St. Dominic of the Causeway

(Died 1109)

A strange name, you will say. Yes, but it symbolizes the special social concern of this retiring Spanish hermit.

Dominic, a Basque, was one of life’s apparent misfits. He was unattractive in looks, and was neither quick-witted nor even literate. He did feel called to holiness, but he did not know what route to take. Several times he applied for entrance to Benedictine monasteries, but the monks found him too uncouth and slow. Eventually, Dominic concluded that God meant him to go it alone. So he went to a remote spot, built himself a little cabin, planted a garden around it, and set up as a solitary. After that he began to grow wise in the ways of the Lord.

Around 1039, St. Gregory of Ostia discovered Dominic the Hermit. Gregory was himself Spanish by birth, but was the head of a Benedictine monastery in Rome. Pope Benedict IX had come to admire Gregory for his learning and had brought him into the papal government and named him a bishop. Now he sent him as papal legate to the Kingdom of Navarre in Spain. Gregory was no mere papal diplomat. He also preached reform far and wide in his native country. It was in this connection that he met Dominic and became his admirer, advisor and patron. He even ordained him a priest, and made him a sharer in his campaign of reform.

Having been a valuable assistant to St. Gregory for the next five years, Father Dominic grieved at the bishop’s death in 1044. Once more he retired from the world, this time to a wild virgin forest. But the reformist trend led to an increase of pilgrimages to the great Spanish shrine of St. James the Apostle at Campostela. Dominic’s Forest of Bureba lay across the pilgrim route, but there was no proper roadway through its thickets, and the bandits who took cover in its shade were a menace to the devout travelers.

Dominic had already built himself a little hermitage and a woodland chapel. Seeing now the need of passing pilgrims, he cut a straight pathway through the timber and built a causeway or road. This proved a godsend to travelers. Soon other people, having met the hermit and admired him, decided to settle down near him in the Wood of Bureba. With their assistance he was able to do still more to help the pilgrims. He built a bridge and opened a hostel for them to stay at. Even the King, Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, learned about the good work that the Hermit of Bureba was doing, and he commended him and chipped in to help him. Eventually a town grew up out of the settlement, at one time important enough to have a bishop of its own. The town was eventually called San Domingo de la Calzada (St. Dominic of the Roadway).

Each of us is required to help his neighbor; and our neighbors, as Jesus told us, are all those in need. We do not have to circle the world to discover neighbors in want. As the prophet Amos reminds us, there are always “needy at the gate”. That is what Dominic the Hermit came to realize. Thus this ugly duckling turned out to be a man whom others sought out and revered; a man who in a quiet way became a real leader.

The life of Dominic of the Causeway therefore teaches us this: As often as we help our fellow pilgrims along their way to heaven by smoothing their paths and bridging their perils, we will be truly fulfilling the purpose for which God made us.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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