbert Clerissac, O.P. A friar of the French Province, he gave a series of retreats to the friars of the English Province in 1908. These retreats were later collected into a book entitled, The Spirit of St. Dominic (recently republished in 2015 by Cluny Media). In the first chapter/retreat, Père Clerissac takes up the symbolism of the “hounds of the Lord” and declares:
“The attraction and charm of the Order comes upon religious minds in many different ways. For some the life of the Church is envisaged as a mighty hunt for souls. God is the hunter, the apostles the hunstmen; the prayers of the saints thrill through the air like a noble hunting song; on all sides are seen rebel and timid souls fleeing from the approach of divine grace; the pack breaks forth and the cry goes up as they give tongue. Who would not wish to join the hounds of St. Dominic?” (pg. 13).
Holy Father St. Dominic, first of the Hounds of the Lord, pray for us.