It’s good to talk. And the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) did some good talking together late last month during our 800th Jubilee Mission Congress at the Angelicum University in Rome. Friars, Sisters, contemplative nuns and lay Dominicans discussed such difficult issues for today’s preaching as Islam, refugees, and the use and abuse of social media. We heard from theologians, web experts, seasoned pastors and missionaries in dangerous places. We forged new friendships and international collaborations over Italian food and wine, in a city which has baptised the very best of classical culture, and where the Divine Light himself seems to radiate through the Mediterranean sun.
In his closing speech, Fr Bruno Cadoré, master of the order, reminded us that we are on a journey, with people often very different from us, to whom we must speak of Christ prayerfully, studiously and receptively: with gesture, not just words. Then he took us into silence. A young dancer made her way down the steps of the lecture theatre as I introduced the final item of the congress: Spirit of Fire, by Eliot Smith Company.
Forget “liturgical dance” and Mexican waves behind the altar. Here, we saw the Word made flesh. You see, St Dominic’s life story is frankly not that exciting. It has none of the drama of the martyrs, the romance of St Francis or the heroic labours of St Teresa of Calcutta.
St Dominic (1170-1221) was an Augustinian canon of Caleruega Cathedral in Spain. He prayed, studied and cared for the poor. On his way to Denmark to secure a bride for Prince Ferdinand, he encountered the Cathar heretics in southern France. He converted many of them. Seeing a need for wandering preachers, he formed a band of brethren and eventually got papal approval for the Order of Preachers. As Private Eye would say, “Ermm, that’s it.”
But in dance we saw why this quiet saint’s mother dreamt that he would set the world ablaze. The Cathar heretics, a mainly poor and oppressed people, had easily and understandably succumbed to the Gnostic belief that the physical world, including their own sick, undernourished bodies, was evil. For them the spiritual life was about escaping from the body. But is our own world so different, where we struggle with body image, where oppression and starvation continue and the humanity of the unborn, the elderly and the poor is denied?
Eliot Smith Company, in its grace and honesty of movement, reminded us that we are each made, wonderfully and uniquely, in the image and likeness of God. Eliot, the choreographer and lead dancer, was especially inspired by St Dominic’s words: “Would you have me study off dead skins when people are dying of hunger?” We felt his gut-wrenching compassion.
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