Continuing our reflection on St Dominic in preparation for his feast, here is an extract from "The Genius of St Dominic" by Marie Humbert Vicaire OP.
The Liberty of the 'Poor Man'
The Bull of Recommendation of the Order to the bishops of December 8, 1219, which already contained the essential terms of the Bull to the brethern of December 12, added a precision. It said that the Preachers 'reject the burden of worldly riches so as to be able to run more freely (expeditius) in the field of this world'. Some months later the text in the Bologna Constitutions that is expressly attributed to Dominic would use the same word. If those who are deputed to study and preaching are set free from every temporal charge, it is 'so that they can better fulfil their spiritual mission in a greater liberty (expeditius).' The image behind the word is that of the expeditus, the light infantryman, more rapid and more efficacious than the one weighed down by a heavy equipment. From then on the image became current.
Mendicany was a source first of all of mobility. Like the beggar, the Preacher was not tied down to any place or domain on which he depended for his living. He lived on his poverty just as much on his travels as when at home. It also meant a greater facility for getting occasions to preach. The first type of papal Bull of Recommendation that Dominic obtained for his Order already made it clear that 'they preach the Word of the Lord faithfully and gratis', 'presenting themselves in the title of poverty'. The same disinterestedness would facilitate their installation in the towns, for if a church were assigned to them they would take it without the tithes and revenues which would go to the diocese or to other patrons.
Mendicany also meant a greater interior liberty through the extinction of carnal appetites, attachments and vanities by which men are enchained. Here it is relevant to recall those adjectives: sobrius, parcus sibi, and the epithets: vilis, mediocris, humilis, which signified Dominic's poverty and the simplicity of his life-style which he inculated in his brethren, but without any kind of narrowness. Is there anything more free and liberal than his attitude during a hot spring evening at San Sisto when he passed around a goblet of wine amongst his brethren, and then amongst the sisters at the other side of the grill: 'Drink to your heart's content, my daughters'...
Such a liberty, so close to charity, could not but lead to joy which all the witnesses of his life were at one in observing in St Dominic. Here it would be necessary to write a long chapter on the radiant joy which was characteristic not only of Dominic but of the mendicant religious in general. Whilst the byzantine saint, whose model had come down and was still largely the fashion in the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was ascetic, lean and severe, and with the eyes of a visionary, the saint of the mendicants, whatever may have been his private austerity, presented men with a face that was open, sympathetic and radiant with joy. In Dominic this joy was born especially from the awareness of his weakness which turned him towards God; knowing that he was unarmed in the midst of dangers and threats, experiencing a real penury as regards food and comfort, suffering but independent, he abandoned himself more completely to providence and fled to her more willingly by means of prayer; the culmination of his joy was in being able to share in the redemptive poverty and suffering of Christ.