St Dominic and Changing the Church

The engraving by Eric Gill of the hound of St Dominic conveys so much about St Dominic and his sons and daughters! The device itself is the badge or mark of the Order and refers back to the legend that, before he was born, Dominic’s mother dreamed she gave birth to a dog carrying a flaming torch in its mouth. The engraving is beautiful, with the beauty of utter simplicity and economy of line, as St Dominic himself was beautiful with asceticism and love of God. He is said to have been a slim man, with a handsome face, and when he died at the age of fifty-one, his tonsure was only just speckled with grey. There is tremendous  energy in the engraving, too, like the energy displayed by St Dominic in his zeal for truth and Catholic unity when he went to preach to the Cathars and later, when he established his Order. His friars were to be men of holiness and learning who would preach powerfully because they lived what they preached, and he was first among them. Finally, there is that flaming torch, red as blood, trailing its tail like a comet— a wonderful evocation of the way in which the Dominicans would spread over the world, kindling love of truth and learning wherever they went.

St Dominic changed the Church, but I don’t think he set out to do so. He was enthralled by orthodoxy and wanted to share his love of truth with others, but he was a humble man, who knew his limitations, and never once, as far as I can see, opposed the papal Magisterium or the authority of his local bishop. True, he ended up creating a new Order with a fresh emphasis on the importance of preaching and teaching, but he never gives the impression that he found the Church wanting, only some of her members. Quite often today one hears people talking about how the Church must change. Very often, when one digs deeper, there is a private agenda at work. We would feel more comfortable in a Church which did x or didn’t do y, so we make a cause of it. To see ourselves as prophets, champions of this or that may, ultimately, prove sheer vanity, nothingness; but it is hard to convince anyone of that when the fervour of a new enthusiasm is upon them. We can only acknowledge how easy it is to make a rumpus, not so easy to work quietly and perseveringly, ready to give up one’s own ideas because one desires only what is according to the mind of God.

St Dominic’s obedience must have cost him dearly at times, as all obedience does, but there is something in it we might usefully ponder. Mindless obedience is mere servitude, unworthy of a Christian; but it is safe. Intelligent obedience, by contrast, makes huge demands on the individual and, indeed, the Church as a whole; but it is prepared to venture anything for the love of God. That is the kind of obedience St Dominic practised and to which we ourselves are called. It presupposes prayer, reflection and humility. I have a hunch that St Dominic’s early years spent living according to the Rule of St Benedict among the monks at Silos and the canons of Osma had more than a passing influence on him. From them he would have learned that the Christian life must be spent listening for the word of God, then proclaiming it truthfully and fearlessly. The important thing was to listen first, lest our own noise get in the way.

May God bless all our Dominican friends and grant them a happy feastday.

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Note on the illustration: If I have inadvertently infringed anyone’s copyright, please let me know immediately. I remember only that Eric Gill used it as a poster at one time.

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6 thoughts on “St Dominic and Changing the Church”

  1. Thank you so much for this reflection. I enjoyed reading it and I always like the illustration you choose. There is much for me to ponder here. I also enjoyed listening later on – to listen helped me to consider different points.

  2. Thank you. I know that I must have been influenced by the story of Dominic as a child as I chose it as my Confirmation name. I was only seven, but still remember Bishop Cyril Cowderoy (who was an Area Bishop in Southwark in those days) anointing me and the description ‘a soldier of Christ’.

    Obviously, things have changed dramatically for me since those days, but obedience fits in quite well with the ministry training that I am involved with and I suspect that Orthodoxy, as an Anglican is as important to me as Orthodoxy as a Catholic was to Dominic.

    God works in ways that transform and turn around our lives, often in unexpected directions, but now, some 48 years after that confirmation service, I still feel part of the Universal Catholic Church, just within a different expression of it.

    • Thank you, Ernie. You know I can’t quite agree with you on the subject of membership of the Catholic Church, but we can still be good friends in Christ, respecting one another’s beliefs without necessarily sharing them.

  3. I like the engraving very much. You are right – its simplicity and economy of line has great beauty. And heart, I think, too.

    My twin grand-daughters attend a Dominican primary school in Adelaide, SA. I’ve visited and it’s warm and welcoming.

  4. Thanks for adding the audio element. It is a luxury to have the option of reading from a screen or listening to you (or as I have done – both).

  5. Looking at Eric Gill’s engraving made me think yet again of the wonderful Dominican, dear Conrad Pepler, whose father Hilary was with Gill at Ditchling, as was Conrad, then Stephen. I visited his grave on St Dominic’s day just before Vespers at Blackfriars. Conrad had a profound influence on so many of us. Brian Wicker said in his Tablet obituary of Conrad that “From the Ditchling years he inherited a recognition of the power of art…to bring order out of chaos; and especially the chaos of a world riven by past wars and rumours of wars to come. For Conrad, war was both a palpable outward fact – the inevitable product of what Ditchling would call “industrial capitalism” – and an inner chaos, for which the only remedy was a return to the “tranquility of order” (to use Augustine’s phrase, much alluded to at Ditchling), in the form of communal work and community prayer shaped by the traditional offices of a Dominican discipline… Conrad brought this combination of insights with him to Spode House, and made them come alive, not so much in carved blocks of stone or finely printed books, but among living human beings. He was an artist in people.”

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