At a meeting I attend we read a Step from the 12&12 and do a round-robin discussion. We recently discussed Step 11, which uses the St. Francis Prayer as an aid to meditation. The prayer is widely admired inside and outside of AA. It expresses like no other prayer what it means to “practice these principles in all our affairs.”
One of the people who spoke, however, voiced his discomfort with a particular line: “that where there is error I may bring truth.” It’s a discomfort that is shared by many. Some years ago I came across a book on St. Francis at a New Age bookstore in Delray Beach, Florida, and as I read through the prayer, I noticed that line had been edited out.
People are just not comfortable with the idea of truth. Peace, love, forgiveness, harmony, hope, and all the other things the prayer asks for—even faith—are okay. But truth? Not so much. Especially if there is any implication, as there is in St. Francis, that some may have a truth that others lack and which they should try to bring to them.
We are more comfortable with the sentiment expressed in a related line in Max Ehrmann’s prose poem Desiderata, another inspirational favorite of self-help bookstores: “speak your truth quietly and clearly.” The operative word is “your.” The implication is that truth is subjective and relative. I have mine, you have yours.
That idea has become an article of faith of the contemporary, postmodernist ethos. For most of history, people thought otherwise. Truth was about objective reality, not personal preference. It said something real about the world. There were always some who thought otherwise, in both East and West. One was the man who posed the question in our title. Reality is what you deem it to be, they said. There is no such thing as absolute truth. Yet, they were only a tiny minority within the tiny minority composing society’s ruling elite.
By the end of the 20th century, they had become the majority, at least in the West. As many as 66% of Americans, according to a Gallup poll of the times, believed there was no such thing as objective truth. That trend has only accelerated since then. The attitude now prevalent in our culture is that truth is relative and that there is no objective, absolute truth that applies equally to all.
It’s an attitude that affects all of us. Hence our friend’s unease at the AA meeting. Many of us identify with him. We too struggle with the question of truth—just like we struggle with the question of God. The two are related. Absolute truth presupposes an absolute reality, the “Great Reality,” as the Big Book calls it (p. 55).
Thus our struggle is not with truth in general. Few of us would deny that there is such a thing as truth. We live our lives every day on the basis of truth assumptions about what is real and what is not, what we can and cannot do, what works and what doesn’t. If we gave it any thought, we would readily see that the denial of truth is a logical impossibility. The claim that there is no absolute truth is itself a claim to absolute truth, and is hence self-refuting.
Our difficulty is really with religious truth. Religion is ultimately about the truth of who God is and who we are in relation to him. That truth has consequences for how we ought to live our lives. Our problem therefore is also with moral truth, with what is right and wrong, what we should and should not do.
Some of us may be able to trace our difficulty with questions of moral and religious truths to our bad experience with religion. The “truth” was often used as a weapon to hurt us rather than to help us. It was also laced with hypocrisy. It was a “truth” that those who tried to impose it on us didn’t live themselves.
As a result of those experiences, we may have given up on both God and the truth. AA may have helped us to recover from the damage to a great extent, and we may be at one stage or another of our journey back to faith. Still, we struggle. We see what some people do in the name of God and of the truth and we get discouraged.
But we don’t have to. One of the first things we learn in AA is that we don’t have to drink. We know that that’s the absolute truth. There is a corollary to that truth. And it is that we don’t have to let anything or anybody does drive us away from God—or from the truth.
AA spirituality is about both. It is about “a manner of living that demands rigorous honesty” (Big Book, p. 58). And honesty is about the truth. So is open-mindedness, the second of “the essentials of recovery” (ibid., p. 578). For we can't get to the truth if our minds are closed to it. So is the third of the essentials, which is willingness. For we have to be willing to go to any lengths to find the truth about ourselves and about God’s will for our lives and thereby experience the spiritual awakening that finally will set us free.
When we drank we lived in error. About ourselves, about God, about most things, really. When we came to AA, those who preceded us brought the truth of the program to us and we began to recover. Since then we have tried to pass that truth as we understand it, and to live it to the best of our ability, to other recovering alcoholics.
In his prayer, St. Francis asks God to help him do the same thing, to make him a channel of his peace so that he may bring that peace to others. In the context of the prayer error involves hatred, wrongdoing, discord, doubt, despair, shadows, sadness. In the context of the prayer truth involves peace, love, forgiveness, harmony, faith, hope, light, joy. Why would we not ask God to help us go and do likewise?
“The moment we catch even a glimpse of God’s will,” we read in the 12&12, “the moment we begin to see truth, justice, and love as the real and eternal things in life, we are no longer deeply disturbed by all the evidence to the contrary that surround us in purely human affairs” (Step 11, p. 105).
That truth, real and eternal, is what we would wish to speak “quietly and clearly.” And humbly, knowing that is not our truth but his, and that we have only but the slightest glimpse and the most imperfect understanding of it.
[Posted 02/29/15. Image: Bill W., Lois, and relatives.]