Last week, I spoke, in part , of the meaning of the Greek word, alethia, and the Latin word, revelatio. Alethia, which has come to mean truth actually means the removal of forgetfulness, or remembering. In this sense awareness, or understanding, means coming to realize what we may have forgotten or lost sight of. G. K. Chesterton reminds us that we have forgotten who we truly are. In Greek mythology, memory is the daughter of earth and sky and the mother of the muses. These are the many arts, literature, music, sculpture, and much else. This association suggests that it is story and painting and music and the like that help us get in touch with our true self, that help us remember who we truly are.
I heard recently a podcast interview in which children’s book author, Kate DiCamillo said that life is chaos and art is pattern. Story and other arts are genuine if they name life truthfully but with love. She cites Charlotte’s Web as an example. E. B. White tells of the sad death of Charlotte the thoughtful spider, yet does so with a genuine love.
The pragmatic orientation in much of education today regards it as job preparation, essentially preparation for yesterday’s jobs. It readily reduces us to an economic cog and neglects the fulness of our humanity. A more rounded exposure to the arts and sciences, beyond pragmatic information, helps us to grow and develop as a human being and not just an economic function. Exposure to the best that humans have thought and created enriches us as full persons. It helps us to create a life and not just make a living. It helps us make of our lives a work of art and mot just a product
The Latin word revelatio has a similar sense. It is a removal of a veil, that is, whatever prevents our seeing or understanding. The word blind likewise has a sense of darkness or absence of light, and has the same root as, the words black, blank, or bleak. As we noted, it is used metaphorically in literature, in stories of King Oedipus or King Lear, or in the song Amazing Grace, to indicate a lack of vision, a lack of understanding. Both Oedipus and Lear progress from mere cleverness to wisdom, from a more surface attachment to a deeper love, but not without suffering.
As Viktor Frankl stresses, such wisdom and compassion come, not through masochistic wallowing, but through a courageous response to inevitable suffering. Many of the religious traditions also speak of enlightenment, and the healing of blindness, a coming out of darkness into light.
A similar theme is found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, or in E. M. Forster 1909 story, The Machine Stops. The folk tale, The Blind Boy and the Loon, tells of how a blind Inuit child is immersed in water three times, each time ever more deeply, until he is able to see clearly. Coming to see, growing in our vision, is an ever deepening process from darkness to light, from ignorance to awareness, from indifference to compassion, from self-preoccupation to justice.
Sometimes the notion of discipline is conveyed as a form of cruelty to ourselves, of punishing ourselves, not just for allegedly doing wrong but for being wrong, not just for what we do but for who we are. The original meaning of the word, however, is to learn. Our growth can perhaps be viewed as a process of struggling to learn, or better to understand, to develop a vision. This process can involve first, to experience life fully in all its chaos, its hurt, and especially its wonder; and then to name experience with truth and depth and love. It can perhaps be viewed as a struggle with what prevents us from seeing clearly and deeply, with what hold us back from being more completely free, and inseparably with what hinders our sense of sacred worth and consequently our capacity to love.
In this regard, we have spoken before of the role of solitude, friendship, and social involvement. We might just add here a few words on silence. Spiritual writer, Morton Kelsey, notes: “Detachment from habitual, unthinking activity is part of the process of growing up. It is the first step in learning to live as a separate individual and trying to stand on one’s own two feet. … Only in silence … does self-knowledge begin.” He adds: “Out of silence disturbing emotions often come to the surface which are difficult to control. … In the silence one can allow the feelings to arise, disconnected from their ordinary targets in the outer world, and learn to deal with the depth of the psyche directly.”
Along similar lines, Benedictine nun and social activist, Joan Chittister writes: “Silence separates you from all the masks and distractions of life. … Only silence can bring you to the union of the self with the spirit within you that makes life true, makes life authentic, makes life worth living.” Again in the words of a child in Kathleen Norris’s class “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”
That is perhaps the challenge: to be in touch with our soul, to be at home to our inmost self, to remember who we truly are: a being of sacred worth, deeper and more than, and not overcome by our mistakes or even our betrayals. This process makes possible and is inseparable from our compassion for one another and our sense of justice.
Spiritual writer, Thomas Merton puts it this way: “One who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his or her own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love. will not have anything to give others.” Elsewhere, he describes this deepening and its effects: Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, … If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. …At the centre of our being is a point … pure truth. … It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
May you come to be more an more at home to “the secret beauty of your heart,” and may that sacred centre radiate more an more outwards at wherever you are and in whatever you do.
Norman King, March 28, 2022