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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