I went to Mass yesterday to mark my parents’ anniversary. It was the feast of St. Dominic of the Order of Preachers, scourge of heretics everywhere. My father’s cousin, Fr.Vincent Ryan, was a Dominican, an affable man whose great delight was to go down to Yarra Bank, in Melbourne, near the cricket ground, on a Sunday morning, to engage the heretics in discussion. He enjoyed the Australian sense of humour, ‘but,’ he warned, ‘you have to give as good as you get.’ Theological discussion was lively. He often got a roasting, he said, but nobody was burnt at the stake. He went on to Rome, to teach at the Angelicum University. I thought fondly of him yesterday.
But I also thought about Saint Dominic, a man whose body-count would rival that of Pol Pot. The pun on the Dominicans in mediaeval times, was Domini Canes, The Hounds of The Lord. Their job was to seek out heretics, Albigensians, Cathars, Witches, The Poor Men, Manichaeans, and burn them. Sometimes, in surgery cautery is the only treatment. Dominic used it extensively. He preached a crusade against his fellow Christians. The towns of southern France were blackened with the soot of burning heretics. Did it work? Did it ensure a single, unified church? Not quite.
One point of dispute was the nature of God. Some argued that there are two gods, a good one and an evil one, locked in a cosmic struggle. All the evil in the world is the work of the evil god. One clarification offered was that the good god created man down to the waist, (‘Man’ in this context embraces ‘woman.’) while the evil god made all the bits below the waist…..Ah!…. Wise words on the subject from Saint Paul [women must cover their hair in church]: ‘It is better to marry than to burn…’ (Amen to that.) and from Ogden Nash, on the subject of women wearing trousers: ‘You may clothe your nether limbs in pants/Yours are the legs, my sweeting./ You look divine as you advance,/ but…. have you seen yourself retreating?’ Nash introduces a fore and aft element to the heresy. What would the Domini Canes say to that? The mind wanders in church. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel down. Stand up. Catholics get a good work-out at Mass. Muscular Christianity, the Victorians called it.
The Old Testament reading was from the Prophet Nahum. He frightened the life out of me:- wars, gleaming swords, shining spears, corpses everywhere, Nineveh in ruins, the anger and vengeance of God. Some say that Nahum prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 615 B.C. before the event, while others claim that he foretold the destruction of Nineveh, in 612 B. C. after the event. Prophecies after the event are more certain. ‘There! What did I tell you?’ If I were a prophet, I wouldn’t dwell with wild beasts in the desert, eating locusts (yecchh!) I would win untold wealth on the horses and go about the world doing good works, alleviating suffering and bringing peace and love to all, (except the bookies.)
Peter O Toole, speaking of the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia, said: ‘Open your morning paper. Open the Bible. It’s still the same news.’ Sadly, Nahum was right on the money. He describes the Middle East as it is today. The swords still flash. The weapons gleam in the blistering sun. The smoke rises from burning towns. The followers of various gods and of the same god, inflict suffering on one another and on the innocent. Creeds and sects go to war with their own kind and with ‘unbelievers.’ Dissent, (heresy) results in hideous punishment.
Apologies for the quality of my scans.(Double-click for details.) They are copied from Nineveh by Austen Layard, Murray’s Reading for the Rail, 1853, an abridged version of his eight volume edition,(Price 36 shillings) which you wouldn’t attempt to read on a commuter train. You could read one and sit on the other seven, as seats can be scarce. I bought it fifty years ago for half a crown, in Webbs at the Ha’penny Bridge. Layard excavated a city of vast winged statues, bas-reliefs and a clay library detailing the origins of law, writing, mathematics,accounting, science and the arts of war. They liked lions and fish. There are swimmers with aqualungs, in a depiction of naval warfare on the great rivers. Nahum saw a city filled with lies, robbers, unbelievers and prostitutes, ripe for destruction by a vengeful god. He could say the same thing today. He is bound to be right somewhere, some time.
Profoundly disturbed by the latest news from Nineveh and its environs, I went across to the fish shop and bought some prawns. They are the marine version of locusts, I imagine. Maybe I should try locusts in marie-rose sauce. Maybe I should go into the prophecy business. The first thing I will do is, respectfully, ask God to stop taking sides in disputes, pogroms, genocides, jihads, crusades, ethnic cleansings and massacres. Lay off the vengeance and wrath. Go easy on the plagues and locusts. Stop sending Medes and Babylonians and their modern equivalents, as scourges. Calvin approved strongly of Nahum’s version of God. That’s not a good recommendation.
Layard described the Turkish Bey of Mosul, in Iraq, a man hated by his subjects for his cruelty and avarice. Every so often he would circulate the news that he was fatally ill. The subjects perked up. The news came that he was dead. The people broke out in celebration and feasting. Laughter and song could be heard in the streets and in the market-place. At this point, the Bey and his cavalry galloped forth from his palace to punish his people for their disloyalty. After sufficient blood had been shed, they withdrew, until the next time. He’s dead now, thank God, not that Iraq is any better off.
The last words on good and evil, from Ogden Nash:
‘The rain it raineth every day/Upon the just and on the unjust fella/ But mainly on the just/ Because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.’
That Assyrian in the chariot has a nice umbrella. I wonder whence he plundered it.
p.s. I want my big, white umbrella back or verily I shall wreak a terrible vengeance upon thee, as God is my judge.