Do you remember your first lie? Not the first time you might have feared you lied but your first lie. Can you remember the first time someone asked for a direct answer to a question and you then said something less than the truth? Perhaps it was the standard, “I don’t know,” or the whine, “Don’t ask me.” Whatever and whenever it was, we have lied. And the lies didn’t stop at childhood’s end.
As adults, our lying becomes more skilled and practiced. In our relationships we have learned the proper and acceptable way to deny something or someone without having to come right out with it. For example, we might say something like, “That’s interesting,” when all the time we’re thinking and feeling that it’s anything but interesting. In fact, it’s downright uninteresting, boring, and we wish it would be over or the person would go. In such a situation we have convinced ourselves that it’s better to hide our feelings and our true convictions—or so we’ve learned. In this instance we’re being less than truthful—not sinning—but engaging in socially acceptable less-than-truthful talk.
Other kinds of lies are more pervasive and subtle. Deep within each of us there is a whole collection of fear, anxieties, and guilt that we would prefer that no one ever knows anything about. We’ve learned to make sure we never give ourselves away. There are many ways to hide the truth of our lives, to protect ourselves from being vulnerable, to resist the urge to trust another person with the deepest part of ourselves. I believe this experience of vulnerability lies at the heart of scrupulosity: The scrupulous person doesn’t trust any hint of vulnerability and perceives it as a profound failing, an unforgivable weakness and sin, not as a grace.
In the Gospel narrative of the passion of Jesus Christ, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate knew human behavior well. He understood how people used one another. He understood that many times the people before him to be judged were often
not that much different from those in the audience, except they were the unfortunate ones who got caught. Pilate had heard every kind of lie, seen every kind of plot, experienced the never-ending dance of one person jockeying for position over another. To this man the question, “What is truth?” had to be answered: “Whatever it seems to be, and whatever is most convenient and useful at the moment.”
The problem for Pilate, so calloused and so tired, was that he had heard so many lies in his own life that he had become hardened. When the truth finally was spoken before him, he recognized it for what it was and was attracted to it, but he was unable to embrace it. Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent, that Jesus was being used by the chief priests and the scribes for their own political ends, but he did not have the courage to embrace the truth and make the decision that truth and justice demanded of him. Years of a practiced and hardened heart had eaten his soul away to the point that he was no longer able to embrace any real experience that would give life.
Contrast Pilate with Jesus, who lived and embraced the truth yet knew well the father of lies—Satan—and had in fact wrestled with him in the desert. Truth alone brought Jesus face to face with his opposite. Not ambition, power, the desire to dominate to make a difference, or any other fundamental lie.
What is truth? The choice, the contrast, and the result are all clearly presented for our meditation and reflection right now. Perhaps it’s an important question for each member of our SA family as we come to the end of 2017 and begin 2018. It’s important because it can bring us face to face with our experience of scrupulosity. It brings us face to face with our human fragility and vulnerability, an experience that is shared by all human beings without exception.
Think of it in this way. The scrupulous condition is the ultimate liar, the ultimate experience of what it means to be caught in a lie. The scrupulous condition persists in repeating a mantra that never gets old: You are not good enough, this thought is a sacrilege, you are responsible for everything, anxiety is a sign that you did something wrong and immoral. And the list can go on and on. They’re all lies, the opposite of the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God.
Because we have heard so many lies that originate in our scrupulosity, we are like Pilate, hardened to the truth and unable to embrace the truth even when we feel we should. There is a part of us that just believes real truth has to be another lie. It cannot be the truth, and so we pass by again and again the opportunity for the manifestation of God’s grace and life.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is a good time to pray for the grace of a soft heart that is open to the experience of truth. Now is the time to pray for the grace to risk believing that the good news of the gospel is good news for us, too, not just for everyone else. It’s important to find a way each day to embrace what is truthful and to find a way to resist what is not.
As I’ve said in the past, living the truth will bring us face to face with the experience of fragility and vulnerability, core experiences of being human. Our scrupulosity insists that the truth of vulnerability and fragility is false and must be avoided or confessed. The truth is exactly the opposite. We are vulnerable and fragile, and to pretend to be other than who we are is the ultimate untruth.
What is truth? It’s both uncomfortable and often tinged with anxiety, but it leads us ultimately to the experience of our humanity, and in that experience we encounter the God who loves us.
FR. THOMAS M. SANTA, CSsR