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Life Is Not an Error

Life Is Not an Error

102px-The_Perugia_Altarpiece%2C_Side_Panel_Depicting_St._Dominic.jpgToday is the feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, who died in 1221. The story is told that in 1206 Dominic, then a young priest living as a cathedral canon under the Rule of St. Benedict and serving as his bishop’s secretary, traveled with the bishop through southern France in the country of the Cathars or Albigensians. They happened to stay at an inn where the innkeeper was a Cathar. Dominic and the innkeeper sat up all night debating their alternative beliefs and by dawn he had convinced the man to become an orthodox Christian. Dominic thus discerned a calling to engage in public preaching and debate in the service of the Gospel. In 1215 he found the Order of Preachers who were to live in simplicity and poverty, study philosophy and theology, and combat false doctrine by reasoned debate rather than through use of force. It is both ironic and tragic that, following his death, the order he thus founded should become the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition.

I have no idea why the sanctoral lectionary gives us a reading from the Second Book of Samuel, an excerpt from the words spoken by David “when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul,” (22:1) for Dominic’s commemoration, but it does:

For I have kept the ways of the Lord,

and have not wickedly departed from my God.

For all his ordinances were before me,

and from his statutes I did not turn aside.

I was blameless before him,

and I kept myself from guilt.

therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,

according to my cleanness in his sight.

With the loyal you show yourself loyal;

with the blameless you show yourself blameless;

with the pure you show yourself pure,

and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.

You deliver a humble people,

but your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down.

Indeed, you are my lamp, O Lord,

the Lord lightens my darkness.

(2 Sam. 22.22-29)

I suspect it may be because of that last verse; Dominic’s iconic symbol is a dog carrying a torch, lighting the darkness.

But it is the first few verses that draw my attention, especially David’s brag that he was blameless before God and that he had kept himself from guilt. (v. 24) Not only do they voice arrogant hubris, they’re simply untrue. David seems to have forgotten Uriah the Hittite and his widow Bathsheba . . . .

Reading these words I’m reminded of popular song from 1969, the mock gospel rock song Spirit in the Sky by one-hit-wonder Norman Greenbaum:

When I die and they lay me to rest

Gonna go to the place that’s the best

When I lay me down to die

Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky

That’s where I’m gonna go when I die

When I die and they lay me to rest

Gonna go to the place that’s the best

* * *

Never been a sinner, I never sinned

I got a friend in Jesus

So you know that when I die

He’s gonna set me up with the spirit in the sky

Oh set me up with the spirit in the sky

That’s where I’m gonna go when I die

When I die and they lay me to rest

I’m gonna go to the place that’s the best

Go to the place that’s the best

I love singing along when this song comes on my oldies radio station, but I would never offer it to be sung in church because the lyric “Never been a sinner, I never sinned” is just plain wrong. In fact, I laugh when I sing those words, knowing how wrong they are in my life! They are as wrong as David’s arrogant claim of blamelessness and lack of guilt. I don’t think St. Dominic would disagree with me.

Although the earliest accounts of his life do not mention the Marian rosary, nor do early portraits, include it as a symbol to identify the saint, pious legend holds that St. Dominic received the Rosary directly from the Blessed Virgin herself. Tradition tells us that, moved by a vision of Mary, he preached the use of the rosary in his missionary work. This would indicate that Dominic regularly petitioned the Blessed Mother, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Hardly the prayer of someone who would claim blamelessness or sing “never been a sinner, I never sinned.”

And yet, I’m certain that Dominic had a friend in Jesus, that Jesus lightened Dominic’s darkness as he lightens that of all of us. We don’t have to claim blamelessness nor assert that we have never sinned to claim Jesus as friend, as lord, and as savior, or to spread the light of Christ’s gospel.

I’m currently reading My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman, a book of short essays by a poet who lost his childhood Christian faith and recovered it as an adult. In an early essay, he makes the wonderfully oxymoronic declaration: “Life is not an error, even when it is.” Wiman, it seems to me, is saying that because we have been redeemed, we need not claim to be blameless, to never have sinned, or to be without guilt. Our mistakes and their correction, our sinfulness and its forgiveness, our guilt and its cleansing are all a part of who we are.

Wiman explains himself this way:

That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life – which means, of course, that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. (Wiman, C., My Bright Abyss; Farrar, Straus and Giroux:2014, page 7)

Dominic’s faith was significantly affected by a happenstance; the course of his staunch life of faith radically determined by and intimately dependent upon a night spent discussing religion with a heretic. It was not a life without error, not a blameless life, not a life that ever claimed never to have sinned. As the Order of Preachers which he founded lived out its life and calling, it was not without error or guilt – the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition are stark evidence of that. Nonetheless, Dominic and his order spread the light of Christ, as can we all.

The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, an EfM mentor, and a writer of Daily Office meditations offered on his blog, That Which We Have Heard & Known.

The Perugia Altarpiece, Side Panel Depicting St. Dominic” by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) – allposters.co.uk. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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