Truth, Obedience, and Humility

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2012 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Definitions express the essential meaning of things, and a good definition contains two parts: a genus, which tells us what something is generally, and a specific difference, which specifies the genus, as "rational" specifies the genus "animal", thus defining man. The definition of truth is "the conformity between what is in the mind and what is outside the mind". "Conformity" is the genus. Thus, truth is a relationship, precisely because it is a certain kind of conformity.

But the definition of obedience is: "the conformity between one's behaviour and a command". Note the definition contains the same genus, namely "conformity". To obey is to conform one's behaviour to another's command (i.e., a parent, an officer, God, etc). The resemblance between the two definitions is worth thinking about; for it gives us insight into the relationship between virtue and one's ability to possess truth.

I recall the time I walked into the school office and witnessed the biggest trouble maker in the school yell out, with seething rage: "How dare he (the principal) tell me what to do! Nobody tells me what to do! Nobody!" It should come as no surprise that this young man had a criminal record. Disobedience is the offspring of pride. A proud man refuses to obey the command of another, because it means conforming to something other than his own will, and the proud man has made himself, his own will, the measure of what is true and good.

Now, possessing truth has something to do with obedience. The reason is that both truth and obedience possess the same genus, namely conformity, and to conform implies the willingness to be formed by something other than one's own will, something other than the self. So, if disobedience is an offspring of pride, it follows that obedience is an offspring of humility. And if truth and obedience both involve conforming oneself to something other than the self, it would seem that humility is a fundamental requirement or condition for the possession of truth. Without humility, one has no hope of ever acquiring wisdom, which is the possession of ultimate truths.

Recently I heard a priest talk on Catholicism. In response to the many questions coming from some of my colleagues, he informed us all that our last two Popes failed to understand the true meaning of Vatican II - which is why they have been trying to "take the Church back to the 16th century" -, that the language of the new Roman Missal is irrelevant and out of touch, that one day women will be priests, etc. What struck me, however, was not the priest's dissent - that's par for the course with this particular society of priests -, but the number of questions my colleagues were asking him. I don't have an adversarial relationship with any of these colleagues and I have been teaching at the school for over 10 years, and so I found myself wondering why, if they had so many pressing questions, they did not think to ask me to try to shed light on their difficulties, or any other priest who gave similar talks - but of a more orthodox bent - in previous years.

Jean Pierre de Caussade points out, "...our wishes and desires, even if only begun to be formed, are to God what the voice is to our fellow men. He hears them, in fact, far more clearly than men hear our voices, and it is enough for Him that we form these desires; for, as the Psalmist says He knows even the mere intention and disposition of our hearts from the first moment that they begin to turn, and to move towards Him."

That is why we always get what we ultimately want in life; for the Lord knows our deepest desires more than we know them. The book of Wisdom infers as much: "Wisdom is brilliant, she never fades. By those who love her, she is readily seen, by those who seek her, she is readily found. She anticipates those who desire her by making herself known first. Whoever gets up early to seek her will have no trouble but will find her sitting at the door" (Wis 6, 12-14).

In this light, I suspect the answer to my question above, namely why it is colleagues keep their pressing questions deep within their breast for years on end - especially when so much is available at the click of a mouse, I might add - is that they know what the answers are that I or anyone else faithful to the Church will give them, and they are not the answers they want. But after listening to a liberal dissenter for only a few minutes, it became abundantly clear to them that this man will indeed provide them with the answers they want to hear, and so they ask and complain as I have never seen them do before.

As Aristotle said, "As a person is, so does he see". A person's character not only describes the kind of person he has made himself to be by the moral choices that he has made, it determines what it is he will perceive as true, good, and beautiful. A humble soul that loves truth more than he loves himself will readily see it and possess it, for wisdom "anticipates those who desire her by making herself known first". But the person who loves himself - his own will, the goods of this world, etc - more than wisdom will not find her sitting at his door, because she anticipates only those who desire her, for our desires are to God what the voice is to our fellow men.

A teacher cannot help the latter; he or she can only pray that they be given the grace to willingly open themselves to the prospect of conforming to something much larger and richer than themselves, namely the splendor of wisdom. Once that desire is even barely formed within their depths, Someone within will be waiting at their door to teach them. Then they will seek, and all who seek, find.