Let us imagine ourselves on board a troop transport plane, at an altitude of over five thousand metres. The passengers are paratroopers and are getting ready, like us, to jump for the first time from this altitude. It is impossible not to feel fear! Some entrust themselves to divine protection, while others vie to be the first in line. We all take our positions.
The time has come, dear reader; it’s our turn! Three, two, one… Jump!
“Immersed” in the celestial blue, now only silence accompanies us. However, over the strong pounding of our heart, a soft voice makes itself heard within us.
“How am I leading my life? Have I been doing well lately, fulfilling my obligations? How close am I to following my Christian vocation? If I should die when I hit the ground, am I ready to appear before God?” To these silent queries, various answers present themselves, until… thud! We finally land, safe, sound and relieved.
The cheers, the greetings from our companions and the effusive comments from everyone distract us from our previous reflections and, finally, it is all over. All except one doubt: what was that mysterious murmur that came over us during the jump?
Innate moral law
Keen but discreet, respectful but persistent, encouraging or admonishing, this hidden voice tends to make itself heard not only when our lives are at risk, but in the most varied circumstances, especially at moments when we need to choose between good and evil. It comes from the innermost part of our own being.
Philosophy teaches that each of us, from birth, has the natural law engraved in our soul, the self-evident principle of human moral activity,1 which enables us to distinguish by simple reason what is right from wrong, truth from falsehood,2 and by which we know what we should do and what we should avoid. This law – which is perfectly expressed in the revealed law, that is, in the Decalogue – was written by God on tablets not of stone but of flesh: our hearts. And the secret of a coherent and virtuous life lies in being faithful to this innate discernment.3
St. Paul sums it up well in his Letter to the Romans: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (2:14-15).
There is, therefore, within us a kind of permanent and universal knowledge about the good we should do and the evil we should avoid, called synderesis. In the field of practical action, the “advice” of our reason – which approves or censures our intentions, acts and conduct or that of others – is called conscience. It is the conscience that “talks” to us at every moment, with the aim of guiding us towards our ultimate goal: sanctity.
The mirror of the soul
The word conscience comes from the Latin conscientia, which means knowledge, notion or inner sense. It “is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”4
Just as a mirror reflects the physical state of a material body, the conscience “is the mirror in which one sees the exterior and interior state of man, that of his body and that of his soul.”5 In it “the soul, using the eyes of reason, sees […] its beauty or ugliness, its purity or its blemishes.”6 Conscience is thus the guide that shows us how to walk towards sanctity and how far we are from it.
The clarity of the image we have of ourselves depends on the care we take in guarding against the blemishes of our faults. For just as dust and other residues stain a mirror and mar its clarity, sin dulls the conscience and does not allow us to accurately see the state of our soul.
In fact, if we become accustomed to vice, the inner voice of our conscience will gradually become weaker and weaker, until it is almost extinguished. By losing that compass which points us in our true direction, we condemn ourselves to an unbridled decadence. In extreme cases, our spiritual “mirror” can become so blurred that we begin to regard our defects as wonderful qualities…
Therefore, if we want to preserve our Christian sanity and journey towards Heaven, it is indispensable for us to cultivate a good conscience. This knowledge is immortal, for we will carry it into eternity; it “will unfailingly be the cause of each one’s glory or inexorable confusion, according to the quality of the things placed in it.”7
The columns of our spiritual house
“The Seven Virtues”, by Francesco Pesellino – Birmingham Museum of Art (Alabama)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a treatise on conscience, from which we have already quoted some passages. He defines it as the science of the heart or knowledge of oneself and the basis of perfection. In this work, the Cistercian Saint compares conscience to a house founded on solid columns, which he numbers as seven: “good will; memory, constant recollection of God’s benefits; a pure heart; a free understanding; an upright spirit; a devout soul; and enlightened reason.”8 Let us consider some of them.
The first column is the good will of man, “for it is by goodness of will that all good begins.”9
The story is told that a nun once wrote to a virtuous priest asking for guidance on how to attain sanctity. After a long wait and much insistence, she received a brief note in reply, with this single inscription: “If you desire it.” If we but desire it, dear reader, we will have already taken the decisive step towards uprightness of conscience.
But we will not persevere long in our good intentions if we do not keep the torch of love burning bright and well supplied! And to do this, St. Bernard advises us to have recourse to the memory of the benefits God has bestowed upon us.
Let us always consider how, “despite the multitude and magnitude of our sins, His mercy never grew weary; when we forgot Him, He himself warned us; […] if we repented, He forgave us without delay; if we persevered, it was because He himself safeguarded us. […] When we were purified by tribulation, He restored to us perfect peace, sweet rest. […] Let us remember so many benefits He bestowed on us without our requesting them”;10 in this way it will be easy for us to love Him and to employ all our energies in serving Him.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux – Provincial Museum, Pontevedra (Spain)
Other important pillars pointed out by St. Bernard are the upright spirit and the pure heart.
To have an upright spirit means to seek “above all the things of God, to please Him alone.”11 Furthermore, uprightness must move us to enter into our heart, to go through it and scrutinize it with all diligence, to reflect on what we do and what we ought to do. We must analyse each day whether we have improved or fallen, what are the thoughts that habitually assail us, the affections and desires that most often solicit us, the temptations with which the devil most attacks us. We cannot allow anything foreign to enter our interior life, nor harbour in our conscience any offence against God, however slight it may seem to us, always remembering our past faults with repentance.
Only in this way will we have a pure heart, “free from the cares of the world, from evil desires, evil thoughts and pleasures of the flesh, […] sufficiently steadfast that it should not be moved by any sudden disturbance, nor be drawn away by illicit pleasures, nor be corrupted and overwhelmed by any evil, by any setback.”12
This requires a great effort on our part: “The Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Mt 11:12)! But let us not forget that purity of conscience will never be attained by those who have not united their honest efforts to ardent desires and supplications to Divine Goodness, for the human soul cannot win it by its own strength; it is above all a gift of God.
Let us pray and fight!
If, dear reader, we take care to observe this wise counsel, if we continually “cleanse” our souls by confessing our sins, by making satisfaction, by good works and especially by persistence in these works, we will undoubtedly attain the tranquillity of a good conscience, “to which God does not impute either personal sins, because he did not commit them, or those of others, because he did not approve of them.”13
It is a hard but fruitful battle! Let us pray, let us stand fast and let us fight: blessed are those who know how to approve or reprove themselves, “for he who displeases himself pleases God”;14 and those who please Him, even if they suffer misfortunes on this earth, will rejoice eternally in His presence! ◊
1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. I-II, q.94, a.2.
2 Cf. CCC 1954.
3 Cf. CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. Os princípios da ação moral: caminho seguro para chegar à santidade [The Principles of Moral Action: Sure Way to Reach Sanctity]. In: Lumen Veritatis. São Paulo. Year IV. N.13 (Oct.-Dec., 2010); p.12.
4 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Gaudium et spes, n.16.
5 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Tratado da consciência ou do conhecimento de si mesmo. Itapevi: Nebli, 2015, p.53-54.
6 Idem, p.54.
7 Idem, p.18.
8 Idem, p.27
9 Idem, ibidem.
10 Idem, p.29-30.
11 Idem, p.31.
12 Idem, p.33.
13 Idem, p.49.
14 Idem, p.65.