This essay first appeared in the Springfield State Journal-Register, Sunday, August 9, 2020.
Everyone is thinking about John Lewis. You could write about him.”
As I was mulling over what to write for this column, a friend crossed my path with this timely suggestion.
I’d not thought of that. St. Dominic was on my mind, actually — the Castilian priest whose name has been synonymous with the Order of Preachers he founded more than 800 years ago. We who follow his vision celebrate his feast Aug. 8.
With my friend’s inspiration, I’ve uncovered a pleasant symmetry in the lives of these two legends in four verbs: dreaming, discerning, governing, inspiring.
Dreaming. John was awakened to racial injustice when, as a child, he was told he couldn’t enter the whites-only public library in Pike County, Alabama. He spent his life resisting his parents’ command that he not make trouble or “get in the way” of our nation’s system of apartheid. Despite his mother’s objections, under the influence of Dr. King, he entered the struggle for the dream.
"Now it is your turn to let freedom ring,” John said to us.
Dominic’s dying word? Simply this: “Begin.”
Dominic dreamed of preaching the truth of the gospel to people caught in a way of seeing the world that denied the goodness of creation and the integrity of the human person. For that, he needed texts for study, and books were expensive. He scandalized his brothers by selling his vellum books to buy food for famine-starved families. “I will not study on dead skins when living skins are dying of hunger,” he said. Both men put their dream at the service of the common good.
Discerning. John and Dominic were challenged and threatened with physical harm in the pursuit of their dreams.Progress depended on their ability to discern the next prudential steps forward.
As leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John gave voice to the will of the movement at the 1963 March on Washington. When asked to remove from the speech language critical of the Kennedy administration, his SNCC friends resisted. Ultimately, John convinced them to acquiesce to a request from his respected mentor, A. Philip Randolph. Did he “give in” — or make a discerning judgement that the unity of the Civil Rights movement was more important than his — or SNCC’s — immediate desires?
Dominic’s dream was also shaped by discernment and relationships. The Order of Preachers was founded not on a cult of personality, but was — and is — the fruit of many people’s visions. Bishop Diego of Osma, two popes, and women living in community in what became the first Dominican monastery all contributed to what became a global Order of Preachers. Without the insights of Dominic’s friends and the vision and need of the broader church, a small preaching institute in Toulouse would hardly be remembered today.
Governing. Having a vision is different than sustaining it. John and Dominic discovered this. In 1986, John transitioned from agitator to legislator, beginning a career that earned him the title “Conscience of the Congress,” (though that strikes my ear as an undeserved free pass for his colleagues).
Democracy was burgeoning in Europe at the same time the Order of Preachers was born, deeply influencing Dominicans to this day. 13th Century Dominican life was forward-thinking. To this day, those elected to leadership in the order are considered first among equals and are responsible for carrying out the will of the community as determined through democratic processes and dialogue.
Inspiring. “Now it is your turn to let freedom ring,” John said to us in his posthumous essay, “Together You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.”
Dominic’s dying word to the Order of Preachers? Simply this: “Begin.”
Sister Beth Murphy, OP, is the communication director for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois.