Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
What is Truth?What is Truth?

What is Truth?

In his convocation address to a private religious college, the holder of the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill urges graduates to return to core Christian truths to go forward in the world.

Douglas Farrow
9 minute read

Bishop Michael, Dr. Cassidy, teaching members of this Academy, and you, the 2015 graduating class, together with your families, friends and fellow students: Permit me to say first that I consider it an honour to address you. It is certainly not every academic institution, not even every Catholic institution, that takes seriously the task that is here embraced, seeking "to form the whole person, especially intellectually and spiritually, while respecting the freedom of the individual"; or to pursue in its curriculum "a deep and wide-ranging understanding of Western civilization along with the traditions of the Church," thus equipping students "to engage with and critique contemporary culture." Your growth, both corporately and individually, in pursuit of these admirable goals is an encouragement to others, including myself; I often find myself wondering at the loss of any meaningful concept of the whole person or indeed of freedom, and at the poverty of knowledge or understanding of our collective heritage. We live in a time of spiritual and intellectual and cultural forgetfulness, bordering on dementia.

I note that Merton College, Oxford, last year dedicated for its chapel, in celebrating its 750th anniversary, a sculpture of Our Lady sedes sapientiae (a rather curious creation by Peter Eugene Ball). Merton still prides itself on being the first of the Oxford colleges to be conceived as a genuine community of scholars labouring together toward common academic ends. I'm not aware that it intends to incorporate Our Lady into its logo, as you have done, and of course there are not many other comparisons to make. Its endowment, for example, at nearly two hundred million pounds, is rather larger than yours, just as its history is very much longer and more glorious. But perhaps, in your way, you know the meaning of Merton's motto better than Merton does: Qui timet Deum faciet bona (He who fears God will do good) — Sirach 15:1 in the Vulgate. Here it is in the Revised Standard Version:

The man who fears the Lord will do this, and he who holds to the law will obtain wisdom. She will come to meet him like a mother, and like the wife of his youth she will welcome him. She will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.

There are old and venerable institutions, with parched throats, that very much need the water of wisdom to drink! Who knows? Perhaps Our Lady will yet give it to them, and to us, too, lest we ourselves become forgetful. But it is your motto, not Merton's, on which I wish to build my remarks today. Veritas vos liberabit (The truth will set you free).

Two centuries before Merton was founded, a remarkable young man (the very same whose feast day was celebrated this past Tuesday) entered a fledgling institution that was not even as old as he was. Anselm, as you may know, arrived at Bec Abbey in 1059, joining that community the following year. He was a rich kid from the Alps, with blue blood in his veins — that of the House of Savoy, which has survived into our own era. Nevertheless, he wanted quite badly to enter a monastic community and at age 15 tried to do so. His father, being a worldly-wise man, thought that a very bad idea and refused his permission. So Anselm lived the high life for awhile, in a fashion that doubtless displeased both his godly mother and his ungodly father. Then his mother died. Things having gone from bad to worse in his relationship with his father, he resigned his inheritance and went off to Normandy to see the prior of the new Benedictine abbey at Bec. His former piety and love of learning were quickly revived there. He was mentored by the great Lanfranc, whom he eventually succeeded as prior. In 1079, against his wishes (perhaps a pro forma protest), he was made abbot.

Lanfranc had moved on to become Archbishop of Canterbury in the days of William the Conqueror. Anselm went to visit him to give a few lectures there while attending also to the secular business of Bec, which owned properties in England. When Lanfranc died a decade later, Anselm was asked to come back to Canterbury to help settle some serious disputes that had arisen between Church and State.

Being Archbishop of Canterbury was even more difficult then than it is now, though of course it is not quite the same office now. The Conqueror's son, William Rufus, was locked in a battle with the Church over the right of investiture. Rufus's father was a man who cared about the welfare of the Church. He had co-operated closely with Lanfranc, despite the latter's criticism of his irregular marriage, and had helped to effect many reforms. Rufus himself, however, found it convenient to keep many bishoprics vacant and to collect the income himself from their properties, or to sell the bishoprics to the highest bidder. He had decided to keep even the See of Canterbury vacant. Anselm, when he arrived to assist his beleaguered brethren, was suddenly acclaimed archbishop by the clergy there. He did not want the post, nor did Rufus want to give it to him. But when the latter became ill and (it is said) frightened by the thought of Judgment Day, he made the offer and Anselm acquiesced. So, at the age of 60, in 1093, Anselm left Bec behind and became the most senior cleric in England, with an enormous, unlooked-for burden of office.

I like to think that part of his readiness for this unexpected turn of events lay in the three little treatises he had written while Abbot of Bec, "pertaining," he said, "to the study of Sacred Scripture," that well from which the water of wisdom is drawn: one on truth, one on freedom and one on the fall of the devil. "You shall know the truth," said Jesus, "and the truth shall set you free." Veritas vos liberabit. But what is truth? What is freedom?

Today, we are much in doubt about both. One of the main reasons for that is that we live in the philosophical and moral ruins left to us by nominalism, a movement that was just beginning to sprout in Anselm's time. He tried to stamp it out, but he did not succeed. In later centuries, it spread like wildfire. And today, if we are not simply skeptical about truth and freedom, we try to live by the very reverse of Jesus' maxim. We do not say, "The truth will set you free," but rather "Freedom will make you true. Given a little time and space, you will discover whatever it is that is true for you. You will make your own truth."

Now, all across our land, that is the message that is going out in convocation assemblies like this one. Or rather, not like this one, because neither the students nor the masters in question have been taught to study sacred scripture or to read the likes of Anselm. The proper relation between truth and freedom, between truth and justice and freedom, escapes them. But it must not escape you.

You have chosen a faith-based education. You have begun to ponder the question: What is truth? You have begun to think about the relation between truth and justice and freedom and the happiness that all men want. You have not done so skeptically or merely casually. Maybe you have even read attentively Solzhenitsyn's 1978 Harvard commencement address — not at all well-received in that parched place — in which he remarked to his audience that "many of you have already found out, and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit." This fact you have, I am confident, been encouraged to take seriously.

But you are leaving your Bec, if I may put it that way, and in your new life there will be many unwanted responsibilities and many new distractions and temptations. Moreover, you are entering a society that is increasingly hostile to the tradition in which you have been trained. You are governed by a State that insists that justice and freedom require the promotion of a variety of truths, even conflicting "truths" — that, just so, denies the unity of truth. You live in a land where freedom is detached from truth. And you, too, will be expected to concede that detachment, whether at university or in business or in civil and social and even family affairs.

That detachment is rapidly gaining the positive sanction of law, especially where it touches on religion. Only last week, our Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay, in which it reinforced what it calls "the duty of neutrality" by forbidding the town council to commence its meetings with a prayer. It even undertook to neutralize the Constitution: "The reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter," it said, "cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the State to consciously profess a theistic faith." This is rather counterintuitive, to say the least. And does it not imply that, whatever deity there might be, it certainly lacks any legitimate claim over the State? But that is a theological profession. The State, it seems, is not so neutral as it pretends to be. Though it does not try to appoint the Church's bishops, or extort its funds, it once again carves out a sphere in which God is not acknowledged as God — a sphere in which it is not "right and just," but wrong and unjust, to give thanks to God.

But you must not fear any of this. For if you abide in the truth, you are free. Therefore be mindful of the truth, without which you cannot maintain the rectitude of will or the love of the Living God that makes freedom possible. Be courageous in speaking the truth, humbly and (as far as possible) winsomely. Above all, live truthfully and do not let anyone compel you to do otherwise.

Here, too, Anselm may be your guide. No sooner was he elevated to the See of Canterbury, than William Rufus demanded of him the princely sum of £1,000 to help finance his army in Normandy. (In those days £1,000 was something more like the size of Merton's endowment today.) Anselm thought such a large sum would smack of simony, and so he offered him £500 instead. When the king turned it down, Anselm immediately gave it to the poor. Then he sent the king a letter asking him to repair the churches that were going to ruin, to revive the public practice of the Christian faith, and to let him go to Rome to receive from the Pope the pallium that would signify his own share in the ecclesial authority of Saint Peter.

Rufus was not impressed. He replied that Anselm had but two options: either stop pestering him and swear never to appeal to the Pope for anything or else leave England and never return. He added that if Anselm chose the former, he could expect a healthy fine (£1,000 perhaps?) for his insolence. Anselm — knowing that the Christian must fear God and honour the king, precisely in that order — responded respectfully, but stuck by his guns, or rather by his principles. In 1098, he gathered up the manuscripts on which he then was working, including the famous Cur Deus Homo — his wonderful book about what the Truth, who is the Son of God himself, accomplished among us as a man — and he boarded ship for Rome to consult with the Pope. The king of England was not, after all, the vicar of Christ. And, as Saint Peter himself had said, "We must obey God rather than men."

Anselm's faithfulness to the truth did not go unrewarded. After Rufus died in a hunting accident from an arrow to the heart, his brother, Henry I, asked Anselm to return to Canterbury. When he arrived, however, Anselm found that Henry was just about as stubborn as Rufus. Life does have its disappointments. They train us in perseverance. Though Anselm soon suffered a second exile, he continued the struggle until Henry eventually gave up the custom of lay investiture and allowed the Church to determine its own appointments. This was a great victory for the freedom of the Church.

As you go out from here, as you leave behind your life at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom and cross the Channel, so to say, to the new responsibilities you must take up, take your Anselm with you. You, too, will experience many distractions, temptations and trials. For you, too, the journey may sometimes seem long, and the odds as well. But, if you are faithful, if you abide in the truth, you too will accomplish in your own vocation, however great or modest, what God intends for you. And you will live in freedom.

So, I commend to you both the writings and the example of Saint Anselm: his love of the truth, his prayers and spiritual discipline, his theological labours, his service to the poor, his concern for the welfare of a country not even his own, his courage and wisdom, his foresight and perseverance. I commend you to his prayers and to those of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom — I mean the heavenly one — and above all, to the high priestly intercessions of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. I congratulate you on what you have achieved thus far, and I wish you bon voyage!

You'll also enjoy...

Sea to Sea

Sea to Sea

Our editor-in-chief revisits 1989 and sees the arc of history turning a sickle into the Cross