The sun was shining over acres of drying sunflowers as our rental Peugeot sped along the highway through Cathar Territory in the south of France. As a lay Dominican, I was beyond excited to visit Prouille, the first religious house established by St. Dominic. When I wasn’t navigating, I was mentally rehearsing how to ask, in my semi-adequate French, if someone could help me find the spot where Our Lady gave the Rosary to St. Dominic — surely a spot worth marking for the ages! We followed signs to Fanjeaux, until we found signs instructing us to turn right, down a slight hill off the main road, to the Monastère des Dominicaines. The small gravel parking lot was busy for a weekday afternoon, filled with cargo vans. I looked up at the façade of the basilica and noted construction workers, their ladders, and scaffolding.
We made our way into the monastery welcome center, where we were greeted by one of the nuns of the monastery. I explained in French as best I could that I was une americaine et une laic Dominicaine, and that I was hoping to find the place where Our Lady a donné le Rosaire a Père Dominic.
“Ah,” she said in English, “that is — how do you say — legend.”
I’d suspected as much, but I was still hoping that perhaps there was some honored place where it was believed that St. Dominic had stood and talked to Mary in some way, at least —
“Non,” Sister replied before telling me how it’s more practically thought that the Rosary came to be such a popular devotion through the devotion of the laypeople, which was then just attributed to St. Dominic because of his known devotion to Our Lady.
Well, at least we were invited to join the sisters for prayer. Sister led us up a temporary wooden rampway through the construction zone into a side chapel, bright and bare except for a single plaster statue of Mary, but so full of sunlight that I almost had to put my sunglasses on. An international community of nuns prayed Midday Prayer in French, followed by the Rosary, each sister leading a mystery. Only three of the five of us in our family know the Rosary prayers in French, so at one point, an Asian sister was looking out of the corner of her eye at our family, and when it was her turn to lead, she prayed in English. I’m pretty sure I caught her smiling when she heard my youngest and my husband finally join in!
While we left without having fulfilled my hope of standing where St. Dominic stood when he received the gift of the Rosary, we certainly did not leave empty handed — or empty-hearted. The monastery & attached basilica were undergoing a lengthy rebuilding process after having been desecrated during the French Revolution. A church repeatedly declared dead — by the Albigensians and by the French Revolution and everything in between — was being rebuilt through the dedication of the least of us, here in this shelter set aside by Dominic and his early followers, a shelter for young women who wanted to follow Jesus even if their families and friends thought they were folles — crazy.
As we returned to our car, I looked up the hill to the ancient Cathar fortress city of Fanjeaux. I imagined what it would have been like to be Dominic, wanting so badly to share the good news of Jesus with hearts made fortresses against the Truth. While a pious legend has Mary putting her Rosary in the hand of Dominic just the one time, in the end, it was the simple persistence, the simple building and rebuilding of the unnamed faithful who took up Dominic’s fervent spirit and brought goodness and love to this world. However God did this, we know he used Mother Mary to bring Christ to Dominic, to the Cathars, to revolutionaries, to us — over and over and over again.
St. Dominic, pray for us.
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.
How does your faith inform the way you look at pious legends? Where have you seen the Truth of God’s power at work in simple belief?
Take your own Three Minute Pilgrimage to Prouille, France.
Copyright 2019 Erin McCole Cupp