St. Dominic de Guzman was a thirteenth century Spaniard known for his prayer and his preaching, his compassion for those in need and his joy even amidst adversity. He was a man who defied easy definition. He was neither a monk bound to a single monastery nor a solitary priest ministering to the flock of his parish but something new, an itinerant friar steeped in prayer who put himself and his brothers at the service of the church wherever there was need. The Dominican vocation is therefore complex and two of the traditional mottoes associated with the Order hint at this complexity: Contemplare et contemplata alliis tradere means to contemplate and to share the fruits of contemplation with others, while laudare, benedicere et praedicare means to praise, to bless and to preach.
Dominicans are thus called to be both contemplatives and apostles, and to balance prayer, study, silence and communal living with service to others and an engagement with the world.
It is for this reason that Dominicans live and pray together in religious houses called priories -- such as St. Thomas Aquinas Priory at Providence College -- and spend many years in study, but also why they teach and minister in colleges and universities, pastor people in parishes, and serve as missionaries throughout the world. But if the vocation is a complex one it is also a focused one.
St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers -- hence, the O.P. after a Dominican's name -- in 1216. It was a time of rapid social change and one in which people were beset with a welter of competing ideologies that vied for their loyalty. Amidst it all, people longed for the authentic Christian message. Unfortunately, the church was ill-equipped to provide what people needed. The clergy was often poorly educated, corruption was rife, and there seemed to be little authentic witness to the Gospel. As a result, heresies like Albigensianism provided an attractive alternative. Popular in southern France and often inspiring admiration because of the piety of its adherents, Albigensianism attempted to solve the complex problem of the relationship between the world of the senses and the world of the spirit simply if dualistically.
It maintained that creation was the result of an evil creator and is therefore inherently evil, while the soul or spirit comes from a good God and is good. The choice was equally simple. One should forsake the world of people and things and embrace what is purely spiritual. Indeed, its most devout members would literally starve themselves to death so that their souls could be released from the prison of their bodies and find their proper home with God. Obviously, such a view contrasted sharply with the Gospel revelation of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and left little room to approach the world as a sacrament of God's grace.
St. Dominic was therefore intent on defending the incarnation of God in Jesus, and so too the integrity of creation and the possibility of sacramental grace. He gathered together men and women, friars and nuns and later sisters and laity, who would live the Gospel more authentically and preach its truth with both their words and their lives. From the beginning he sent his friars to the great universities of the time: Oxford, Paris and Bologna. He wanted his friars to be educated so that their preaching and teaching would be informed, able to answer the questions of the day, and meet people's longing for the Gospel. Ideally, his friars were to be men of faith, prayer, and learning who could respond to the needs of their time without fear and confident that the human mind, a mere creature, could rightly if imperfectly understand its Creator.
It is perhaps no accident, therefore, that the colors of the Dominican habit -- the religious garb worn by the friars, nuns and many sisters -- are black and white, representing as they do the reconciliation of apparent opposites in a greater unity. It is certainly no accident that these are the official colors of Providence College.