The Necessity of Salt
Solemnity of Our Holy Father Saint Dominic. Fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth offers a bonus sermon.
In Dominican churches throughout the world today, the celebration of the Nineteenth Sunday of the Year will be replaced by a celebration of Our Holy Father Saint Dominic, whose Solemnity (a memoria outside the Order) occurs on 8 August. If you’ve got here looking for a sermon on the Sunday readings, please click on ‘Listen and Eat’ at the top of the ‘recent posts’ to the right of the webpage. Incidentally, I can’t link you to the website for the readings proper to St Dominic, but the Gospel I am going to talk about is Matthew 5:13-19, in which Christ tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
The time of St Dominic had much in common with our own: the teaching and authority of the Catholic Church was being rejected by large numbers of intelligent, decent people. Even in the heart of Christendom – in France, Spain and Italy – orthodox Christianity was despised and reviled because in the heart of the Church there were priests, bishops and religious who were failing to preach the faith by words, whether through inability or laziness, and who were even more crucially failing to preach it through their lives, because their hearts had turned away from that love which lies at the very centre of any authentic Christian institution.
What was needed then, as now, was a return to the sources, a rekindling of the earliest zeal of the Apostles. It was St Dominic’s vision to make this apostolic zeal the foundation of a new religious order, and it was inspired by his favourite Gospel, that of St Matthew, in which the Evangelist shows how Jesus reconstituted and renewed Israel around himself. The community of his disciples was to be the true Israel, awakened and recalled to her divine vocation.
The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7, may be read as Christ’s manifesto for the government of his restored kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. It presents a profound challenge to those who would be Christ’s disciples, called to reject the false values of our fallen world in favour of the eternal truth of divine love. Unlike many political manifestos, it is not marked by folly, vainglory and duplicity but by wisdom, a love of truth, and the hope that comes from recognising that to imitate Christ’s perfect obedience to the Father is to be truly human and truly free.
It is easy to see, then, why the passage about his disciples as light of the world makes sense as one of the options for today’s Gospel reading. Indeed, the name of this website comes from a vision attributed to St Dominic’s mother, in which she saw a dog with a torch in its mouth, running the length and breadth of the world setting every place alight with the fire of the Gospel. It’s less easy to see why ‘salt’, though. Unlike light, salt is sometimes quite a negative image in the scriptures – think of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, or the notion of sowing the ground with salt to make it infertile, its waters undrinkable.
I think the key to the image is in thinking about food. Seasoning is often underdone by amateur cooks: one of the reasons why food so often tastes better in restaurants than when we cook at home is because the professionals will use far more salt than home cooks. If used generously but judiciously, salt makes food taste, not more of salt, but more of itself. I wonder if that is what Our Lord had in mind – that our Christian joy and hope should enable our fellow human beings to be more what they are, more fully human? We can certainly see St Dominic’s vision as the call to pour oneself out in service to the world to add savour to the world; we seek to make life more delicious. It is certainly good for us Dominicans to be reminded that we are here for the sake of humanity and not the other way round.
Now, this can’t be the whole story. God’s plan is for everyone to be joined to him in the communion of the Church, and this was St Dominic’s passionate desire also. Whereas we wouldn’t want all our food to be salt. But in the end, bringing humanity to this final goal is not our work but God’s. And this Gospel reminds us that we should not think we have it in us, of our own efforts, to bring God’s purposes to their fulfilment. We mustn’t think that we simply need to strive harder, to preach more often, to fundraise more successfully or to gain even more vocations in order to complete God’s plan.
Because salt doesn’t have to strain itself to be salty. It just is; even as light doesn’t have to try hard to illuminate things. Salt, and light, just have to be what they have been made to be. And all your or I have to do is be what we have been made to be by the waters of baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit. We simply need to allow the transforming power of God to remain at work in us. If we stop looking for ways to confound that divine energy – as we so often do – we are doing all that is asked of us.
For what kind of foolish salt tries not to be salty? What kind of fearful lamp hides itself away? What kind of foolish and fearful Christian does not willingly allow God, working in us, make the world more beautiful and more delicious? And for me, at least, there is no more delicious and beautiful way to preach and to live the Gospel of Christ than to seek to follow in the footsteps of Our Holy Father Saint Dominic. Today we ask his prayers, and yours, for his poor followers.