The Love of Learning and the Love of Truth

Yesterday we commemorated St Isidore of Seville. He was active in converting the Visigothic kings of Spain from Arianism and a prominent member of the Council of Toledo which, among other things, legislated for better education of the clergy, encouraging the study of Hebrew, Greek, law and medicine. Today he is chiefly remembered as someone who promoted the study of Aristotle long before he was ‘rediscovered’ by the Arabs, attempted an encyclopedia of all knowledge (which he didn’t finish), and is now patron saint of the internet. Poor Isidore! There was so much more to him than pixels and bytes! Today we commemorate another saint from the Iberian Peninsula, St Vincent Ferrer, an eloquent Dominican who had a special mission to Jews and Muslims but died in Brittany, attempting to improve the religious understanding of those who flocked to hear him. I’m slightly less enthusiastic about Vincent, but that has more to do with my equivocal feelings about the Church in late fourteenth/early fifteenth century Spain than with the man himself. What connects both saints is a love of learning and a love of truth, and I’d like to think that something similar informs my attitude to them, too.

To love learning is to love truth; and to love truth is to be always ready to learn. That is why today’s gospel (John 8. 31–42) is so shocking. When Jesus confronts his Jewish audience with their denial of truth, they take refuge in their old certainties — their descent from Abraham, their assurance of being on the right path. We recoil, as the evangelist no doubt intended we should. But note this interesting detail. The gospel pericope opens with the words, ‘To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus said . . .’ . Jesus’ words are not aimed at those who are hostile and refuse to accept him but at those who believe, who have accepted him — which, by extension, means you and me. Suddenly the gospel takes on a new and urgent meaning, especially as we know this discourse will end with many of his Jewish believers deserting him.

One of the problems for the Church in every age is the desire to stay comfortably within what is known and familiar. We don’t want to be stretched or made to confront the inadequacy of our former understanding of anything. The old wine is good, we say. While that is true, our appreciation of the old wine can be enhanced, deepened. As we draw closer to Holy Week we are not being asked to absorb a new truth but to appreciate more fully an old one. Isidore and Vincent did not teach novelties, but their teaching had a freshness and newness about it because they thought and prayed, studied and worked to understand more fully what they had always believed. We are called to do the same. ‘The truth will set you free,’ says Jesus — free from any smallness of vision or weakness of understanding. God’s ideas are so much bigger than ours, if we will but trust him.