Icon written by Cheryl Liske

April 17th is the Anniversary of the foundation of the Monastery at Prouilhe in 1206 (modern day France), the first foundation of the Dominican Order. Dominican historian, Barbara Beaumont, OP describes them as women who sought “an authentic religious life.” They were seekers of truth, open to conversion and new truths.

When I graduated from a Dominican-run grade school, way back in 1965, we were given a little pin with the year of our graduation, the Dominican shield and the word ” Veritas,” which our 8th grade nun explained meant “Truth.” “Cool,” I thought “really cool!”  What I knew was the world as I/we knew it was exploding.  The free speech movement had already rocked campuses, the civil rights movement and anti-war movements were pulling the rug out from under the accepted story about America and Vatican II had begun to shatter “strongly held” but way-less-thought-out beliefs and practices.  No better time to be a seeker of truth!  “Cool!”

Years later, I became a Dominican sister and our t-shirt emblazoned motto is to “Seek Truth, Make Peace, Reverence Life.”  Still very cool.

Somewhere along the line in my Dominican formation I learned that the first foundation of the Dominican Order was a foundation of women (not men!) located in Prouilhe, France in the year 1206.  We know almost nothing about these women and yet, for good or ill, I am sort of haunted by the early women of Prouilhe.  The times they lived in were interesting times.  New ideas were being carried back to their region by crusaders and pilgrims from the east and from the interaction with the “Moors” in the west.  These new ideas brought unrest and Europe was rife with church reformers – from inside and outside the church — such as the Order of Penitents, the Albigensians, the Waldensians, the rise of Oblates, i.e. lay people attaching themselves to monasteries and the Cistercian reforms.

So, the first thing we “know” about these women of Prouilhe (from a 1206 land deed) was that they were “converts.” But converts from what?  Who were they before they came to be housed at Ste. Marie of Prouilhe?  Dominican historian, Barbara Beaumont, OP describes them as women who sought “an authentic religious life.”  If so, then before they were converts – they were seekers:  seekers of truth, not guardians of truth (the Dominican’s historic dark side); seekers who were open to change and conversion in the face of new truths.

Dominican Spirituality, at its feminine best, seeks truth and is open to conversion.

Historians are pretty much in agreement that at least originally, this housing of these women converts was as much a pastoral response to their impoverishment as it was a strategy for creating a “base of operations” for the Holy Preaching, (the preaching mission to convert the Albigensians).  As his order is being established, Dominic becomes “Lord” of this foundation.  But oddly enough for the times, he seems to direct that the deeds and transfers of property be put in the names of the women and dedicated to their patrimony not to a male counterpart.

Dominic writes a governing rule (lost to us now) for the women of Prouilhe that allows them, not some outside agent (like Dominic himself) to elect their own Prioress.  History tells us that down through the ages the women of Prouilhe insisted (many times unsuccessfully) on their right of electing their own Prioress.

So, it seems that Dominican Spirituality, at its feminine best, understands the dignity of individuals and their inherent right to determine their own destiny within the context of community.

And then there’s Dominic the agent of their conversion — a priest from a Spanish monastic cathedral community, schooled in the medieval theology of his day (though not so much that he becomes a “master” of theology) and in the deep medieval rituals of monastic life.  The medieval mind understood that the Word of God was written in two books – the book of scriptures and in book of nature or the world.  The Dominican Thomas Aquinas would enshrine this concept in his studies and writings. The women of Prouilhe were converts to this truth, that this world not only wasn’t evil, as they may have previously held, it was, because of the presence of Christ, the place where God can be encountered.

Dominican Spirituality, at its feminine best, recognizes the original blessing and the Christ incarnate in the world around us.

There is in the history of the Dominican Order a gap in time, maybe eight years when the life Dominic seems to be unrecorded and silent. He is believed to have been in Fanjeau, the town just up the hill from Prouilhe or in Prouilhe itself.  But the countryside all around Prouilhe is all but silent.  In 1207, the Pope declares a crusade against the “heretics” of the region and Simon de Montfort, as the head of the Pope’s own army, slaughters 10,000 or 20,000 in the not far away town of Bezier.  The fortress town of Carcassone is besieged and Fanjeau itself is emptied of its citizens by the point of the sword some according to the record forced to flee without even the clothes on their backs.

Neither the women of Prouilhe nor Dominic could not have known about the violence, perpetrated in the name of religion that engulfed the region. But there is nothing recorded.

Dominican Spirituality, at its feminine best, deeply mourns those times when we are and have been silent in the face of sin and violence.

Dominican history and Dominican spirituality are generally seen from the male perspective.  And while some women’s stories are told they are often ignored or unseen in the general history of the order.  For example, after the French revolution and the suppression of monasteries the generally accepted story of the Dominican Order is that in France the Dominican Order was totally wiped out.  Then Fr. Lacordaire (credited with re-founding the Order in France) “came back from his novitiate in Rome in 1840 and in 1843 he founded a community of three brothers in Nancy and the people started to say ‘The Dominican Order is restored.’” [1]

The truth is a bit more complicated.  While the men were disbursed, the 1839 statistics show at least 135 sisters in six monastic communities spread throughout France.  Fr. Lacordaire himself credits the women for the “survival” of the Dominican Order in France when he writes in 1841 to the Prioress of one of the surviving monasteries:

My Very Reverend Mother

It was a real consolation to me to receive your letter in which you tell me of the role you will have through your vows and your prayers in the re-establishment in France of the Order of Friars Preacher. You preceded us in the day of St Dominic, since it was with the Monastery of Our Lady of Prouilhe that he began his work, and today, after our terrible revolutions, you have been the first to reappear in our country. And so we will only be following you, as in previous times, and in this way God seems to have intentionally preserved your rights as elder sisters.

In her book Keeping Faith with the Preachers Barbara Beaumont, OP goes on the say,

“From the stories of survival of half a dozen communities it has become clear that it is the fact of being able to maintain a group identity, with at least some sisters continuing to live and pray together, that was the key factor in determining the future of Dominican nuns. The actual number of sisters seems not to have been important. This is undoubtedly what facilitated the resumption of regular religious life. Even lodged in private houses, in civilian clothes, without regular access to the celebration of the sacraments, the fact of being a small core safeguarded the sense of collective identity, of belonging to something beyond the individual and personal identity.” P. 86

Dominican Spirituality, at its feminine best, finds its identity in the communion of its members as they discern the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel.

Paul Murray, OP, in his book The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality (2006) says that the contours of Dominican Spirituality were established by the Friars [my emphasis] as they framed the emerging order.  Then in a footnote on page 6 he recognizes that nuns are part of the order from the beginning and that “various lay groups and confraternities” came to be part of the “Dominican family.”  Lastly, (and this is his last word on this subject) he says, “in recent centuries, a number of active, non-cloistered congregations of Dominican women have also emerged.”

Really? Today’s Dominican sisters didn’t just “emerge” from under a rock! The sisters left their cloisters to answer the needs of the people of God. Dominican sisters left their cloisters but not their heritage.  After Vatican II we renewed ourselves more deeply in the Dominican charism.

For active Dominican women the charism of Preaching meant immersing ourselves in the Word of God through prayer and study and then making that Word visible in the world – in other words to contemplate and to hand on the fruits of contemplation.

Dominican Spirituality, at its feminine best, is a Spirituality of “entanglement” with the Word and with our World.

Cheryl Liske, OP


Cheryl Liske, OP

[1] Keeping Faith with the Preachers by Barbara Beaumont, OP