Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Dominican Habit

There is a tradition that Our Lady is called the Vestiaria (Lady of the Robes) of the Order of Preachers and the painting shown here recounts the legend that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bl Reginald of Orleans in 1218, cured him of an illness and showed him the habit of the Order. As such, the early friars piously believed that Our Lady designed our habit herself.

February 12 is normally the Dominican commemoration of Bl Reginald who is remembered for his association with the habit, although that may well be the least of his achievements; he was also an excellent preacher, administrator and a holy man who might well have succeeded St Dominic as Master of the Order if he had not pre-deceased him.

Excellent accounts of the life of this Dominican beatus may be found at the Australian Province's Vocations site and the Dominican's International Site. As such, I have no need to add to this largesse of biographical accounts. Instead, I wish to speak about the Habit of the Order of Friars Preachers.

Before I entered the Novitiate, I recall talking to Dominican fathers in the Philippines and they commented on the beauty of the habit and since then, I have heard other people comment on the beauty of our black and white habit and indeed, some of them told me that, in their opinion, it is the most beautiful religious habit in the Church! Perhaps this is not surprising if Our Lady truly designed it! I'd admit it is a picturesque habit; Br Paul Mills and I have been accosted by tourists in Cambridge quite a few times to pose for photos with them - the less daring tourists just photograph us as we walk past them!

But the habit, of course, if far more than a beautiful or tourist-attracting garment! At the most basic level, it is a "sign of our consecration", as the Dominican Constitutions remind us. It also unites us as one Order of Preaching friars, reaching across the centuries to the first friars who were clothed in the "white habit of St Dominic". Again and again, the Vitae Fratrum, a collection of tales about the early Dominicans, mentions the habit as the sign par excellence of belonging to the Order and a mark of salvation in Christ.

However, it is noteworthy that Dominicans are most often represented in art with the black cappa or cape over the white habit. This was worn whenever the friar ventured outside the convent, whenever preaching in the name of the Order and during the Liturgy, inside the convent, from All Souls' day until the Gloria was sung at the Easter Vigil. I think it is important that we maintain this practice because we are most easily identified as 'Blackfriars' when we don the black cappa; and this reinforces what people have already seen in representational art (of Dominican saints etc). How often in the past, I had looked at paintings of St Thomas Aquinas and imagined he was part of a now-defunct Order because I could not recall ever seeing a black and white habit in the contemporary Church! I recall also my first visit to the shrine of St Albert the Great in Cologne and when I saw the friars in white habits, I thought they were Cistercians or members of some other monastic order and that the Dominicans had 'pulled out' from that church! Of course, this is ignorance on my part... But we are visually-stimulated people who should not underestimate the visual impact of centuries of Church art and the common depiction of Dominicans in black and white has created a strong association in people's minds. Moreover, many people have wondered why Blackfriars (as we're called in England) wear white garments; this name only makes sense when we don the cappa. As such, the wearing of the full habit witnesses to the presence of the Order of Preachers (and by extension, the Church) in an area and assists people in connecting present-day Dominicans with our roots and our saints. Thus the historian William Hinnebusch, O.P. writes: "To all Dominicans then the habit is doubly dear. Mary endorsed it, Dominic wore it. The canons of Osma never carried their habit beyond the limits of their diocese; the Friars Preachers carried theirs all over the world, making it par excellence the black and white habit."

But in a sense all the fore-going is insignificant were it not for this final point: the habit is habit-forming. In fact, the Latin word habitus means 'garment, condition of style' but this term has a transferred meaning: 'nature, character, disposition'. This is the sense in which St Thomas Aquinas uses the word habitus. Thomas also teaches that we are schooled in the virtues so that we acquire them as part of our character and disposition; they become a habit, something habitual. As such, wearing the habit can help school us in the virtues; it forms the virtues. In our discussions with the Novice Master, we have commented on how wearing the habit when we're out on the streets, in the Catholic chaplaincy or in the shops reminds us that we are 'representatives' of the Order and of the Church. As such, we are constantly aware that we ought to behave as 'religious' are expected to. This awareness, at first, causes us to act in a certain manner - as religious, but with time, this manner of behaving shapes us and schools so that we become religious. As the Prior said to me once: "If you act kind, you will become kind." The Thomistic understanding of habitus (at least in my limited understanding of it) is that virtues are acquired by practising them so that they become instinctive and habitual, in the best sense of that word. As we are material creatures, the habit can and does, at best, act as a sacramental that reminds us of our consecration to God and what we are called to be.

To assist us in this, there are also prayers traditionally said as the habit is put on in the morning. This site excellently explains and shows pictures of the parts of the habit and the traditional prayers that are said as they are worn. I myself try to say prayers as I don the habit in the early morning, although I have adapted them slightly for my personal use:

Tunic: Clothe me, Lord, in the garments of salvation (cf Isa 61:10);
Belt: Encircle me, Lord, with justice and purity (cf Isa 11:5);
Rosary: (Kissing the Crucifix) Gird your sword of truth and prayer upon my thigh (cf Ps 45:3-4, Eph 6:14) The Rosary is worn on the left side where a knight hung his sword and was added to the habit in the 16th century;
Scapular: (Kissing the Scapular) I place myself under your protection, O Blessed Mother, and ask to imitate your humility in all things. It is believed that the scapular was especially given to the Order by Our Lady in place of the canon's rochet and is seen as sign of her care. It was also kissed when friars used to perform the venia, a ritual act of humility and obedience;
Capuce (Hood): Come down, O Holy Spirit, and overshadow me that I may love God above all else. (cf Lk 1:35) Incidentally, the capuce used to be connected to the scapular as was the hood of the cappa to the actual black cape, until the 14th century;
Cappa: You, Lord, are a shield around me... (Ps 3:3);
Black Capuce: ...From all my sins deliver me (cf Ps 34). This in remembrance of the Dominican identification of the colour black with penance.

With prayers like these, the habit reminds me of the virtues and habits that I am striving, by the grace of God, to practice and live in my religious life.

A final note on the habit, which I shall borrow from fr Hinnebusch:
"The friar wore it during his life and was buried in it at death... Its cloth, colour and cut expressed the poverty, chastity and obedience he had promised. Like the habit of all canons regular, the Order's habit had to be made of unfinished and undyed wool. This accounts for its being black and white. The friar saw in these two colours the expression of penance and purity, and of poverty also because no money had been spent in dyeing the cloth. Where it was hard to get wool, the friar could make his habit of other common material expressive of poverty."


Anonymous Faith said...

Br. Lawrence
Very interesting. Look at Trinitarians were founded 1213. Dominican habit - 1218. I searched a little and couldn't see when the Trinitarians adopted their habit. Imitation is a form of flattery.

1:02 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Faith: It's certainly intriguing and I was rather surprised actually. Thank you for alerting me to this Order.

However, if one looks at one will notice an illumination from a medieval manuscript which shows the Trinitarians in their habits, which are clearly different from the OP habit. Most noteworthy is the red and blue cross, of course, but note also the white cloaks.

The holy picture you directed me to in the site you gave appears far more modern...

12:12 am  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Ah... I have found their main website at

Here there is another modern picture of their founder St John of Matha in a white habit with a cape emblazoned with their red and blue cross. The cape is black. Further investigation of images of the Trinitarian saints is confusinng. Some have white capes, many black and a few brown...

However, this contradicts the medieval manuscript I mention above and thus it may be a modern invention of its more recent 19th century re-foundation?

The Rule of the Trinitarians given at:
states that "Their garments are to be woolen and white. They may each have one fur-lined garment as well as breeches, which they are not to take off while reposing" and "The emblem is to be placed on the capes of the brothers." Later on, "The habit is a sign of our consecration and fraternity. According to the tradition handed down in the Order, it consists of a white tunic with a black belt, a white scapular on which a cross of red and blue color is placed, and of a white capuche". No mention here of a cape of any colour.

Thus, based on this and the illumination mentioned above, we can assume that any cape (if one was used) may well have been white.

However, even were the cape to be black, this would not be all that unusual for the 13th century as the canons of Osma also had black travelling cloaks over their white habits. Actually Hinnebusch suggests that the OP habit is essentially that of a canon with the scapular of a monk replacing the rochet. Hence, the Dominican tradition is more specific - Our Lady gave the white scapular to Bl Reginald in place of the canon's rochet/ surplice.

Thanks again for raising this fascinating point.

12:33 am  
Blogger Daughter of St. John said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing the prayers with us.

All the time I was in Oxford I never saw a Dominican! Maybe I was just in the wrong part of town though (near Green College) I'll be sure to keep my eyes peeled next time I'm over!

7:17 pm  
Blogger Gustavo said...

This is Br. Gustavo Sanchez, OSST. We were founded in 1198. We were first thatn Dominicans. We cant talk about "copy" the dominican habit. Some pictures of our saints show our friars with white cappas, certains regions wore it white. You can to to and ask. Algo to www. y ask to the historian of the order...his name is Fr. Joe Gross and he can give you a detail story of the habit.

4:05 am  
Blogger Catholic lad said...

I have a question:

When and why were the use of the black capuce and scapular abolished for brothers coadjutors?

It seems like such a drastic break in the traditional color-coding. It also makes people wonder about St. Martin de Porres statues: as you now never see a Dominican brother coadjutor wearing the same habit as he...

5:11 pm  
Blogger Jessica said...

Why is the hood a certain length? I was told that it is supposed to cover the ears but leave the wearer with his peripheral vision. But why???

I was discussing this with a Dominican who said his hood was too long because it went a little past his forehead. Thanks.

12:46 am  
Blogger Peter Cory said...

Is there an appropriate head dress for a Dominican Brother other than the hood? Could they wear a Zucetto?

7:57 am  
Blogger Lawrence Lew OP said...

Yes, a black zucchetto may be worn, but not as part of the habit. It may be worn by choice in non-liturgical situations.

2:04 pm  

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