We are grateful to Fr Innocent Smith of the Order of Friars Preachers for sharing with us this explanation of the official texts of First Vespers of the feast of St Dominic. Fr Smith has been studying Dominican chant for many years; he was ordained to priesthood this past May.
In 1982, the Order of Preachers published the Proprium Officium Ordinis Praedicatorum, a supplement to the Liturgia Horarum. The Proprium was promulgated by Fr. Vincent de Couesnongle, Master of the Order from 1974–1983, and approved by the Holy See. This volume provides a variety of resources for enriching the celebration of the contemporary form of the Divine Office with elements drawn from the Order’s liturgical heritage.
For the First Vespers of St. Dominic, six elements drawn from the medieval Dominican rite are provided: the hymn, three antiphons (for the two psalms and New Testament canticle), the long responsory, and the Magnificat antiphon.
The hymn Gaude, mater Ecclesia, like the other chants offered in the Proprium for St. Dominic, dates back to the mid-13th century office of St. Dominic. The hymn melody, set in mode 7, appears to have been developed in the 1250s, replacing a mode 6 melody which was sung to the same text in at least one earlier manuscript from the 1240s. The hymn invites the whole Church to join the courts of heaven in rejoicing at the reception of St. Dominic into heaven, alluding to the beautiful perfume that rose from his tomb as a sign of his sanctity.
The first antiphon, Praeco novus, was used in the medieval office as the first Matins antiphon of St. Dominic. The antiphon, set in mode 1, alludes to a vision witnessed by St. Dominic’s mother, Blessed Jane of Aza, while she was pregnant with St. Dominic himself: a dog with a torch in its mouth appeared, lighting the world on fire. This vision is the basis for the widespread artistic tradition of depicting St. Dominic with a dog at his feet.
The second antiphon, Agonizans pro Christi nomine, was the fifth matins antiphon in the medieval office. The mode 5 antiphon likens Dominic to a sower of the divine seed of the Gospel, and describes his poverty as a “protection” or “armor” which preserved him in his efforts of laboring for Christ. In his early efforts to evangelize the Cathars in Southern France, Dominic and his bishop Diego of Osma recognized the importance of authentic poverty as a counter-witness to the simplicity of the Cathar heretics, recognizing that they needed to out-do their opponents in faithfulness to the poverty of Christ.
Agonizans pro Christi nómine, mundum replet divíno sémine, paupertátis degens sub tégmine. [Laboring for the name of Christ, he fills the world with divine seed, living all the time under the protection of poverty.]
The third antiphon, Liber carnis vinculo, was the ninth Matins antiphon in the medieval Dominican office. Like the first antiphon, this too is set in mode 1, although it has a termination on D (re) rather than on G (sol) as in the first antiphon. In this text, Dominic’s entry into heaven is described in terms of drinking deeply from a cup which he has longed to drink from. In addition to alluding to Christ’s desire to drink the chalice of salvation at the Last Supper, this antiphon draws on a wider Dominican tradition associating Dominic with the “new wine of the Gospel,” a tradition which has been beautifully articulated in Fr. Paul Murray’s The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality (Burns and Oates, 2006).
Liber carnis vínculo caelum introívit, ubi pleno póculo gustat quod sitívit. [Free from the trammels of the flesh he entered heaven, where, drinking deeply, he savours that for which he had thirsted.]
After the short reading, 2 Timothy 4:1-2, which emphasizes the need to preach the word in season and out of season, the long responsory O spem miram is sung. In the medieval Dominican liturgy, First Vespers of major feasts were distinguished by the singing of a long responsory in place of the short responsory now usually sung at Vespers. The Proprium provides for the possibility of following this practice in the contemporary office. O spem alludes to the death-bed promise of St. Dominic that he would be more helpful to his brothers after his death than he had been in life. The responsory begs that Dominic will fulfill this promise through his prayers, asking the Lord to not only heal our bodies but even more so our souls.
R. O spem miram, quam dedisti mortis hora te fléntibus, dum post mortem promisisti te profutúrum frátribus! * Imple, Pater, quod dixisti, nos tuis juvans précibus. V. Qui tot signis claruisti in aegrórum corpóribus, nobis opem ferens Christi, aegris medére móribus. Imple, Pater. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spirítui Sancto. Imple, Pater. [R. O wonderful hope, which you gave to those who wept for you at the hour of your death, promising that after your death you would be helpful to your brethren! * Fulfill, Father, what you have said, and help us by your prayers. V. You shone on the bodies of the sick by so many miracles. Bring us the help of Christ to heal our sick souls. Fulfill, Father, what you have said, and help us by your prayers.]
The Magnificat antiphon, Transit pauper, was also sung in the medieval office for First Vespers of St. Dominic. This mode 7 antiphon makes a series of contrasts concerning Dominic’s entrance into heaven, some of which are opposites (poverty to kingship, death to life, labor to rest, sorrow to joy) and some of which are rather the fulfilment of an earlier tendency (captain to kingship and victor to prize). This antiphon has a comforting message: even in the midst of present difficulties and sorrows, St. Dominic has shown us that all of these struggles can be overcome through God’s grace, with heavenly joy overcoming all earthly sorrow.
Transit pauper ad regni sólium, dux ad sceptrum, victor ad praémium, mors in vitam, labor in ótium: præsens cedit luctus in gáudium. [The poor man passes to the kingly throne, the captain to the royal power, the victor to the prize, death to life, labor to rest: present sorrow gives place to joy.]
May these chants, which have inspired countless Dominican friars, sisters, and lay persons over the past centuries, continue to be an inspiration to those who today ask St. Dominic to bestow on them a double portion of his spirit.