“Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12-13)
“The truth is a snare: you cannot have it without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way as to catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.” (Soren Kierkegaard, Danish Philosopher and Theologian, 1813-1855)
The Greek word for Truth is Aleithia. Literally, it means, ‘unhidden’ or ‘unforgotten.’ (See http://www.ontology.co/aletheia.htm for a fuller explanation.)
I don’t know about you, but normally I first think of ‘truth’ as something I am pursuing. In fact, while I know I am looking for it every day, sometimes my curiosity will have me going even deeper still, trying to understand. This is how it has been for me in these last couple of days.
I was walking through the cemetery earlier this week and came across a memorial stone, complete with photographs and commentary on one Esther Mae Nesbitt. Before Monday morning I had not heard of her, but her story interested me and so I decided to track down what information I could. My quest led me to an hour in the history room of our local library where volunteers handed me a file folder of photocopied newspaper clippings and personal correspondence.
Here is some of what I learned: Esther Mae Nesbitt was a veteran of both the 2nd World War and the Korean War. At the age of 30 she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps as soon as it was formed. During her time in the service she rose to the rank of Master Sergeant. She came to be in charge of the map room for the entire European Theater of Operations. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) by the French Government — an honor normally reserved, as I understand it, for those who showed heroism in combat. Following 21 years of military service she retired to Sycamore, Illinois, her hometown, and resumed her first love as an artist. Her rendition of “Christ in Gethsemane” hangs in the chapel of our local Methodist Church. I plan to go see it for myself.
Esther Mae died young, of cancer, at the age of 58. What is left is a file folder less than an inch thick in the Joiner History Room at our local public library and a beautiful memorial stone in the cemetery behind my house. If you walk Somonauk Street in Sycamore you can also find her home which is also marked by a plaque offering her name and rank. I have yet to learn if there are those who actually remember her, but since she would have been 100 this year, I imagine it is fairly safe to assume her contemporaries are all gone with her. She never married and had no children so direct descendants are do not exist.
As I paged through that file folder, though, I learned a lot, and while there is much left to be uncovered, one question stays with me. That Croix de Guerre she received? That hero’s medal from the French Government? According to some recollections penned by a second cousin, it was not with her things when she died. No one knows where it is. There was another typed paragraph whose author is unknown which suggested that ‘she was not allowed to wear it.’ So no my curiosity is piqued. I’m wondering whatever became of that medal. What is the truth behind its disappearance? Indeed, that truth is probably both ‘hidden and forgotten’ at this point. For now I am left to speculate and wonder and the discovery of that truth, if it ever comes, will happen on another day.
There is, of course, a great deal that is “hidden and forgotten” among us, between us, and within us. Perhaps that is why much of our energy every day is spent pursuing truth. This week alone I have not only wondered at the location of Esther Mae Nesbitt’s “Cross of War.” I have also wondered at larger truths still: I have wondered at why it is that one person receives a long awaited organ transplant and another never does. I have wondered at why some pregnancies are more difficult than others. I have wondered at what makes a certain person tick. I have wondered why one person greets me on my morning walk and another avoids my gaze altogether. I have wondered at how it is that sermons always seem to come together even though only a few hours earlier, there was not a shadow of an idea in sight. I am always chasing after understanding and I am, more often than not, forced to dwell in mystery.
Jesus speaks to us of truth today, telling us that when the time is right (for at his speaking the disciples were as yet, apparently, unprepared for it) the Holy Spirit would come and truth would be ours to understand. I’m thinking now that the Truth Jesus speaks of here is more than some factual understanding, although there are a thousand questions (a few of which are named above) whose answers would be deeply satisfying to me. And yet maybe what Jesus is getting at is finally more in the line of Kierkegaard’s assertion. We may pursue truth, but Truth, at least any Truth that matters, is finally something that catches us in turn.
As for the mysteries and meaning of any human life — whether it be Esther Mae and her long lost war medal, or any other person who sits and offers me the story of a loved one’s life, I have discovered that the details of ‘the truth’ often still lie hidden and forgotten — even if one has only just left this life. In fact, I cannot count the times I have sat with a family and asked them to tell me what they would have me know about the one they loved. Invariably, the answers are simple. “He loved his grandchildren.” “She loved her family.” This truth they hold and share is that which mattered most to them. And it is hardly ever first about accomplishments or awards bestowed or medals earned. It is about the relationship and what was precious and will never be forgotten even when all the rest is gone from memory. And yes, that is a truth which catches us, as Kierkegaard has it — whether it is between us human beings or it is encountered between us and God.
Now I can’t say this for sure as it is not yet revealed in John’s Gospel itself, but maybe, just maybe that is also the truth which the Holy Spirit leads us towards. All that God does, God does in love. God loves His children. God loves Her family. Without a doubt, that is a Truth that captures us and changes everything.
As for Esther Mae Nesbitt, I find myself reflecting on the truth that while her medal is gone, the lives saved by her service continue on in children and grandchildren and great grandchildren by now. And that painting of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane still hangs in the chapel of a local church. A larger Truth captured her and she gave her life to it in a whole variety of ways. And while I’ll keep pursuing that other truth of the whereabouts of that French Cross of War for a while, I expect the truth is that the evidence of what is left behind is what mattered to her most of all. May it also be so for all of us…
- What ‘Truth’ still lies hidden or forgotten for you? What do you wonder most about?
- How do you find yourself ‘pursuing Truth?’ How have you known it to capture you?
- How does the Holy Spirit reveal ‘Truth’ to you in your life? In the world around you?
- What is ‘the Truth’ Jesus speaks of now?