The Crucible of Conscience

Sometimes it is so small a voice I barely notice it; sometimes it nags at me and won't leave me alone.

Often there is something I should be doing but I don't -- maybe out of selfishness, busyness, fatigue, or honest-to-goodness fear. That last one keeps cropping up. I hate knowing what I should be doing and failing to do it because I am afraid of something. Sometimes fear arrives in the form of procrastination, leading me to act a bit too late to make a difference.

Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault . . .

That merciful Penitential Rite taps into the voice of my conscience. The Church rightly engages our conscience in her prayers for She knows where God is found.

That voice we discern is, indeed, our own human voice. But we're not jabbering away in a vacuum. Our voice dialogues with the Divine Voice. We may try to deny it or snuff it out, but we are continually being wooed. It is, ultimately, a compelling voice of love that has our best interest at heart.

My earliest childhood encounter with the voice of conscience made me confess to my mother that I had stolen a toy from my cousin. It was a little Fisher Price doggie that I coveted. I had been playing with it all day while visiting at my cousin's house. When it was time to go home, it was all too easy to surreptitiously put it in my pocket and bring it home. Isn't that crazy that I can still visualize the object of my desire decades later? The conscience is indeed a powerful retention mechanism.

Years later, driving home from work one afternoon, I witnessed an accident. A child getting off a school bus was hit by a car refusing to yield. The voice of conscience told me to stop to tell the police officer I witnessed the incident. Three other motorists saw it too. Nobody else stopped. Turns out I was the only defense for the bus driver who acted properly.

Another time the voice of conscience made me tell my doctor that I did not want to take a medication she was prescribing after she informed me of the risks to a potential life in the womb. To deal with that side effect, she suggested my using artificial birth control. I could not yield to her request. It took some convincing, but we found another way to deal with the situation, within the dictates of my conscience.

What good is this voice? Why all this fuss about conscience?

[It is] the interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed. Moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action. It moves a person at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil. (Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church)

The preciousness of one's conscience must be affirmed, protected, and upheld. It must not be denied, manipulated, or toyed with. It is the true heart, the deepest sanctuary of a human person. It flourishes best within a culture of human freedom.

Vatican II gave us a beautiful treatise on conscience.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.

Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.

In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. (Gaudium et Spes, par. 16)

The conscience is hidden deep, yet it defines us; it is our interior sanctuary where we meet God. The interior defines everything we are exteriorly.

We find out how deeply we know this God when we are in the crucible: when our conscience, seared by the heat of painful circumstances, is tried for all we are worth.

There comes a point when you must reach into the deepest part of you and make a decision for or against; where you survey the landscape and say this is as far as I go and no further.

These are the moments when you admit that life isn't just a random freefall or that everything is unrelated or of no consequence, but that it is about connections and integrity and things holding together in an abundant web of life and time in eternity.

3/7/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • Pat Gohn
    About Pat Gohn
    Pat Gohn is a Catholic writer, speaker, and the host of the Among Women Podcast and blog. Her book Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood is published by Ave Maria Press.