Like St. Norbert and St. Francis, St. Dominic was one of the towering figures of religious life in the 12thand 13th centuries. Each of them began orders that were to have a profound influence, first, on the church in Europe, and then throughout the world.
Dominic did not set out to found a new religious order. He was happy as a priest/scholar, living a life of prayer and study. But, on a trip with his bishop through Toulouse, he came across a sect called the Albigensians, or Carthars (from the Greek, meaning “the pure.”) The Albigensians were Gnostics, who, like that ancient sect, divided everything in two parts: the material world, which they believed evil and of no value, and the spiritual world, which they believed good and holy.
By taking on human flesh, by being born as a man, by emerging from the womb of his mother, Christ has made all human flesh holy, a sign of God made visible.
This heresy is with us even today, and, like those who have followed Gnosticism before, practitioners generally fall into two camps: Those who live severely ascetic lives, trying to put away all flesh, and those who, because the flesh is worthless, indulge in all manner of sexual license. If the flesh is of no value, who cares what becomes of it? Starve it or use it up; it doesn’t matter. The liberation of the soul (good) from the body (bad) was the highest calling, so suicide, starvation and turning away from childbearing were both encouraged and applauded.
Dominic became convinced that a group of preachers needed to go out among the people and preach the truth of the Incarnation, and, so, of human flesh. By taking on human flesh, by being born as a man, by emerging from the womb of his mother, Christ has made all human flesh holy, a sign of God made visible.
Dominic asked the pope for permission to begin his order. Unlike religious who take a vow of stability, and promise to remain in their abbey, monastery or convent, these men and women travelled throughout the land, preaching and teaching. We know them today as the Dominicans, or the Order of Preachers.