We use the phrase "trial by fire" to describe a difficult testing used to prove someone or something. The expression comes from an actual event that was used to determine the truth of a claim. In his battle with the heresies of his day, St. Dominic de Guzmán (1170 - 1221) took part in a trial by fire. Learn how it turned out for the Spanish saint.
The Early Life of St. Dominic
Every mother of a son dreams of great things for her son, but it is not every son's mission and greatness that is foreshadowed to the mother in her dreams. However, such was the case with Dominic. The founder of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, was not even born when the Lord let his mother, Bl. Jane of Aza, know that her son was destined to spread the Light to the world.
When she was pregnant with her son, who was born around 1170, Bl. Jane dreamed that she gave birth to a dog that left her and took up a burning torch which it used to set the world on fire. If that were not enough, the future light-bringing mission of St. Dominic was confirmed by a dream his godmother had. In that dream she perceived the young child with a forehead lit by a brilliant star that shown so bright that it lit up the entire world with its luminescence.
Surely, there was something special about this young man, and the Lord let his mother and godmother know that this young man had been entrusted to them.
That he grew up in a pious household can be judged by the fruit of the family. His mother, as has been noted, is a blessed as she was beatified by Pope Leo XII in 1828. One brother, Antonio, who was the oldest of three sons, was ordained a secular priest. Later he gave his inheritance to the poor and served the ill as a priest in a hospital. Dominic's other brother Manes was to join him in the Order of Preachers as one of the first 15 members. He is now known as Bl. Manes after being beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1834.
After his seventh year, Dominic's education began under the guidance of his maternal uncle, the archpriest of Gumiel d'Izan which was not so great a distance from his hometown of Calaroga, Spain. This arrangment continued for seven years until Dominic began to attend the University of Palencia where he distinguished himself in his studies and demeanor. Although somewhat of a serious person at this time in his life, there is one story from his university days that demonstrates his heart for the suffering. When Dominic became aware of the plight of those in the town of Palencia who were going hungry due to a famine, he decided to do what he could. He sold his possesions including his precious books which included his annotations in order to buy food for those who were in need.
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The First Steps Toward His Mission
Eventually, the mission for Dominic would begin to unfold. First, he was appointed by the Bishop of Osma to the cathedral chapter in order to assist the prelate in his efforts to bring about reform. Over the course of the years, Dominic was a positive influence on the other bishops and the reform that the bishop sought began to take root. That the bishop was happy with this selection was demonstrated when he made Dominic the superior of the chapter or canons regular.
Then, in 1503, he joined his bishop on a diplomatic mission to travel from Spain to Denmark in order try to obtain a bride for the prince of Castile. The mission was successful, but more importantly for Dominic, during his trip he experienced first-hand the ravages of the Albigensian heresy which had taken root in southern France.
The Albigensian Heresy
The Albigensian heresy was a renewal of the Manichean heresy which had held St. Augustine of Hippo's heart for many years prior to his conversion. The essential idea of Albigensian belief is dualism, namely that there are two equally opposed gods. One god is good and one god is evil. The good things of the world come from the good god, and the evil things of the world come from the evil god.
The evil of the world extends to material items including the body. Thus, to the Albigensians the Incarnation is actually a bit of show because Jesus would not have actually taken on an evil body. In fact, in this heresy, part of the mission of the good god is to help creatures free their souls from the grips of their bodies.
Because of these ideas, it was common to see severe asceticism, abstaining from marriage, and even suicide as acts undertaken to achieve the freeing of the soul from the body.
Dominic's response to his first encounter with the heresy was very telling. The bishop and he stayed at an inn in Toulouse, France that was owned by an Albigensian. Dominic listed patiently to the innkeeper explain his beliefs and then spent hours in discussion and persuasion in order to help win back his soul. By the next morning, the man was convinced and ready to give a good confession and return to the Church.
At this point, the mission was becoming clearer to Dominic. He was being called to preach and teach in order to win back souls who were under the grip of heretical ideas. By sharing the Light of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, he would be able to expose what is true and what is false in order to show the heretical beliefs for what they were. And he also understood that he should gather and organize like-minded men who would work with him in this mission.
It would take over a decade before he would begin to see the actual beginnings of his efforts to bring about the organization of an order.
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Joining the Battle for Hearts
Again, the bishop and Dominic were to travel on a diplomatic mission. This time, they were to help escort the Danish princess to Castile for her wedding. The political mission was abandoned when they received word that the princess had died. Dominic took this opportunity to go to Rome to present his ideas for preaching to the pope.
Instead of granting him his request to begin an order, the pope sent him to join forces with Cistercian monks who had already been commissioned by the pope to turn back the tide of the Albigensian heresy. Unfortunately, their efforts were failing because in contrast to the lives of the monks, the leaders of the Albigensians were living holier lives of asceticism and self-denial. The people respected the Albigensians and gave little credit to the monks.
Dominic recognized this was a major problem, and he knew that lives of holiness were key to winning over hearts and minds. Then, when one of the leaders of the monks was killed, a military crusade was undertaken against the heretics. Dominic urged peaceful means instead of warfare, but it was to no avail. He was left to minister to those towns who surrendered rather than fight.
The Founding of the Dominicans
During this time, Dominic had begun to gather others around him who agreed to living holy lives and using their personality, persuasion and thorough knowledge of Scriptures to engage the Albigensians in discussions and debates.
Dominic and his followers were moved by compassion. They saw those who had strayed as lost sheep who needed to be returned to the fold. They would debate in the area of ideas in order to win over their hearts through their minds. They did not see the Albigensians as enemies to be conquered.
By 1214, he had returned to Toulouse and was supported by the local bishop in his efforts to preach and teach. As they began to see hearts changed, Dominic continued his efforts to organize the men. He wrote a rule for the order. What had started out as a diocesan effort, would eventually become universal as Dominic had envisioned it.
The official acceptance of the Order of Preachers was granted by the pope in December of 1216. Not long after that, Dominic would become the Master General of the order. Over the remaining years of his life, he would oversee the order's growth and development. By the time of his death in 1221, there were sixty friaries in four countries.
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Trial by Fire
The groundwork which Dominic laid, allowed for his fellow friars and he to be effective in their preaching and teaching. In some cases because they could not be out-debated, they were threatened with physical violence. And in other cases, they were challenged to other kinds of trials.
One time Dominic agreed to a public debate with an Albigensian preacher in front of a group of judges. After the debate, there appeared to be a stalemate and the crowd was pushing for a verdict one way or the other. The judges conferred and asked if both sides would be willing to put their teachings to a trial by fire.
Although unusual, this was not an unknown request to render a decision. The idea was that if something were true and accurate and of God it would not be harmed by fire. Both Dominic and the preacher agreed. The preacher went first and put a copy of his teachings on the fire. The manuscript was quickly consumed by the flames.
When Dominic's turn came, he put his writings in the fire. Not only did the book not burn, it jumped out of the fire. The book was picked up by Dominic and thrown again on to the fire with the same result. A third try was made and the book again jumped out of the fire.
After the miracle which showed God's hand in preserving Dominic's manuscript, a few among the crowd were convinced and repented. However, the preacher was not one of them.
Of course, the miracle strengthened Dominic and encouraged him in his efforts.
This miracle was referenced in 1254 in a Divine Office composed by the Bishop of Orvieto. Then later, the King of France, Charles le Bel purchased the house in Fanjeaux where the trial was believed to have happened and made the house into a chapel.
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