Spirituality of Truth - Bringing the Word Alive
This year, 2006, marks 800 years since Dominic de Guzman founded a convent of nuns in France, the beginning of the Dominican Order. Right around the world, Dominican women and men, priests, religious and lay people celebrate the surprising reality, that the dream of a charming, slim, red-haired Spaniard in the 13th century might have life and value in the 21st.
To honour this landmark, the New Zealand Dominican Sisters are offering a series of six articles considering the place of core Dominican concepts in contemporary living.
The purpose is not to return to some nostalgic reenactment of medieval life with its long robes, doctrinal absolutes and moral certainties. It is to use these pillars of Dominican life as springboards to reflect on our own times. Our hope is that people will think, question, engage and go more deeply.
Veritas and the search for truth
The motto of the Dominican Order is Truth – Veritas. The search for truth is at the heart of the Dominican vision.
People of today are called worldly, materialistic, their pilgrimages are shopping trips, their stained glass windows, computer screens. Yet they, no less than people of the 13th century, thirst for truth and meaning. I believe that the way they are doing this, however, has changed to match the profound changes in human life since that age.
Some years ago I remember a university student regaling a group of friends with an account of how he and his friend had experienced a papal promulgation as small boys at a Catholic school. All the day before they marched about chanting, ‘I don’t believe, I don’t believe’ and then woke up on the day of the declaration repeating, ‘I do believe, it’s true’. In a humorous way this reflects a child’s understanding of truth. Truth was a matter of submitting to the pronouncement of an authority.
This is no longer enough for contemporary people. Concepts of democracy, equality and freedom have settled in the human psyche. The heart thirsts as well as the mind. People today want truth and meaning to come from within, to be personally assented to not by a ‘suspension of disbelief’ but by individual conviction and experience. Truth must ring true.
Very many people no longer trust authority: presidents and princes alike, millionaires and lawmakers, soldiers and generals have revealed moral hollowness. Sports heroes are caught with drugs and film stars cannot find marital bliss. Some clergy have sexually abused children and there are rumours even about papal elections.
But just when wise authority seems absent, modern people are faced with serious dilemmas of meaning. Who can make sense of the death of their child to a terrorist attack? Or of their parent in a road accident? Why do some groups hate and kill others? How can a tsunami rip away life in an instant? How can some of us enjoy superfluous riches while others die of starvation? How can we watch species become extinct and rivers dry up? Why all this when we know more than we have ever known and can do more than we have ever been capable of?
For people today, I suspect, truth and meaning are found less in volumes than in glimpses, pinpoints of light, like stars through clouds. We seek truth as we struggle to bring together the incomprehensible parts of existence – love and sorrow, good desires and venality, generosity and greed, violence and tenderness. Meaning arises out of questions and loss of certainty. It is as likely to be expressed in poetry as in dogma. It may be served by psychology as much as by theology. It is lost and re-made over and over again. It grows firmer when we dare to share our questions and tentative wonderings with one another.
An individual may experience divine truth when what was heedless or compelled becomes choice – of restraint over greed, love over revenge, freedom over apathy, acceptance over hatred. These are moments of moral choice, of psychological shift, spiritual opening. At such times, said the Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, we act ‘from our own inner self which is God in us’.
The divine may be glimpsed in moments of human connection whether in pain, anger or compassion. It flickers through our lives in times when we truly see things – beautiful, incongruous or ugly. It opens us to difference, to humility, to laughter.
Eight hundred years on, the human heart thirsts for truth as much as it ever did. This desire is, I believe, God-given and invites us to fuller life.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to sit with very poor rural women in a small village in central Sri Lanka.
They were Sinhalese by race and Buddhist by religion. After 20 years of civil war there was now a ceasefire.
These women had gone to visit the war-ravaged north.
One woman (let’s call her Shantha) described her experience. She had been brought up to fear Tamils as dangerous terrorists. The media told her of suicide bombings and political assassinations. It presented the Hindu religion as a threat to her Buddhist faith. Her husband had died fighting as a soldier in the Sri Lankan army.
To travel to the north was a frightening risk. Yet she went. There she met and was hosted by women living in destitution. She sat up all night speaking with Tamil women. When she heard their stories of bombing and pillage and rape and massacre, she was ashamed to mention that her husband had been a soldier and had served in this very area.
Later, as trust grew, Shantha thought about the woman who hosted her: “She is a widow too. We have a similar experience. She has lost a husband and so have I. She has been left to try to provide for four children and so have I. I am poor but I can see that her poverty is even more profound than mine. We suffer in the same way.” So Shantha explained her husband’s role in the war. The women wept together, embraced each other, shared stories and reached beyond the propaganda and hostility which had divided them to a new and deeper truth.
Like Shantha, we too find ourselves immersed in constant information – from billboards, TV screens, radio programmes, the internet, newspapers and a bewildering assortment of printed matter in libraries, bookshops and newsstands. But these are slick snippets, around and behind which lie layers of meaning, complexity that is rarely acknowledged. To stop at this level is to fall short of truth.
Shantha opened herself to a reality she saw as alien and even hostile. She engaged at the level of feeling and intuition and profound personal experience.
In the technological cacophony of our lives we too need to remind ourselves that truth is found in unexpected places and can be reached through respect, listening, careful questioning and reflection on our lived experience. This means taking the trouble to read more than the daily news. It means seeking opinions from those whose views are not usually considered important. It can mean talking with others who think differently from us. After all, the Word, who is ultimate Truth, lives among us.
A second element which more and more frequently confronts the truth seekers among us is certainty. Listen to the sureness of President Bush, or that of any Jewish, Muslim or Christian fundamentalist. Truth lies elsewhere. Truth which binds and con-stricts us is not truth at all. Truth which denies us all questioning or doubt is not the truth which sets us free.
To live in uncertainty, to delight in or to struggle with our own and others’ questions, to refuse easy answers and to wait patiently and humbly for deeper insights is a more honest approach to our complex world. And to be surprised by truth may be the richest reward for the questing spirit.
Ultimately, truth is lived. On her return from northern Sri Lanka, Shantha and her friends gathered rice and dried foods and clothing from their own meagre stores and sent them off to the Tamil women they had met. They told the story. They wrote to their government. Their lives, attitudes and actions were changed.
So too for us. There are lives which shine with integrity and authenticity, offering glimpses of truth which can touch us deeply. Perhaps our own lives, in all their uncertainty, offer such shining glimpses to others, without our knowing.
Sandra Winton is a Dominican Sister and psychotherapist living in Dunedin. Elisabeth Mackie is also a Dominican Sister and works for Christian World Service. She lives in Christchurch.