Thursday, August 8, 2019

A sermon for St Dominic's Day

Today we celebrate the feast of St Dominic.  Born in 1170, Dominic was a Castilian, who like St Francis of Assisi, set aside his wealthy upbringing to lead a life of disciplined prayer and penance.  He was committed to living simply, eating little, and sleeping on the floor – foregoing even the comfort of a bed. 

But during his travels across Europe, Dominic came across a heretical sect, called the Cathars – who were based in a region of France.  They claimed to be Christians, but held the belief that flesh and all materials things were evil, that the spirit was of God and that flesh and spirit were in permanent conflict.  They promoted the idea of dualism – the notion that evil and good, or the Devil and God, are equal powers, fighting out a war – a battle between flesh and the spirit.

Dominic began his ministry as an Augustian Friar, and he recognised the danger in this kind of thinking.  So he formed a new order of preachers, specifically to teach preach against this heresy.  They became known as the Dominicans.  Eventually, some years after Dominic’s death, Dominicans became key members of the Inquisition, which aggressively tried to stamp out heresy around the Catholic church.  But, like many founders of great movements which go astray, Dominic himself shouldn’t be blamed for the idiocy of his followers.  As I often say to those who accuse religions of being the cause of wars, ‘don’t judge a religion by the stupid behaviour of its unthinking followers – judge it by the teaching of its founder’.

Dualism remains a very prevalent force in the church today.  Many churches, sadly, lead people to believe that the battle between good and evil is a more or less equal fight, and their followers are urged to be on their guard for the evil actions of the devil in their life.  It surprises me how many religious people come into this building, sincerely believing that their illness, or some recent catastrophe in their life is some work of the devil…rather than the simple, natural processes of life – which are of course an environment meant to encourage our souls to grow.

Dualism has very much entered the public mind.  For those of you who know anything about popular music, you might remember the famous song of the 1980s by Chris de Burgh, called the ‘Spanish Train’.  It’s a story of how God and the Devil play poker for the souls of the dead.  Dualism – again.

For the Cathars, and those who succeeded them, Dualism led to the practice of mortification of the flesh.  Believing that the body was evil, devotees would tear their own flesh, whip themselves, or wear clothing that would constantly scratch and irritate their skin – all to keep reminding themselves of how evil was the body.

Dominic, however, saw the truth.  His upbringing and learning had taught him what we also know – that God created the world, and created us in his own image.  How could something created in God’s own image be intrinsically evil?  All things were created good.  All created things can be used for good or ill.  That’s fundamental to the notion of freewill.  A tree can be used to build a house, or as a club to beat your enemy down.  A bow and arrow can be used to kill, but it can also be used in Olympic target-shooting for the training of fine motor skills and concentration, and the coming together of shooters in an atmosphere of friendship.  Just as the Havant and Hayling Bowmen do in our church hall, every Wednesday evening.

To really tune our understanding of the use of material things, we need only to look at how Jesus himself used them.  He regularly used the imagery of feasting, both to promise an eternal home and as a place to have fellowship with others.  He loved spending time with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in the comfort of their home.  He embraced the woman who anointed his feet with sweet-smelling oils.  At the same time, though, he warned us against the human desire to possess and control more and more things.  If you store up your wealth, it will profit you nothing.

So, a correct understanding of both Biblical history and Jesus’ teaching leads us to the need to strike a healthy balance between the physical and the spiritual.  Both are gifts from God, and both need to be embraced – though with care.  With St Dominic, we need to guard against the tendency to see all material things as bad, or worse still, as the works of the Devil.  If that were the case, all our efforts in recent years to improve this building as a place for people to gather in love would have been in vain.

God has given us all of creation, and indeed our bodies, for good.  The beautiful world around us is a testing ground for our souls…not because it is intrinsically evil, but because the way that we learn to use it, and take care of it, will help our souls to deepen and expand.  When we mis-use and destroy our world, our souls tend to shrink.  When we live in harmony with the world, we see it (with St Dominic) for what it truly is…a blessed realm, created for our good, in which we are called to live, thrive and grow.