There are a great many reasons for Dominicans to esteem Benedictines: the holiness of their saints, the moderation of their monastic rule, the simplicity of their way of life; the list goes on. But there is at least one reason for Dominicans (or, at least for this one) to envy them. It is, of course, a book, and its title is Christ, the Ideal of the Monk. Why should this wonderful book by Blessed Columba Marmion be the cause of such envy? Quite simply, because we have nothing of our own to compare with it. There is no book entitled, Christ, the Ideal of the Preacher, and there should be. For the true preacher can have no other ideal than that of Jesus Christ.
The New Testament offers us numerous examples of false preachers, and the contrast between them and Jesus is striking. One of the most notable traits of these false preachers—be they Pharisees, Sadducees, or scribes—is scathingly stated in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus practically chants the refrain, “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites . . .” and he warns his disciples explicitly, “do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.”
If hypocrisy is a sure sign of a false preacher, then we might be tempted just to say that the true preacher will be someone whose life conforms to what he preaches. As far as it goes, this statement is correct: the true preacher will certainly practice what he preaches; but it does not go nearly far enough. When we contrast the ideal Preacher with the hypocrites we can understand why—for Jesus is not merely a preacher whose works happen to match his words.
Recall the prologue of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God the Father. In speaking this one Word, the Father says absolutely everything he has to say. That means that Jesus Christ is the Holy Preaching of God the Father. He is the eternal preaching that perfectly proclaims the Father’s truth, goodness, and glory. In the Incarnation, that Holy Preaching took flesh and became for us the holy preacher, Jesus the Nazarene, who proclaimed to us the Good News of salvation. He is the only ideal of all true preachers, because he does not just “do” what he preaches, he is what he preaches.
Jesus Christ preached the kingdom of God by revealing to us the will of the Father. He showed us that this is why he came into the world when he said, “my food is to do the will of the Father.” But Jesus Christ is the Father’s will, for he is the definitive revelation of the Father and the image of the invisible God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he tells us, and this can be explained only with the even bolder truth, “I and the Father are one.” Jesus Christ is the God, the kingdom, and the salvation that he preached.
What a contrast this is with the false preachers that Jesus confronts in the New Testament! They say but they do not do. Jesus is everything that he says. This is the true ideal of the preacher. It is not enough simply to avoid hypocrisy. It is not enough to merely match work with word. The true preacher must become what he preaches: he must become Christ. That is why St. Paul, the apostolic preacher par excellence, did not proclaim, “I practice what I preach,” but rather, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” Every preacher must die to himself and allow Christ to live within him. Every preacher must become Christ, for only in this way will he be conformed to the Holy Preaching of God the Father that became incarnate in the holy preacher of Nazareth. Only in this way can the friar preacher follow Christ, the perfect ideal of the preacher.
Image: Gustave Dore, Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount