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by Sr Jadwiga Swiatecka o.p.

St Dominic By Lawrence Lew
Our  Holy Father Dominic (photo by Lawrence Lew)

The founding of the Order is rooted in St.Dominic's encounter, in his travels through Southern France, with the Albigensian heresy, and his perception that there was no preaching at that time and in that area adequate to expose and outweigh its central tenets. The Albigensians believed that all matter was essentially evil, and that only that which is spiritual comes from God (a dualism which has continued to infect Christianity down the ages).

 Perfection, for them, lay consequently in the freeing of oneself from all material things, including food and procreation. It led, in many cases, to a great austerity of life, to an asceticism which many people saw as more in accord with the gospel than the wealth and at least apparent good living of bishops, and even of monks. But at the heart of such a dualism, which rejects all created matter as the work of the devil, lies not only a denial that God created all things (and saw that they were good), but a denial of the Incarnation, in which we affirm that God became man, took on a human, material, body and ate and drank like the rest of us, becoming like us in all things but sin.Given this Albigensian denial of the Incarnation, a preaching which was to be the counterpoise of such a heresy had to be centred on the avowal of the Word made flesh. Hence, the Incarnation must be at the heart of all Dominican preaching. In what follows I want to explore some of the consequences of this affirmation for all of us who belong to the Order of Preachers and attempt to follow the example of St. Dominic. 

1) To affirm the Incarnation is to accept and delight in the natural world.

While of course it is true to say that nature is red in tooth and claw, and a romantic view of the natural world does not do it justice, it is equally true that there is much in the world that is beautiful, and curious and fascinating, as well as dangerous with a danger that may also be attractive (like the fire of burning bush, I always think). The implications of the Incarnation surely bid us to respond to and explore this world of natural creation, as did St. Albert, and St. Martin; and as do many gardeners and flower arrangers (though I don't know of one canonised for that). Such activities, as also art, help others to appreciate, to see anew, the beauty of God made present in the material world. 

2) The Incarnation entails accepting and affirming our bodily humanity.

The Incarnation is prone to two distortions: we can forget that Jesus is truly God; or we can fail to admit that he is equally truly and completely human. We have an analogous problem about ourselves: we would rather like to be purely angelic spirits (think of all those children we dub little angels); and we find it difficult to admit our kinship with the animal world. We have to discover that to be truly human is to be both. So to be truly human is to have a body, and to be truly human we should try to enjoy what our body brings us: the senses of touch and taste and smell and hearing, and seeing; and our preaching should help others to enjoy these things too: to be sense-affirming, rather than sense-denying.

Because of their condemnation of all matter, having a body was problematic for the Albigensians of St.Dominic's day, and it seems to have remained so for many of us. It is, indeed, a serious problem for many women today. Eating disorders are rife (you need only think of the Royal family), and few women are satisfied with the way fashion dictates that they should look. Perhaps this is a problem which we, as Dominican women, can be more aware of as not just a problem of fashion, but a problem of theology, and try to develop a more affirming attitude towards the way we are all so diversely shaped: God obviously did not wish us all to be 5'6" tall and be 34"-24"-34": He had more interesting ideas. 

But we don't have to develop a theology to counteract the problem of shape and eating. We can respond differently. In our efforts to eat properly, to accept ourselves as we bodily are: fat, scraggy, hard of hearing, small, tall, arthritic, we can, in the daily offering we make of our lives, be representative of all those other people, equally fat, scraggy, rheumatic, balding who have equal problems but who are unable to acknowledge them or to bring them into any context of faith or of prayer.

This, after all, is very Dominican: standing on behalf of others. For we pride ourselves as initiators of democracy in the context of religious life: we elect people who are our representatives in decision making or on speaking on our behalf or in carrying for the rest of us certain responsibilities. We might also, therefore, by virtue of being Dominican, see ourselves as representative of all those who find their bodily humanity, an essential ingredient of our assent to the Incarnation, a burden. And we might take heart from the fact that at least two of our most renowned saints have suffered from some form of eating disorder, or metabolic imbalance. It is said that St.Louis IX, king of France, had to have a piece of his banqueting table cut out in order to accommodate the girth of his friend Thomas Aquinas, and it seems likely, if St. Thomas's dying wish for fresh herrings is true, that he had come to terms with his appetite; whilst St.Catherine of Siena, in spite of her probably death-inducing anorexia, has become a Doctor of the Church.

3) The Incarnation entails compassion.

Compassion, as we know, means not just a vague kind of pity or sympathy, but a suffering with. One of the reasons why the Incarnation is so important in a world which we want to say is God created, but which is also so full of suffering (and much of it undeserved) is that, having become man, God knows, by experience, what human suffering is. But knowing by experience is also more than simply 'feeling with'. Knowing implies also some sort of understanding which goes beyond the sometimes annoying (annoying because too glib, however true) response: 'I know just how you feel'. Compassion goes further than feeling: it embraces an understanding of the needs of the one suffering and, surely, a searching for appropriate means of alleviating it, which in some cases may be silence, and in others a willingness to engage with the structures that cause it. If we as Dominicans are to preach the Incarnation, then we must be willing to 'suffer with' creatively: to experience, but also to reflect on that experience so that it flourishes in appropriate action.

We might, perhaps, (being Dominican) take our cue for this from the gospels. The passage in St.Mark which leads up to the feeding of the 5,000 reports Jesus as 'having compassion on the multitude'. This compassion is disclosed in Jesus' understanding of the crowd's need and desire for a teaching which gives them direction (for they were like sheep without a shepherd), but also, at the end of the day, for the physical sustenance of food. His attitude here is significantly different from that of the disciples: they would send the crowd away to fend for themselves; he wishes to assuage their hunger. The difference may perhaps be attributed to shared experience: we know that Jesus had fasted forty days in the desert, and hence knew what hunger was in a way that perhaps the disciples did not. (Muslims fast during Rhamadan not only as a discipline, but so as to experience the hunger which is the common lot of many people. Is this a motive we have lost sight of?) Jesus' real knowledge of the crowd's hunger issues in a search for resources which may assuage it, and a willingness to engage others in that search, as well as in the relieving of the hunger.

This event, which seems to me very Dominican, since it embraces both spiritual/intellectual, and physical needs, and shows that these are both fulfilled in the breaking of Eucharistic and ordinary bread, has much to say to us about our own 'methodology' of preaching: there is, first, the perception of a need (which may come from shared experience); secondly, there is the involving of others, cooperation, and not a going it alone; thirdly, there is a search for the resources to hand, and the willingness to begin with these; and fourthly there is the prayer, of thanksgiving, of blessing; of asking: of turning to the Father in confidence. This last is a resource we should perhaps believe in more, and which should deflect the cynicism which we are prone to share with the disciples who, seeing only five loaves and two fish exclaimed (as we may well do looking at ourselves) 'But what are these among so many?' Additionally, we should perhaps be prepared for our efforts to be unrecognised: I wonder whether the crowd, fed as they were by the disciples, even noticed that it was Jesus who had satisfied their hunger.

4. The Incarnation invites us to be fully human.

a) To be human is to be made in the image of God. To be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of a triune relationship of love, one of whose human facet is friendship, and another, surely therefore, attractiveness of personality. Consequently we preach first of all not by what we say or do, but by what we are like, and thus inevitably by how we relate to others. In Dominic we have an example of that friendly attractiveness which drew others to him, and friendship has been, from the beginning a characteristic of the Order, seen in such things as Dominic's bringing of wooden spoons across Europe to his Sisters in Spain; his friendship with the De Montfort family; Diana's and Jordan's affectionate friendship, attested to in their letters; Thomas Aquinas's friendship with Louis, king of France, and surely many others less noted. And Jesus' disciples, too, were his friends. To be friend (to befriend) is thus also a preaching. Hospitality: Come and see.

b) Within the Trinity (in whose image we are made, and in whose image only can we find our true humanity) there is difference but also equality. To acknowledge that which makes us equal, when we are so 'unequal' in our talents, capacities, aspirations even, is no easy task, and one in which I think we continually fail. One way, however, in which we can begin to recognise and acknowledge this equality in difference is to perceive, encourage and rejoice in the talents of others without envy, as St.Albert gladly noted and encouraged the potential in his dumb ox of a pupil, Thomas Aquinas. The individuality (sometimes non­conformity) of Dominicans (men and women) is something (be it good or bad) others often notice about us. It can be destructive of common purpose, of cooperation, and consequently do damage to the message we wish to preach; but if, in the recognition of our differences we can learn also to recognise their richness and strive towards an acknowledgement of equality, and the need for cooperation, we might better mirror (and thus convey) the attractiveness of God.

c) If, because we are made in the image of the Trinity, to be fully human is to enter into relationship, then the relationship which we, as religious, enter is primarily that of the community. A religious community is not a sacrament as marriage is; nevertheless Vatican II spoke of religious communities as being signs of the kingdom. Soon after the Vatican II documents were promulgated, I remember a discussion in the chaplaincy at Cambridge about this point. One of the group, a now eminent Church historian, said, perhaps half­ jokingly that, since in the kingdom of heaven there was neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, religious communities weren't much of a sign since they were single-sex. It seems to me that in the Dominican Order we have a blue-print for amending this imbalance, and of being, therefore, better 'signs of the kingdom' and thereby better preachers. St.Dominic, after all, did found communities of both men and women and saw their mutual interdependence. I am not necessarily advocating mixed communities, but I think that St.Dominic, from the beginning envisaged a close cooperation between the male and female branches of the Order ; and today, when there is a greater recognition of equality with difference between men and women I am sure that our preaching can only be strengthened if we draw on this Dominican legacy.

5. Death. 

The consequence of being human, being bodily, is that we die. Death is therefore also something which we, precisely as Dominicans, and centred on the Incarnation, on the reality of God becoming human, must pay attention to. Pope John Paul II described the present time as a 'culture of death'. It is certainly true that images of 'death', usually with implications of violence abound among today's youth. It is also true that life is often seen as expendable, and that, judging by the number of suicides among the young, death is seen as preferable to life. But to image death in a distorted fashion intended to horrify or to satisfy some form of morbidity, or to choose death as an escape from despair is not to take death in the properly serious context of the whole of human life. Death, for the most part, is seen as something to be avoided at all cost - even of thousands of dollars spent on freezing one's corpse in the hope that generations to come might find a way of 'curing' whatever disease it is one died from (be that cancer or simply old age!) None of these attitudes accept death for what it is: the inevitable culmination of being human. We, Dominicans, (as perhaps all religious) are very good at funerals, and that is a great help for all; but if we take our preaching of the Incarnation seriously, then we should also see that coming to terms with death, and helping others to do so, is part of that preaching, be it articulated as theology, or in the simplicity of understanding words and actions. And coming to terms with death, in this context, is more than bereavement counselling, important as that, of course, is. Since death is inevitable for each of us, and all those whom we love, we should seek to see it positively, even if it is not imminent, rather than wait till it is!

6. Dominican preaching as dialogue.

Getting off one’s high horse.

It is obvious that in what I have been saying I have taken 'preaching' to be more than talking or teaching or (especially) standing up in a pulpit. This is not because I think these things unimportant, nor because I want to stretch the word 'preaching' to mean everything and anything (and therefore not very much) in order that no-one might feel herself excluded, since we are all members of the Order of Preachers. In the loosest sense, every Christian is a preacher, willy-nilly, by the way he or she lives. (And most of us, in that sense, may not be very good preachers.) But what I think St.Dominic did was to take 'preaching' out of the models of 'talking (at)', or of 'teaching' (as standing in front of a class, or lecturing) and particularly of 'preaching from the pulpit' to a captive congregation from the vantage of endowed (though not always deserved) authority. For him, it seems to me, 'preaching' became much more a matter of dialogue, of argument, of discussion. As Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, a former Master General, suggests in his letter to the Order on Government, (IDI 353 July/August 1997) the ability, in Chapters (General, Provincial, Conventual) to enter into dialogue with each other is at the heart of the structures of the Order, of how we are what we are, and of how we come to do what we do. And, while we don't have any sermons preached by Dominic, we all know the story of his night-long argument? discussion? with the publican, which ended in the latter's conversion. Even St. Thomas's 'Summa' has a structure which approaches dialogue more than it resembles uninterrupted exposition.

 To enter into dialogue, discussion, with someone else is to be prepared to listen to them, to try to understand their ideas, to allow ourselves to be challenged by them, as well as to be able to respond to those challenges in a way which can convince because it comes from shared understanding and shared language. This was why, I have always been led to believe, St.Dominic founded his Order to be urban, and to be in touch with the thought-­world of the blossoming Universities. For, as Hinnebusch points out, the people of Dominic's time were 'an inquisitive, curious, active, expanding, city dwelling population'. The need, for preaching as dialogue and hence for understanding the thought world of those whom one hopes to address, is also one of the reasons why, surely, St.Dominic laid so much stress on study. And, in our admiration for our brother Thomas Aquinas, we should not forget that that study led him to take on board an Aristotelianism very foreign to the accepted Platonism of the time: he was not, we tend to forget, the flavour of the month with the theological authorities of his day.

If part of preaching is understanding those whom one approaches, then also part of understanding comes not from study, but from sharing, to some extent at least, the conditions of life of those with whom one hopes to enter into dialogue. In political life one can easily see how the wealth and the life style of some makes a kind of callousness about the real conditions of others almost inevitable. This was also the reason why St.Dominic founded his houses in cities. We should also remember that the first Dominicans were housed not in a convent, but in the ordinary house of Peter Sela. Before he had turned to his preaching, Dominic had been a Canon of the Cathedral in Osma: he must have loved his sub-prior's stall in the choir of the Cathedral Church, and the regular life which went with it, but for the sake of the gospel, he was prepared to give all that up, to live an insecure, and largely itinerant life; not only to have no stall, but to have no cell of his own. He did not want his brethren to build a large house in Bologna, and was dismayed when they did so. And, don't let's forget, St. Catherine never did live in a convent. She lived in a small room in her father's house. To be rooted in prayer, and in the properly dignified (but not Benedictine) recitation of the divine office, it is necessary for us as Dominicans to have, as St.Dominic did, an experience of that regular life with the office at its centre; but it is something which, for the sake of our preaching, we should be prepared to forgo, whilst still carrying it with us as part of our being, and being glad to return to it when we can.

God became man and dwelt among us: that is the first movement of the Incarnation. Because we are Dominican religious, and not married (or single) Christians, and because we are therefore committed to a preaching of the gospel, the pattern of our life will inevitably be different from that of those who are not so vowed. It behoves us, if we are to centre our preaching on the Incarnation, to be aware, and to be wary, of the ways in which we do not dwell among those to whom we are sent. Above all, what the Incarnation surely teaches us is that it is people who matter, not in general, but in the particularity of the person, or persons, with whom we engage.