08 August 2023

St. Dominic: there's no looking back!

St. Dominic

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

There's no looking back. Let the dead bury the dead. If you will put your hand to the plow, and keep your hand on the plow 'til the job's done – there's no looking back. Once Jesus says to you, “Follow me,” and you say, “I will follow you,” the only way forward is forward. Whether the soil is sand, rock, or rich black loam – the only way forward is behind Christ, following along; doing what he does; speaking his words; teaching, preaching, healing, feeding, freeing; and being taught, being preached to; being healed, fed, and freed. Paul confesses to the Corinthians that he doesn't preach to them with sublime words or out of sublime wisdom. His preaching is “a demonstration of spirit and power.” He doesn't preach from merely human strength or courage. Nor with a self-assured ease. But from “weakness and fear and much trembling.” Paul's not fearful of how the world will react to the Gospel, or what the world will do to him for preaching it. He's fearful knowing that the Lord will use his trembling weakness to do great things for the Kingdom. So, he is “resolved to know nothing...except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Knowing this – and just this – there is no looking back.

But what is it for a preacher to look back? The temptation to look back could arise from a disordered sense of nostalgia. My life was better back then. . .before Christ, before I said Yes. Looking back could be prompted by intellectual pride. Preaching isn't real intellectual work. It's just exhortation for the crowd. Rabble-rousing for Jesus. Looking back could be about emotional and physical comfort, or a need to be the center of attention, or an inordinate passion for good rhetoric and literary style. The preacher can be tempted to pull Christ off the Cross and take his place. Or to turn the Gospel into a vehicle for his eccentric theology and personal agenda. When the field to be plowed seems to grow and grow and the ground gets rockier and rockier, the preacher will be tempted to loosen the yoke a bit and just glide softly over the topsoil. Better not uproot the bigger stones. That just makes more work for later. Leave them be. Let them be stones for someone else. Probably the strongest temptation to look back comes when the only answers available are Yes and No. Do or do not. Choose life or choose death. The wisdom of the world loves its ambiguity, its waffling and compromise. The preacher puts his hand to the plow. The only way forward is forward, following Christ.

The great Dominican preachers of the Church – Humbert, Jordan, Albert and Thomas, Eckhart, Catherine, Martin, Lacordaire, of course, Dominic himself – did not look back to “a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.” Why? B/c that sort of wisdom is merely created. It's the lived experience of creatures. Temporary creatures. Limited and passing away. They preached God's wisdom. Revealed in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus. The lived experience of the Incarnate Son. And him crucified. Their assigned ground had its share of stones. They tightened the yoke, dug deep, and never looked back. Christ sustained them in their Yes. He plowed in front of and beside them. So long as they gave their voices to his Word, he was with them. And when they didn't, he lent them his own. If you will be a preacher of the Gospel, practice now never looking back. There's nothing there to make the work lighter, to make the ground softer. Ahead is truth and love. Plow on. Prepare the field. And let the dead bury the dead.

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