Beautiful Feet: The 3-fold knowledge of Dominican Preaching

The following presentation was given as a part of the 800 years jubilee celebrations in Lund on May 20th, 2016 by sr. Catherine Droste OP.

Dominic preaching Christ.JPG - Lund (May 2016)800 Years of Dominican Joy; 800 years of men and women participating in this joy – not only the members of the Order but also the millions outside the Order who have been touched by the joy of Dominic and his followers throughout the centuries.


Dominican joy overflows – it proliferates, extending beyond the individual to impact the lives of others. Yet, what is the essence of this joy – and what is its source?


Externally or visibly this joy is most evident in the young men and women who enter the Order – our novices and young professed who at times veritably burst with joy – excited about a new life of service to God, new studies, new assignments, new missions; everything it new and exciting


And for those of us past “youth”? Sometime / often we may not evidence visible joy so easily; we often prefer the familiar, the comfortable, the broken-in, the routine, to novelty and excitement. But does mean we do not possess or have lost our joy? If, in fact, joy is intrinsic to the Dominican charism – that is – if Dominican joy is not merely the joy of religious life in general but something more, then regardless of age, insofar as we are faithful to our Dominican vows, we must manifest something of this joy even if in diverse ways.


Thomas explains why. In his discussion of delight (delectatio) in the Prima Secondae [q31], Thomas distinguishes between two types of delight – delectatio as physical pleasures on the level of the passions, such as the pleasure of a fine glass of wine or a beautiful sunset.


Joy (gaudium) is a specific type of delight. A delectatio not in physical pleasures but an intellectual delight which follows reason. Servais Pinckaers describes it as “the direct effect of an excellent action, like the savor of a long task finally accomplished,” not just any task but one which is true and good.[1] In Thomas own words: “Delight of the intellectual appetite [i.e. gaudium] is nothing but the mere movement of the will” (I-II q31a4). Consider Einstein when he grasped the essence of his theory of relativity – or the student who successfully completes an academic degree.


Joy may include physical pleasure, but it steps beyond it. Joy manifests an authenticity of virtue, so it serves as a link between morality and happiness.[2] We know this from our own experience, such as when we have helped someone in need. The joy or happiness we experience pushes us on to do other virtuous actions..

But the highest cause of joy according to St. Thomas resonates with Dominican joy. In his Summa Contra Gentiles (Bk1.2) Thomas writes that: “Among all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more useful, and more full of joy.”

We might say that pursuit of wisdom, nurtured within the Order by study and contemplation of truth, leads the Dominican to be “more full of joy.”

But let’s not be naïve. Dominican life is not all fun and games, which is why Thomas’s distinction on delectatio is so important.  We have and will experience sorrow. But this sorrow is a passion – a response to a present evil. And as a passion it is opposed to the contrary passion of delectatio – physical pleasure, hence, one does not have pleasure when suffering the removal of a tooth.

Gaudium – intellectual joy, is not a passion, but has something of reason, and therefore is not contrary to sorrow. This explains why, even in those times when we do not feel physical delight, in the face of overwhelming obligations, difficulties in the apostolate, or in community, or in our family, or when I experience sorrow over my own sins or the sins of others, our Dominican charism of joy as intellectual gaudium can endure. It is in this reality Fr. Philipon speaks to when he wrote that “above the trials of redemption, joy pervades the Dominican soul, the inadmissible joy of God.”[3]

And so, as Dominicans grow old, despite the sorrows, the depth of Dominican joy so visible in youth, should, like any fine wine, grow richer with age. The bottles may grow dusty and lose their original sheen, labels may fade and peel, but inside, unseen by human eyes, the wine is perfected; its flavor, its aroma, deepening – maturing, mellowing.

These terms describe the maturity of Dominican Joy – the joy of Saint Dominic.

With this as a foundation, I would like to shift, moving from the richness of fine wine to a humbler image – the feet – to discuss the delicate interplay between joy, beauty, and Dominican preaching.

Beautiful Feet


Every year on the feast of St. Dominic we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah (Is 52:7-10).


How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.


Isaiah extols the beautiful feet of the messenger announcing peace – which results in songs of joy. This “Dominican” pericope underscores in a few phrases both the concept of Dominican joy, and its relation to preaching and beauty.


But is beautiful an appropriate descriptor for feet? We might note a beautiful face – a beautiful smile – even beautiful teeth, but beautiful feet? We have many other descriptors of feet: I can think of smelly, muddy, stinky, flat, and metaphorically cold feet, two left feet, and even happy feet, but rarely would we employ the phrase “beautiful feet.”


Yet, Isaiah prophesies about the preacher who announces peace, proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, telling all “your God reigns.”  The man or woman who does these things has beautiful feet, just as did our Holy Father, Dominic.


We might further object: Dominic’s feet were not pretty. Brother John of Spain recounted in the canonization testimony of 1233 that when Dominic was traveling from one town to another, he took his shoes off, and when he arrived anywhere he put them on again, and he did this in all the towns and villages he came to. He refused to have anyone help him carry his shoes.


The early friars also recount the story of Dominic becoming lost with some companions. They inadvertently asked a heretic for directions and were led astray, “so viciously through thorns and thistles, that their feet and legs became quite covered in blood.”


Beautiful feet? No, rather, tough, calloused, leathery, scarred, and even at times, bloody.


Isaiah is not referring to a mere physical beauty of the preacher’s feet, rather, there is something more, a reality that can transform tough dirty feet into beautiful feet. The key, then, is not the feet, but something else.


Isaiah identifies this something else in the text; beautiful feet do not belong to any messenger or preacher, but to the one who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” – the preacher of the Gospel, and his message invokes a response of joy:


Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.


The Beauty of Preaching


Perhaps at no time in history has the connection between preaching, joy, and beauty been more necessary. The bishops of the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization directed one of the concluding propositions (#20) to “the New Evangelization and the Way of Beauty.” It stipulated that the New Evangelization should pay particular attention to the way of Beauty – and that Beauty “should always” be a special dimension of the new evangelization. Why? Because as St. Augustine writes in his Confessions “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Bk IV, 13.20). The Synod Fathers state the same: “Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe.”


The role of the preacher is to give testimony not only of the goodness and truth of Christ, but in the words of the Proposition, “also of the fullness of his beauty.”[4]


In a world where logical arguments for the faith are frequently ignored, rejected as medieval, or considered merely as subjective opinions of the interlocutor, beauty’s place in evangelization cannot be ignored. Beauty offers another approach; it extends beyond terminology, religious creed, and prejudice. While words express what we believe, “beauty attracts us to love.” Therefore, if beauty and love are related; if it is through beauty that God reveals himself [Synod Prop 20], then we need to see beauty – to experience beauty – and as Dominicans, to preach beauty. Cardinal Martini summed up this argument in a few simple words: modern man “doubts the truth, resists the good, but is fascinated by beauty.”[5]


To examine more deeply the beauty of preaching in relation to Dominican joy, while maintaining Isaiah’s text as the background, I will identify a threefold knowledge of the preacher: first, self-knowledge; second, knowledge of the Word that is preached; and third, knowledge of his audience – those to whom he preaches.


I am presupposing that in the preacher these three knowledges, though distinct, must be integrated in order for the preaching to culminate in what the Prophet calls: “songs of joy.” An integral preaching not only manifests beauty, but this beauty in turn overflows, transforming the feet of the preacher.[6]


The Preacher: Self Knowledge


Self-knowledge is an ancient concept. Roughly two thousand years ago a pagan pilgrim passing through Delphi noted the inscription “know thyself” (γνωθι σεαυτόν) in the court of the temple of Apollo.[7]


Our Dominican expert on self-knowledge is St. Catherine of Siena (who even includes mention of feet).


While Catherine’s emphasis on self-knowledge applies to all Christians, such knowledge is particularly necessary for the Dominican preacher. How often today do Catholics and non-Catholics disregard or disparage priests and religious who act like the scribes and Pharisees, preaching a holiness they themselves do not follow.  We do well to remember Paul VI’s words, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”[8]


In Catherine’s Dialogue self-knowledge is incorporated into the treatise of the Bridge. The bridge is Christ hanging on the Cross, a bridge which spans the river of damnation. The cross spans the abyss between earth and heaven, and is therefore vertical rather than horizontal. Only by travelling across the bridge of Christ’s body can the soul hope to reach salvation. As Christ taught, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14.6).


When speaking of those who cross the bridge, Catherine makes various distinctions as to who they are, how they arrive at the bridge, and how they proceed across, all the while shifting descriptions and mixing her metaphors as needed to make her point.


In our current context, I will briefly speak to Catherine’s discussion of the souls who cross the bridge. Catherine divides them into three levels corresponding to the three stages of the spiritual life: 1) the beginner or imperfect soul; 2) the perfect soul; 3) and the most perfect soul. These three stages of movement from imperfection to perfection correspond in turn to various parts of Christ’s body on the bridge. Thus the beginner in the purgative stage, begins at the feet of Christ. The perfect soul in the illuminative stage of the spiritual life has reached the pierced side of Christ. And finally, the most perfect soul has entered the unitive way and arrives at Christ’s mouth.


The feet, as noted, correspond to the first stage, where the soul begins to grow in self-knowledge. In the Dialogue, the Father identifies this initial stage to the level of Christ’s feet on the Cross because the soul begins to follow Christ out of slavish fear – that is, moved by the emotion – not love. At the beginning of our spiritual life the emotions govern our decisions.


Thus, Catherine says beginners are “carried with the feet of their affection” (Dialogue 59); the soul of the beginner is carried by the emotions just as the body is carried by the feet. Such feet are not the beautiful feet of which Isaiah speaks. These feet are weak, following the easy path, and if they are not careful, they will turn back. For this reason they must be nailed to the Cross; the Christian – and in our context, the preacher must nail his emotions to the cross; denying himself; his desires.


If not, his feet will carry him away from the cross; away from the mountains where the path is steep and rough. If the feet are not nailed to the cross, if the emotions are not brought under the guidance of reason, the soul will not persevere but will flee the bridge – flee the cross. They will be like the feet of the guilty mentioned in Isaiah and Proverbs – the feet that “run to evil” (Is 59.7; cf. Prov 6.18).  In contrast, those who persevere will develop feet that are able to endure the higher terrain. They will be cut and bruised, and in the process develop scars and callouses, but they will reach the mountains. As Psalm 37.31 notes, the steps of the upright man “do not slip.” And Psalm 18.33 “He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights.”


Many join the Dominican family with enthusiasm and ideals, willingly denying emotions in desiring to be true followers of Dominic.  But denying the passions, growing in self-knowledge is not a onetime event. Self-knowledge begins with the feet and the emotions, but throughout our life we continue to climb the Cross, moving on enter Christ’s wounded side. All the while growing in virtue.


The Father had taught Catherine the connection between virtue, self-knowledge and charity with a simple lesson in logic:


Every perfection and every virtue proceeds from charity. Charity is nourished by humility. And humility comes from knowledge and holy hatred of self, that is, of one’s selfish sensuality. [Therefore] to attain charity you must dwell constantly in the cell of self-knowledge (Dialogue 63).

None of us can claim perfect virtue, not even Catherine’s confessor, Raymond of Capua, an experienced and well-respected Dominican Father, who in the very year of Catherine’s death was elected Master of the Order. She wrote to him saying:


I long to see you truly espoused to truth, a lover and follower of that truth. But I don’t see how we can experience and live this truth unless we get to know ourselves. For when we know ourselves in truth, we know that we are not, but find our being in God, seeing that God created us in his image and likeness [. . .] You must, then, come to know truth so that you will want to be espoused to truth. Where? In the house of self-knowledge, recognizing that you have your being from God – gratuitously, and not because it was your due (Letter 104).


Catherine exhorts all of her followers – each of us – to enter the cell of self-knowledge and to lock the door from the inside; we must never leave the cell. If we do not lock ourselves in, we will discover that our feet have carried us far away from Christ – from the love we had at first (Rev 2.4).


And when we find ourselves outside the cell? We must be honest with ourselves – admitting where our feet – our passions have led us. Oftentimes we leave the cell so silently that we did not even notice. We wake up to find ourselves caught up in the busyness of the apostolate – or work – or family; or complacent, comfortable in life and their routine; we are established, capable in our apostolate; others, both religious and lay, wake up to find themselves in the ranks of the new “addicts,” shackled to their smart phones, unable to turn off the outside world.
We are usually far along the road of dissipation before it affects our preaching; but we cannot escape the echoes reverberating in the emptiness within. This can be a moment of grace. The noise may wake us up from our “comfortable life,” a life where the passions have subtly taken control.


Our failings offer opportunities for growth in humility and self-knowledge. The Father told Catherine, “the source of humility […] is the soul’s true knowledge of herself and of my goodness… only when discernment is rooted in humility is it virtuous, producing life-giving fruit and willingly yielding what is due to everyone” (Dialogue 9). In the cell of self-knowledge Catherine learned the humility that was the foundation of her magnanimity. Knowing her nothingness, in light of God’s pure love enabled her to step fearlessly beyond her own capacities to preach to the highest authorities of both Church and State.



Here, Catherine and Pope Francis agree. Pope Francis entitles the last chapter of Evangelii Gaudium, “spirit-filled evangelizers,” preachers like Catherine who “fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit” (EG 259).  Self-knowledge, knowledge of truth, and fearlessness of the Spirit are acquired not of ourselves, but through daily prayer, reading the Scriptures, adoration of the Eucharist. This is Catherine’s message, that in prayer – in knowing God and myself before God, I realize what it means to be human, a creature made by a God who is a “Mad Lover,” crazy in love with what he has made; a man created by a God who is “drunk with desire for [our] salvation” (Dialogue 153).


This was the fire behind Catherine’s preaching, the fire of the Holy Spirit who helped her to understand God’s incredible love for her – and this knowledge impelled her to help others know the same fire of love. Do we have this fire?


Knowledge of the Word


Evangelii Gaudium’s emphasis on contemplation brings to mind our Dominican motto: contemplare et contemplate aliis tradere, and subsequently, the second “knowledge” of the preacher – knowledge of the content of the preaching. Contemplation of the Word is a necessary preparation for preaching. It enables us to see our study, our preaching, our apostolate, not merely as a duty and obligation, not merely as “teaching”, but a sacra praedicatio, the holy preaching, entrusted by the Church to Dominic and his followers. Novices in the Order are taught that contemplare has primacy, for one cannot give what one does not have. The preacher is first a listener and recipient of the Word he preaches.


At this point the sun broke through, providing perfect spotlights!

The modern iconic painting of Dominic by Sandra Brunetti captures the essence of sacra praedicatio. Dominic stands full-front, and in his hands stands the Christ child who in turn, holds an open Bible in his hands. The humble servant of the preaching stands behind the Word – in the shadow of the Truth he preaches. It is a Word he has received, not one he creates.


But the preacher is intimately involved with preaching. As Jerome Murphy-O’Connor wrote:


The preacher, then, cannot be a witness who stands aside and points […] He must be vitally involved. The truth he presents must be une vérité vécue, [and] if he points, it must be to himself.[9]


Murphy-O’Connor uses Paul’s preaching as model. The preacher must guard the Gospel entrusted to him (1Tim 6.20); jealousy protecting the “standard of sound teaching” (2Tim 1.13). And for Paul, safeguarding the integrity of the Word demands more than words. It requires becoming another Christ. As Paul told the Corinthians “be imitators of me” (1Cor 4.16).


Paul well knew, just as any preacher must know, that “if his witness is merely verbal and not existential, if his whole existence is not a living manifestation” of the truth he teaches If there is a discrepancy between the preacher’s words and the witness of his life, he will fail.[10]


Beyond Intellectual Faith


Pope Emeritus Ratzinger spoke on this point several years ago, while still Cardinal. Commenting on the beauty of the faith, he noted the danger of a purely intellectual faith, a danger facing any Christian who understands faith on a purely intellectual plane – with a knowledge that he describes as “secondhand.” His point was that our faith cannot be merely “what I know” secondhand – what I have studied, heard, and read. Faith must necessarily include something of “what I experience” firsthand. Though I may read and hear erudite treatises, renowned for their logic and rhetoric elements, their merit falls short – it remains “secondhand” if by means of them the person (whether their creator or the receiver) is not brought to a deeper level – to the hidden beauty, the beauty of faith.


Returning to the image of Dominic, behind him one sees his books on the shelf, opened, but abandoned. The preacher must study the Truth, but his study leads him beyond the words of treatises. He must touch the Truth, keep Him always before his eyes, contemplating the depths of truth which extends beyond reason, so that he may hold it in his hands and offer it to those to whom he is sent. The Christ child stands on Dominic’s left hand and arm, but with his right hand, Dominic grasps the Child – the Word, because this child fulfills the very words of Scripture that he points to Et Verbum caro factus est. 


The preacher begins with the intellectual knowledge but cannot remain there, for the simple reason that, as Thomas teaches, the object of faith is First Truth – a truth which our intellect cannot grasp of its own power. Though faith is in the intellect, Thomas notes that its object is “unseen,” (II-IIq1a5); man gives his assent of faith not because of a rational certitude (q1.a4), that is, not due to clear sufficient intellectual knowledge. Though of the intellect, faith requires and “an assent” – the intellect is moved to assent by the will, whereby one says I believe in the God I do not see (q2a2). This assent to the “light of faith,” Thomas adds, “makes us see what we believe” (q1a4).


In matters of faith, intellectual knowledge falls short. Man’s study serves as an instrument, providing the opportunity for an encounter with the Word made flesh. We must not only know about the Incarnation, we must also hold the Christ child whom we preach.


As noted in the Dutch translation of the Christmas hymn Adestes Fideles: “we the chosen ones are permitted to greet you and to kiss your feet.”


This second pair of feet – the feet of the Christ child, have a beauty all their own. But Christ allows them to be nailed to the cross – and our feet too, must be nailed with His so that we may be transformed.  Here, on the Cross – self-knowledge and knowledge of the Truth unite.  Herein lies the beauty of the faith and the holy preaching of Dominic which resulted in his own beautiful feet.[11]


The Listener: Knowledge of the Other


The third knowledge resonates with the second part of our Dominican motto: et comtemplata alliis tradere. Contemplation first nourishes our personal spiritual life, but also moves the Dominican beyond himself, to be sent to preach. In his letter to the Romans St. Paul identifies preaching’s twofold necessity: that which corresponds to the preacher – “How are they to proclaim unless they are sent?”, but also that which correspond to the hearer – “How can they believe in him if they have never heard of him?” (Rom 10:14).[12]


This relational principle of preacher and hearer is further developed by Aquinas. Speaking of the cause of faith in the secunda secundae question six, Thomas notes that since man cannot have faith unless something be proposed to him, God has thus revealed the truths of the faith to man. But since God does not reveal the truths to each man individually, preachers must be sent. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations […] teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28.20).


Contemplation prepares us for preaching. Contemplation of the Word opens the preacher to the beauty of God, but also to the beauty of the people and the world around him. Only if one first knows the beauty of God can a preacher discover and preach beauty in a war-torn world where terror and evil seem to multiply faster than the good.



Dominic’s Preaching


Dominic’s early life of study and contemplation prepared him for his mission. His contemplation and obedience in Osma were the preparation for his mission which began in the inn of Toulouse with the Albigensian heretic. We know the story well, at least the bare facts – Dominic spent the night arguing with the Albigensian innkeeper, converting him to the true faith. But what was the nature of their discussion. Consider two men in a debate for several hours – what does that tell us? First of all, it was not a one-sided lecture – or it never would have lasted that long – one of them either would have gotten up and left or have fallen asleep. Nor was it a simple teaching of the faith to someone who’d never heard it before. As a Gnostic heresy, Albigensianism includes the conviction that the believer possesses a higher knowledge, a secret knowledge not revealed to all. How do you convince someone of a truth when they think you are less intelligent? Dominic would not have been able to convince such a man, to break through such error and demonstrate the truth of Christ, if he did not first understand something of this man’s beliefs, his logic, his hopes, his fears. This was no simple conversation; it was an intense dialogue – where both men spoke and both men listened.


Listening – something that is not always easy, especially for Dominicans. Our mission of teaching requires study – of theology and sometimes secular sciences as well; many of us like to talk and we have a lot to talk about. We often have to teach or work among people we may not really like or agree with, perhaps even some heretics, and they even smell bad – either literally or figuratively. But as Pope Francis says, in the oft-quoted line from Evangelii Gaudium, the preacher must “take on the ‘smell of the sheep.’”


Dominic did this in the inn. Others probably looked askance as he sat at the table with a well-known heretic, but Christ had done the same. He chose a tax collector as an apostle, allowed a prostitute to anoint his feet, and sat down at table with sinners even worse than these. We look back at the Gospels and take in the message, but how do we apply it in our own lives? Who are the heretics, tax collectors, and sinners present in our daily life? How will they hear our word if we do not speak their language?


To put it in another way, one does not become a good preacher simply by joining the Dominican Order – or being part of the Dominican Family. Early legislation of the Order required that only mature and prudent [matures et discretos][13] friars be sent out to preach – and no one under twenty-five years of age was given the faculty.[14]


This regulation not only indicated a suitable time for attaining intellectual knowledge, but also that intelligence alone insufficient for preaching. The preacher must be prudent, and prudence, though of the practical intellect, is more than pure knowledge. Integral to the virtue is memory, which the young must acquire. Though the young may be brighter or more educated than their elders, maturity and prudence require time and experience.


Just as the Good Shepherd spent time with the sheep, leading them away from the hedgerows where they become entangled and not allowing them to indulge in the grain that might kill them, so the preacher must know his audience. He needs to understand their desires and fears, their joys and sorrows. The preacher fails if he proclaims a message to people who cannot understand it, or who simply cannot hear because of their fear of the various wolves they encounter each day.


It is situations like these that Pope Francis intended in Evangelium Gaudium when he speaks of those who hear orthodox words, but “take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ” (EG 41). The fault is not always their own because sometimes the language spoken by the preacher is alien. The preacher holds fast to a formula, and people miss the point. He preaches the truth, but they walk away with “a false god or a human ideal.”


The mature and virtuous preacher must not be afraid to step beyond “what always worked before.” He’s bold enough, Francis says, to discover new signs and new symbols,” and even “unconventional modes of beauty.” Such an approach challenges the preacher to step beyond his own special interests to address the needs of the faithful. Yet even here one must use care, avoiding the dangers of falsifying the word, or worse, joining the ranks of false teachers whom Paul condemns in 1Timothy, those who are conceited, tickling the ears of those to whom they preach in efforts to gain popularity and human respect.[15]


The preacher avoids such pitfalls by knowing himself. He teaches the “sound teaching” of the Gospel, and preachers to anyone who will listen, knowing all the while that the good seed will take root in good soil. So though he must have knowledge of his listeners, such knowledge does not ensure receptivity. Sometimes the preacher must proclaim with Isaiah and Paul: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Rm 10.21).


Another Dominican merits mention here. We are all familiar with Fra Angelico the artist, but the aspect of Fra “the preacher” is less acknowledged. Yet, he carefully prepared each homily (painting) with his the listener – the receiver in mind.


While he did not ignore the specifications made by those who commissioned a work, Fra Angelico’s preaching focused more on those who would “listen” to his homily.


I make brief reference to his paintings of the Annunciation – two in the convent of San Marco, Florence, and two made for churches: one for the convent Church in Fiesole, just north of Florence and another for Cortona.


The Annunciation painted for the churches – a place where the Eucharist would be celebrated publicly for rich and poor alike, are magnificent, almost opulent. Mary is seated on a throne, one draped with precious fabric, the other embroidered in gold. The angel Gabriel wears a red cloak with gold embroidery and elaborate gold wings. The loggia itself, in which the two meet, has Corinthian columns, one with a roof complete with deep blue starred spandrels; yet both loggias are almost too small, unable to contain the reality of this heavenly encounter. In both, the scene, complete with Adam and Eve being cast from the Garden, proclaims the richness and wealth of God’s love and mercy.


Though Medici money paid for the frescoes in the convent of San Marco, Fra preaching style was driven by his audience, and though the message of the Incarnation remained unchanged, his hearers were now his own friars. But even here in the convent we see two different renderings of the scene.


The first and most famous of all of Fra’s Annunciations greets anyone ascending the stairs to the monastic dormitory. The mood here is much more austere – plain – intimate, than that in the Church paintings.


The only gold is in the halos and the simple detail in the angel’s garb. Even his heavenly wings are multi-colored rather than gold. Mary is seated on a milk stool without even a book of the Scriptures, her arms modestly crossed in humble submission. The loggia where they meet is simple and austere – the spandrels bereft of color – and the door beyond opens to a simple cell, just like those in which the brothers sleep and pray.


Though the stairs led to the cloistered cells, “outsiders” might also encounter this painting since Cosimo di Medici himself had a cell in the monastery and meetings were often held in the library on the same floor. Thus we can find yet another level of Fra Angelico’s personalized preaching. The frescoed Annunciation in the solitude of a Dominican brother’s cell (#3) demonstrates Fra’s masterful restraint. The sole “hearer” for this preaching is the Dominican Friar – alone in prayer and study.


All flourish is gone, aside from the gold of the halos. Even the garden in the background has disappeared, and the open door is now a mere rectangle on the side wall. The one addition is the Friar – St. Peter Martyr – who stands, like the friar in the cell, in silent adoration. Silence – stillness – solitude before the mystery of the Incarnation.


How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”




We cannot conclude without addressing one more “knowledge” – the fourth knowledge required of the preacher – or more accurately, a knowledge to which the preacher is not privy.


The knowledge of where, when, and how the Spirit moves in the preacher, in his words, and in his listeners. At times the preacher is well-prepared, yet finds that the seeds sown fall on rock or among the weeds. Sometimes the preacher, though less prepared, finds his seeds fall on good soil. And more often than not, the preacher has no response and does not know the results of his preaching.


But he preaches anyway, persevering in the threefold knowledge available to him, because he is a Dominican, a member of the Order of Dominic, an Order the Father described to Catherine as “larga, tutta gioconda …: uno giardino dilettissimo in sé”, “broad and joyful… a beautiful garden” (Dialogue 158).


And the secret of this Dominican joy, as Father Philipon, O.P., reminds us, “lies in the peaceful certitude that God is infinitely happy in the society of the Three Divine Persons, even if men refuse to know him and receive Him.”[16]


In the knowledge of God and his place in relation to God, the Dominican soul is at peace and can with beautiful feet joyfully proclaim to Zion – to the entire world, “your God reigns.”

sr. Catherine Droste OP

[1] S. Pinckaers, Morality, The Catholic View (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), p. 78.

[2] Pinckaers, Morality, p. 80.

[3] Fr. M. M. Philipon, O.P. “The Dominican Soul” Dominicana, XLI (1956), 14-19.

[4] Proposition 20: In the New Evangelization, there should be a particular attention paid to the way of beauty: Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony to the young who follow Jesus, not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. As Augustine affirmed, “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Confessions, Bk IV, 13.20). Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe. In this light artists feel themselves both spoken to and privileged communicators of the New Evangelization. In the formation of seminarians, education in beauty should not be neglected nor education in the sacred arts as we are reminded in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (cf.Sacrosanctum concilium, 129). Beauty should always be a special dimension of the new evangelization. It is necessary that the Church be vigilant in caring for and promoting the quality of the art that is permitted in the sacred spaces reserved for liturgical celebrations, guarding both its beauty and the truthfulness of its expression. It is important for the New Evangelization that the Church be present in all fields of art, so as to support with her spiritual and pastoral presence the artists in their search for creativity and to foster a living and true spiritual experience of salvation that becomes present in their work.

[5] R. Cantalamessa and C. Martini, St. Francis and the Cross: Reflections on Suffering, Weakness and Joy (Franciscan Media, 2003), 23-47.

[6] Two comments as to the text: 1) I use the term preacher in a broad sense, not merely liturgical; 2) I use the pronoun “he” for simplicity, in reference to the human being – male and female.

[7] Pausanias, 110-180 A.D; cf. S.E. Alcock, J.F. Cherry, J.Elsner, Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece (Oxford, 2001).

[8] Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, 8 December 1975, 41.

[9] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., Paul on Preaching (London: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 255.

[10] Murphy-O’Connor, 255-256.

[11] Catherine of Siena identified the intimate unity between the first two elements of self-knowledge. It was a principle Christ taught her very early, when, as she told Raymond of Capua, the Father asked her one day in prayer:  “Do you know, daughter, who you are, and who I am?” Without awaiting her response He told her, “You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is” (Life 79). This Twofold knowledge – of self and God revealed in His Word is necessary to avoid falling into pride – ambition – vainglory, those vices Thomas lists as opposed to humility and magnanimity.

[12]  It should be noted that Paul ends this passage paraphrasing Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

[13] E. Cachia, O.P., The Apostolic Ideal of the Early Friars Preachers (Malta, 1956), 27 quoting Acta Gen., MOPH, III, 12, 15.

[14] Cachia, 27 quoting II Const. d. II, c. XII, AFP, XVIII, 64; Acta Gen., MOPH, III, 24.

[15] Cf. Murphy-O’Connor, 204; 1 Timothy 6.3-10.

[16] M.M. Philipon, O.P., “The Dominican Soul.”

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