Evenings With St. Dominic
Snapshot of a daily devotion at the Basilica San Domenico in Bologna
My globetrotting has currently landed me in the Northern Italian city of Bologna for about a half year. A large university town with a vibrant social scene, Bologna also happens to be the location of the famous Basilica San Domenico (St. Dominic, 13th-century Catholic priest and founder of the Dominican Order). The church is the final resting place for the saint’s remains.
St. Dominic’s bones lay securely in an architecturally breathtaking sarcophagus at the center of one of the basilica chapels. A reliquary at its base displays his preserved skull behind a Plexiglas window. Three separate Michelangelo sculptures adorn an elaborately designed altar, topped with a spire that climbs to the cupola roof — the Arca di San Domenico. The ceiling bears a massive 17th-century fresco, St. Dominic’s Glory, painted by Italian artist Guido Reni. The vivid colors depict a heavenly scene in which the saint is flanked on one side by Christ and on the other by the Virgin Mary.
I attend the Rosary every night here. As Church tradition holds that St. Dominic was gifted the Holy Rosary by the Blessed Mother herself, my gratitude for such an opportunity is significant. Appearing to him in an apparition as he fervently prayed for a means to combat the malign cultural forces in his own morally degrading age, the Virgin Mary instructed the undoubtedly awe-struck friar in this “battering ram” against evil. The Rosary, she informed him, would be the primary weapon of spiritual warfare for pious Christians.
Upon its conclusion, churchgoers shuffle from the Rosary Chapel over to St. Dominic’s altar. They say a private prayer and often kiss the sarcophagus. I always make sure that I am the last one, and I approach the shrine after everyone else has left. Kneeling in front of the reliquary, the motion sensor-lights flick on, and I am suddenly eye level with the 800-year-old skull (last August 6th marked exactly 800 years since his death). I proceed to make my private pleas to St. Dominic.
My protestant friends — and perhaps anyone else that isn’t a small-o orthodox Christian — will say this smacks of superstition and possibly even idol worship. I do not believe this is the case.
When I kneel in front of the bones of St. Dominic, I am not praying to him in the sense of worship. I am a supplicant before his holy example, asking that I may distinguish the patterns of his life that will allow me to grow closer to God on my own. The Holy Rosary encourages us to reflect on the ideal, the perfect human born from pure innocence — I see the image before me towards which I must strive. However, as a fallen sinner, it is inevitably hard to distinguish how to approach the divinity of Christ, and I continuously waver. The lives of the saints provide useful instruction for how we too can better orient our existence towards Him.
Contemplating the saint’s life, the presence of God seems amplified in the surrounding beauty: St. Dominic’s personal asceticism, his denial of worldliness, his unequivocal devotion to a life of constant worship in Jesus Christ. My own apprehensions and concerns seem to melt away. For an hour every night, I am able to escape the artifices of 21st-century life and participate in something truly timeless and transcendent. The more I give myself to prayer here, the closer I feel to Christ.
Through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, I ask that I may humbly reflect upon those who have righteously gone before me in Christ, and see illuminated in their example that which will help me bear my own cross and follow the Son of Man. Like a developing athlete, I look to the Hall of Famer for the lessons he may have learned throughout his own life, allowing him to more closely approach the ideal of the perfect player — knowing that even he is never done learning and is bound to also fall short of that ultimate example.
This is where I believe the significance of saintly relics and artifacts truly lies. It is also why we should embrace aesthetic beauty in our places of worship. Just as the Act of Contrition states our intention to avoid the near occasions of sin, so placing ourselves in the physical circumstances to embrace the overwhelming beauty of creation can facilitate our spiritual growth towards God.
Most nights, while I am still kneeling in prayer before the bones of St. Dominic, the melodic singing of the Dominican friars beginning nightly Vespers goads me gently back to earth. The procession of men travels from the monumental choir behind the basilica’s primary high alter over to the chapel, and they conclude the ceremony with prayers and blessings at the sarcophagus. I leave the church with a full heart.
Walking back to my apartment, my spirit is elevated and my mind focused; the world seems more vivid and more pronounced. The rampant graffiti that irreverently disrupts the quaintness of otherwise picturesque side streets seems to invoke less contempt in me than it otherwise does. Perhaps there are those who will argue that any type of meditative practice, even one independent of Christ, is capable of eliciting the same response.
What I do know is that my own personal and utter need of Christ is keenly felt. Juxtaposed with the serenity and beauty of the basilica, the fallen nature of the world is more clearly illustrated; this fact, however, surprisingly gives me solace. As reflecting on St. Dominic’s devotion to Christ helps me to more closely order my own life towards the ideal, so the Church is meant to aid the world in its approach to the Heavenly Kingdom. Even if only temporarily, my cynicism is subdued and I am grateful.
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