instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, June 30, 2005

God's doormat

Bl. Henry Suso, OP, was one of the major figures in the Rhineland mysticism of the Fourtheenth Century, perhaps the only leading figure whose cult is recognized by the Church.

The Rhineland of the Fourteenth Century, though, was not a place where wandering mystics were universally welcomed. In his travels, Bl. Henry found himself falsely accused of theft, of faking miracles, of poisoning wells, of fathering a child. He seems to have become adept at fleeing from mobs.

One day, when he was safely in his priory, he noticed the house dog had gotten hold of an old doormat and was playfully chewing holes in it. Bl. Henry saw this as an ideal illustration of his own life: he was a doormat, whose purpose was to be useful to others, but who was in no position to complain about ill-use by anyone, even a dog.

The actual doormat became one of his prized possessions, and the metaphor one of his favorite pieces of spiritual advice. In a letter he sent to a Dominican nun (which was later included in his Little Book of Letters), he wrote:
Act in your own interest and bow down to the feet of all men as though you were a doormat. A doormat does not get angry with anyone, no matter what is done, because it is a doormat.
In another letter, he mentions he was thinking of sending her the doormat as a reminder, but he couldn't bear to part with it. Perfect detachment is hard even for the saints.

Despite the closeness to God he achieved in this life, Bl. Henry did not regard himself as particularly exalted. He once wrote that he did not feel like he was God's lover:
It seems to me I am His cart driver and drive through puddles with my clothes tucked up, as I pull people out of the deep mire of their sinful lives and bring them to what is beautiful. And so it is enough for me if He puts a loaf of rye bread in my hands.
Rye being the bread of the poor.

I think "pulling people out of the deep mire of their sinful lives and bringing them to what is beautiful" is a good metaphor for the Dominican vocation, which is usually expressed in the more antiseptic terms of "preaching and the salvation of souls." The salvation of souls is dirty work, souls in need of salvation being as dirty as they are.

At a Third Order Chapter meeting the other night, when I suggested Dominicans might see themselves as God's cart drivers, I was brought up short when someone pointed out that St. Catherine of Siena saw herself as not merely God's lover but as Christ's mystical spouse. On reflection, though, I remembered that, after St. Catherine experienced her mystical espousal to Christ, He commanded that she leave the privacy of her cell to go out into the world and serve His people. And I think we can speak in terms of "both/and" for someone who regarded herself as Christ's bride yet prayed in these words:
I am a weak sinner who has never loved you. You are purest beauty and I am the filthiest of creatures....
I have one body, and to you I offer and return it. Here is my flesh; here is my blood; let me be slain, reduced to nothing; let my bones be split apart for those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.
Reduced to nothing... like a doormat.

I don't think I'm the only one who prefers to think of the Dominican vocation as one of sitting in an air conditioned room talking about stuff we've read.