In his October 22nd blog article, “Lifelong Learning”, Bruce McMenomy asked: “What does real lifelong learning look like when no one else is looking?” In answer he wrote: “I would say that the chief identifying characteristic is probably humility, a posture of respect for and submission to the truth. Genuine lifelong learning prioritizes the truth above anything having to do with oneself; it requires modesty about one’s own achievements, coupled with a fierce unwillingness to settle for a cheap simulacrum of learning for the sake of appearances.”
In the religious order to which I belong, the Order of Preachers – or more familiarly known as “the Dominicans” – lifelong learning is a spiritual discipline enjoined on all the friars. Our motto is “Veritas”, Truth, and we certainly agree with Dr. McMenomy that lifelong learning’s chief characteristic is humble submission to the truth. But with the Dominicans, a commitment to lifelong study has more to do with our usefulness to others than with “self-improvement”. It was contact with a civilization-killing heresy that spurred St. Dominic to found an Order with a universal license to preach the Gospel for the purpose of winning people over to the beauty of what is actually the case. For a Dominican friar to be thus useful in actuality entails the discipline both of continuous study over a lifetime as well as a radical submission to whatever proves true. In addition, yet another desirous quality for success in our stated purpose of preaching for the salvation of souls is the ability to take each individual seriously as an individual. This is commonly spoken of as “taking people where they are at”.
One of the favorite stories Dominicans like to tell about our founder relates an incident that occurred when he first accompanied his Bishop, Diego, in a preaching mission to reclaim southern France from the Albigensian heresy. They stopped at an inn where the proprietor was himself an Albigensian. While the bishop went to bed for some well-deserved sleep, his canon Dominic stayed up all night discussing their opposing doctrines. By dawn the innkeeper was convinced of the truth of the apostolic faith and renounced his Albigensian errors.
The virtue of humility gets a bad rap in our society, and humility before the truth, sadly, has few if any celebrity models. But consider the question, “Who is the real hero in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings?” Tolkien himself would have replied: Sam. At first he just seems to provide comic relief. But without his steadfast and determined loving friendship for Frodo, they would never have made it to Mt. Doom, Aragorn would never have taken up the kingship, and Middle Earth would not have gained freedom from Sauron’s evil — and far from humble — designs. True humility means acting out of an accurate assessment of who you are, neither inflated with pride nor oppressed by depression. With respect to humility before the truth, it means having an accurate assessment of what you actually know and the boundaries of your own ignorance.