The Story of St. Shusher

Three frescoes of St. Dominic, monastery of San Marco, Florence, Italy

When my wife and I were vacationing in Florence we visited the monastery of San Marco to see the frescoes painted by Fra Angelica. I particularly wanted to see his Annunciation to Mary, along with other religious frescoes he had painted in cells of each monk.  (But that’s another story for another time.)

While we were touring the monastery we came across the three frescoes pictured above.  In each one, a saint holds his finger to his lips and looks us in the eye, as though to encourage us to be silent and reverent in the presence of God.  It’s almost as if you can hear him quietly whispering “Shh.”  This saint delighted and intrigued us, but since we didn’t know who he was, we nicknamed him, “Saint Shusher.”

Later we learned that St. Shusher is actually St. Dominic.  Dominic was an excellent preacher who founded an order of monks in order to defend that truth of the gospel. That’s why he pictured with a book and a quill in two of the frescoes. He also had a reputation for purity and that is why the other fresco shows him holding a stalk of lilies.

But why was he holding his finger to his lips?  My wife found the answer on the internet.  There is a legend that tells how St. Dominic confronted Satan, who had disguised himself as a demonic ape.  In this legend, St. Dominic prevails over Satan without speaking a word. By the end of the story I think you will agree that “St. Shusher” is a very appropriate nickname for St. Dominic.

The Legend of St. Dominic
and the Demonic Ape

Late one night, St. Dominic sat alone in his cell writing a sermon by the light of a single candle. Outside a storm raged, but even the unruly elements could not hinder his work.

In a dark corner of the dormitory the Prince of Darkness lay hidden, fuming to find the saint awake and steadfast in his work. Seeking to intimidate the saint, the devil assumed the form of a great demonic ape and stepped into the circle of light.  As he bent low to stare Dominic in the face, his eyes flashed wickedly and his breath stank of rotting flesh.

But Dominic was not daunted. Without a word, he took up his quill and resumed his writing.

Incensed, the Ape gave a vicious growl, and beat his chest while he began to sing a terrible song.

Dost thou write when all do sleep?
O vanity of vanity,
To drive men to insanity,
With teachings of inanity–
Far better would it be to sleep!

Unperturbed, St. Dominic put his finger to his lips, and whispered “Shh!” Then he returned to his work.

The Monkey raged around the desk, sputtering and snarling to himself. Then he uttered another vile verse:

Dost thou muse when all do sleep,
O thou dim-witted Dominic?
Thinkest thou thy foes to prick,
With words and thoughts which thou dost pick?
Far better would it be to sleep!

Once again Dominic raised his head, put his finger to his lips, and whispered, “Shh!”

Infuriated the Ape slapped the walls and pounded the ground, shattering the silence with its loathsome rhyme:

Dost thou pray when all do sleep,
O scribbling scrabbling Pharisee?
Are thy prayers of such quality
To merit immortality?
Far better would it be to sleep!

St. Dominic refused to be cowed. Again he laid his finger to his lips and whispered more forcefully, “SHH!”

The Monkey filled the cell with screams and curses, gnashing his teeth, and wailing aloud until finally, Dominic, having lost all patience, commanded the demon, “Enough!  Before thy fall, thy name was Lucifer, bringer of light. Tonight thou shalt again bear light and, at least, be of some use. Take up my candle and hold it so that I may see!”

The sheepish Ape trembled beneath this sentence, and took up the guttering candle in its paws. There it stood and stooped, like a thing bewitched. Hour after hour passed while Dominic wrote at his ease—and still the Ape held the candle aloft, and still the saint wrote on.

As dawn approached, the candle burned lower and the fire drew closer to the Ape’s fingers.  The Ape began to fret and to worry. When the flame reached his hand, it swept up its hairy arm and engulfed him in hellfire from head to toe. In great agony the Demon-Ape thundered at the indifferent St. Dominic. 

“Be gone!” Dominic commanded.

Then taking up a stick, he beat the ape across the back.  With each crack, the fire and smoke flared, until the Ape was reduced to nothing more than a pile of smoldering ash. 

Laying aside his rod and closing his book, Dominic went to the chapel to pray. But as he went, his reflected on a wondrous truth: even the devil himself must always serve the servants of the Most High God.  

Thanks to Sean Fitzpatrick, who originally told this story at
https://catholicexchange.com/the-legend-of-st-dominic-the-demonic-ape

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