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Of Light and Shadow

On June 30, 1983 His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, became the newest alumnus of the University of Alberta at a special Convocation held in the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton.

Only days before, confirmation had come that Lady Diana, Princess of Wales would accompany her husband for the ceremonies, and SHE was there. And all eyes were upon her. The event was all that had been expected of it, and more.

What had not been expected - at least not widely - was the thoughtfulness of the Prince's address to convocation.

Here is the text of that address.

On this occasion you have been generous enough to confer on me the same honorary law degree as that given by your predecessors to my great uncle, the then Prince of Wales, over 60 years ago. I have not been able to find out what he said in 1919, but I fell to reflecting on the importance of law in our society and the way in which the legal framework, built upon and improved throughout the centuries in Britain, and adopted by other countries such as Canada, has preserved our freedom as individuals. The administration of a system of law by an independent judiciary which is seen to establish the equality of all before that law, is the means by which our democratic way of life can exist and be preserved. We may take large parts of it for granted; we may criticise it, resent it, ridicule it; pressure groups of one kind or another may seek to alter it; it may produce obvious disadvantages which aggravate people, but ultimately a system of law which is seen to be the most reasonable under difficult circumstances is what protects us from the dangers of authoritarianism whether from the left or the right.

In terms of English law the first battle against authoritarianism was won when King John signed the Magna Carta. From then on the English legal system developed chiefly as the result of clashes with the crown, the supreme fount of power, until the last vestiges of an authoritarian approach to the conduct of men's lives was removed and the crown developed to the point where it can, I think, be said to provide an important link in the chain of defence against a loss of those liberties we hold so dear. And yet, do we hold them dear enough? Is it in fact possible to understand their importance to the life of each individual without first experiencing a loss of liberty, in the sense that it is chiefly one's own experiences that open one's eyes to the realities of the world? In Canada and Britain we have been more than fortunate in avoiding the horrors of occupation and the consequent denial of those basic freedoms we consider to be our natural right. Thousands sacrificed their lives 40 years ago in a desperate defence of that right. If they hadn't done so, and if an excuse had been found to opt out of that defence or to compromise in some way over the issue, there is no saying how great a shadow would have fallen across the world.

The fact remains, of course, that millions of people do still exist under a shadow of gigantic proportions — the shadow of authoritarianism from either end of the political spectrum. Do we actually have any idea of what that means. We can, I suggest, discover something of what it means by listening to those who have suffered, or who are suffering, in a way that is hard for us to imagine. They tell us that they live within a system which derives its inspiration from the basic motivation of a thirst for power, and power alone. In such a system power is an end in itself — the better to achieve its consolidation and the destruction of all potential enemies. Those who have observed the operation of the system in practice, rather than in theory, will insist that the struggle waged against religion for instance is not for ideological reasons, but for power. This is because a religious man, deep down in his soul tends to remain free of political parties or any other earthly power.

The struggle waged against such individuals is because they have dared to expose themselves without being asked. Living in the countries that we do and brought up the way we are, without a constant sense of fear or suspicion, without a feeling that those whom we love could be intimidated as a result of our actions tends to make us think that such reports must be somewhat exaggerated and that one set of human beings could not possibly do what they do to their fellow men. There is no doubt that countless people whose freedoms are crushed under the weight of a seemingly limitless oppression look towards countries like ours to provide some kind of flickering light of freedom amongst the total darkness that surrounds them. The least we can do, I believe, is to attempt to understand the predicament of those who are made to suffer for what they believe in, by imagining what our feelings would be if we were in a similar situation. What better way to describe this than by quoting the Pope who said recently — "I ask those who are suffering to be particularly close to me. I ask this in the name of Christ, who said, 'I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me'."

Of course, it is only too easy for people to turn round and say you are being naive and unrealistic. The Christian approach is all very well, but what can we as individuals possibly do, bearing in mind that our freedom of action is so circumscribed. Well, for a start, I believe in the overwhelming strength of the human spirit and in the power of faith. Deep in the human soul, as Mihajlo Mihajlof describes it, lies an unfamiliar force which is stronger than all the external forces which surround us. That force is unfamiliar because we have forgotten what it sounds like and what it heeds to release it. It is hardly surprising, I suppose, when you think how much else there is in the external world to take its place. But nevertheless it is that force which I think Solzhenitsyn is referring to when he talks about "a decline in courage being the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the west today."

Life is full of mysterious paradoxes, but one of the most extraordinary is that attested to by some of those who have undergone the most extreme spiritual and physical suffering during their imprisonment, but who have also experienced a fulfilment of the soul, undreamed of by people who have not experienced captivity. From this paradox we learn that it is through such individual awareness of the inner voice, and through the faith which this engenders that the essence of totalitarian rule can in fact be undermined — in the sense that totalitarianism relies on a belief in the unlimited power of external circumstances, which supposedly direct man's inner world. If there is the very real possibility that the physical world is subject to the spiritual forces of the human soul then there is indeed hope for those who lack the individual freedoms we experience under the law.

And precisely because we enjoy those freedoms we have obligations too. We have two particular obligations, I believe one is to try to appreciate that there is inevitably a price to pay for the blessings of democracy — be it organised crime or pornography or whatever. But it is only a price, and the basis of civilised living, it seems to me, is to realise that you can never have something for nothing. One writer living in a state of "unfreedom" emphasised very well what I am trying to get at when he wrote that "the efforts to diminish the expenses of democracy in the process not to be transformed into unfreedom is the eternal care of democratic society." The second obligation is the one we owe to those countless individuals — yes, individuals, (they could be you or me, not a mass divided up into categories to be manipulated like automatons) who, perhaps secretly, deep down in their beings, have high expectations of people like ourselves. We have an increasing obligation to concentrate on developing our moral courage and a corresponding awareness of that inner force that we all possess, but without which we will be unable to resist that shadow of authoritarianism and at the same time provide a beam of Hope, like a lighthouse in a stormy cliff top, for those who suffer in silence.

Published Autumn 1983.

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