What is truth?

  • February 25, 2007

Myra was suffering profoundly. Some people blame themselves when life gets tough, taking everything inside. Some, like Myra, take everything outside, blaming everybody but themselves.

Over the past few days she had some especially hard things thrown at her. Listening, I felt distressed for her, and I felt lost, wondering what was going on. Who could sort out the true from the false, the real from the imaginary, in what she said? Certainly I couldn’t, and evidently she couldn’t either.

Finally, I blurted: “Myra, have you ever found truth in your life?” She looked me full in the face. “This is truth,” she said clearly, “this kickback for all the bad things I’ve done in my life.”

Myra’s words were from the gut. Truth is judgment, and the judgment is: I’m guilty. I’m unworthy. It’s my fault and I deserve it.

Not everybody says it as clearly as Myra did, but I suspect many of us think that way. We slap up against the stark, irrefutable “truth” of our own failure; it’s sharp-edged, barren like the desert burning under the sun. Life holds up the mirror, shows the truth, and what can we do but agree with the judgment?

Then along comes Lent! It might seem as though Lent brings us back to this judgment we’re trying to escape: I’m a sinner, I’m dust and the rest is just a mask of success to show to a world where success is king. Lent even starts us off with ashes and desert. The first Sunday, into the desert we go with Jesus.

Yet Lent isn’t about judgment, failure and dead-ends. We begin by entering the desert, but we don’t go there alone; love lures us there and love calls us beyond. The second Sunday, we climb the mountain with Jesus. The breath of the Spirit lives, moves, pulses us into a life we couldn’t dream. Lent is like that. If we follow the Lenten voyage, we will travel from the depths to the heights, from the outside to the inside, from desert to mountain to Jerusalem, Calvary, the tomb and all that lies beyond the door of that tomb. “Come with me,” Jesus seems to say, “and I will take you places.”

On the 41st day, we will hear Myra’s question on the lips of Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?”

The irony of Pilate’s question is that he looks upon the face of Christ as he asks it. Truth is not a something, not a concept or idea. Truth is Someone, the one with whom we’ve been walking, perhaps the one we’ve been judging, whether we know it or not. Truth is with us, and is within us. Looking into the eyes of Truth, Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Had he dared to act on what he knew was within, he would have found the same Truth and all would have been different. Perhaps the reason he didn’t is because, like Myra, he feared that “the kickback for all the bad things I’ve done” is the real truth. How difficult it is to receive the truth that Pilate beheld but did not see, the Truth that is mercy, flowing like oil.

One of my best teachers about the Truth was named Peter. He rarely took a bath or changed his clothes and lived in the smallest apartment I ever saw, next to the furnace. Neither his body nor his mind could earn a living for him. He ate at soup kitchens and missions or else from a can in his basement. He was often cheated and sometimes swore at people who stepped on him.

The truth about Peter is that he was a man of prayer, faith and hope. When he shone, he really shone. I saw him shine once, at a retreat held at a mountain outside Montreal. Gone was the unkempt, cigarette-stained street bum that city folk know how to render invisible. With people who accepted him and wanted him among them, he was aflame. He spoke to everybody, especially the lonely. He cracked jokes, made people laugh, prayed for people out loud, set hearts at ease and couldn’t stop smiling.

I saw him transfigured, as Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. It’s said that the disciples who accompanied Jesus up Mt. Tabor were given there “as much glory as they could hold.” Was it Jesus who was changed? Or was it they, so changed by their journey with Him that they finally could see Him as He really is, brilliant like the sun?

After several years of travelling with Peter, on that mountain retreat I glimpsed him as (I believe) he looks in heaven, where I’m sure he is now. That’s the truth that love and mercy can see, the truth I pray that Myra might receive. That’s the truth we will be asked to claim on Good Friday, if we let the Spirit dance us through Lent.