The Regent of Studies of the Province of England, Fr Simon Gaine OP presided at Mass on 8th August, the feast of our holy father St Dominic, this year. Below is his homily on both the compassion and the love for truth exemplified by St Dominic.
Preach the word, says the second letter to Timothy: be urgent in season and out of season, unfailing in patience and in teaching. But what can motivate us to be so urgent in preaching, so unfailing in teaching?
Dominic’s motivation was clear. It was his compassion, something that characterized him in all sorts of ways. We know that when he heard how some people had been captured as slaves by the Moors – Dominic wanted to sell himself into slavery to gain their release – and other people had to stop him from doing this. But his compassion had been aroused by the plight of these captives. There were great saints the time, John of Matha and Felix of Valois, who founded a whole religious order to obtain the release of captives by raising money to pay their ransoms. But Dominic’s compassion worked in a different way: he founded a religious order not to ransom captives, but to free people who were held captive by falsehood, by lies. Dominic’s order was to be an Order of Preachers, and that tells us something about the special character of Dominic’s own compassion. It was not that Dominic necessarily possessed a more intense or keenly felt compassion than the founders of orders that tried to help captives. Rather Dominic’s compassion was different because it was fed by a certain insight into those who were enslaved by false teachings.
We see this compassion at work when Dominic was on a diplomatic mission from Spain to northern Europe. He passed through the South of France, where many people had abandoned the Catholic faith for the teachings of the Cathars. Dominic stayed at an inn, where the innkeeper was a Cathar. It was out of his compassion for this man that Dominic spent the whole night trying to persuade him of the Christian truths of God and creation. Dominic easily perceived that Catharism was mistaken about these things, but he also saw how dangerous its errors could be for people. While Christianity taught that this material world, including our bodies, were good, the creation of one good God, Catharism taught that there were two gods, one good and one evil, and that this material world was created by the evil god, and so this material world was in itself evil, through and through. Marriage and having children were then evil, because they enclosed good spiritual souls in evil material bodies.
I suppose Dominic could have just noted these ideas as interesting, and respected those who sincerely held them, leaving it at that. But Dominic’s compassion was greater, because he realised how dangerous such ideas could be for people who were created to be truly happy only by knowing and loving the truth of the one God. Dominic’s compassion had been aroused by the evident needs of people who had been captured by pirates.
But in Dominic we also see compassion also at work in a manner that is not so immediately obvious, a compassion which was enlightened by Dominic’s grasp of the truth about God and his world. Dominic’s compassion was illuminated by this special insight, and it made him reach out in love to all who did not know true Christian teaching but whose minds and whole lives were held captive by falsehood. If we are not so motivated to reach out to people in this way today, it could be because we lack compassion; but maybe not. I wonder whether it is because our compassion is in need of the illumination, the special light that Dominic’s compassion had; and I wonder whether this is why study is so much at the heart of the religious way of life that Dominic founded. St John and St Felix had to raise money to pay the ransoms of captives; and Dominicans have to study to know the truth that sets us free.
So compassion for others who have need of the Gospel should drive us to study of some kind, so that we really know the liberating truth of God that we can then proclaim. But it’s not just that compassion leads to study; study should also lead to compassion. Because in learning about our faith we gain insight into what is truly good for men and women made in God’s image; through study we learn what is bad for them, bad ideas as well as actions; and we learn why falsehood can so often be attractive, as well as dangerous. And there is much to learn in a world of so many conflicting ideas, where some people even doubt that there is truth at all. But through what we learn, our compassion for others can be nourished and fed, as we learn how much falsehood harms us and how much the truth can set us free. If our compassion is not enlightened by knowledge, we will probably never grasp the need for preaching, and so others may not benefit from the Gospel; again, if we have a grasp of the truth but no compassion, our efforts may do harm, turning easily to violence and compulsion. Instead we must follow neither compassion alone nor truth alone, but walk in the spirit of St Dominic, where knowledge enlightens compassion, and compassion enlivens knowledge, and gives birth to wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above which, as St James says, is kind and considerate, and makes for peace.