While the idea of conscience has always been important in the Church, it is certainly much more emphasised in recent times. I would date this from Vatican II when its importance was clearly described. But of course it has always been there: indeed, dramatically, Aquinas says that even if our rejection of Christ may be objectively evil, we must still follow our considered reason and be ready to disclaim him if that is where our reason leads.
So one would expect that the powers that be would put a great deal of work into explaining the best ways to employ our consciences. What are the processes we might use? Do we take into account how we are vulnerable to the psychological aspects of human nature? Or the influences from our upbringing and experiences? How does conscience relate to virtue? What is the difference between obedience and the use of reason? And so on.
Today I am suggesting that we look at the nightly consideration of conscience. It would be interesting to know whether most fully paid up Catholics and other Christians do this regularly. Do you? (I should admit here that I am far from being as regular as I should be.)
In reviewing our day do we include the good things we have done and the progress we have made? We know that recognising our successes improves our self respect and motivates us to continue in the right directions.
And that indicates that we should review our virtues. Virtue is a very churchy word. We all approve but it’s too vague to do anything about it. It’s not helped by the old fashioned names of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
But in fact it’s all about virtues. These are the habits and tendencies which measure how we stand in regard to our closeness to God. At the physical level they are developed in the brain. We could, if we were able to interpret them, read off the relevant neural connections which apply. But at the level of the spiritual they mark the grace-filled tendencies which orient us towards the Almighty. But like any habit they can wax and wane: we have to check our progress and our regress continually.
So our nightly examination should perhaps include the question: did I get closer to God today? Or did I slip backwards? And it need not be airy fairy because we have the actions and the thoughts of the day to provide the evidence.
I think we might have great benefit from discussing our experience of all this, and sharing our good ideas.
Karl Rahner treats this topic of conscience well. When a non-believer lives his or her life before the constant offer of God’s self-communication then this reality is part of a person’s “existential constitution as a human being”, because of God’s free gift.
Non-believers may say yes to this gift when they accept themselves completely, when they freely act according to conscience, when they live an ordinary day with love and care for others.
According to Rahner this kind of acceptance is an implicit form of faith and is rightly understood as supernatural faith.
A person saying yes to conscience is also saying yes to the profound mystery that lies at the heart of human existence.
It is quite possible, then, for a non-believer to be freely saying yes to God’s self-communication in an implicit way even though the person concerned might think and say that he or she does not believe in God or in Jesus Christ.
A Marxist woman might reject Christian faith as an opiate, yet in her faithful commitment to the poor, Rahner would discern a fundamental yes to the mystery at the heart of life. A tribal man may never have come across the Gospel in any meaningful way, but in his love and respect for his traditional ritual, Rahner would see an implicit and salvific faith.
So a nightly consideration of my life’s freely chosen purpose and my own mission, which I agree is known to God alone, but dimly grasped by me, such a consideration would be the basis for my integrity work with God. I discern the truth around how my chosen life’s mission and purpose is being realised in the day to day living of it.
Thank you, Galerimo. I wish I had written that.
As do i
He is a great thinker and made a great contribution to Vatican II.
The ignatians have it in this respect, The two simple questions at the end of the day:
When was I nearest God?
When was I furthest from God?
Perhaps not to muddy the waters by worrying too much about how a non believe might operate but a much admired unbelieving friend of mine simply asks of herself at the end of the day:
..”Have I done any good?”
The ignatian paradigm has as its principle the idea of discernment. In other words this nightly exercise can help reveal to us our deeper motivations and thus help with the conundrum of wrong self image. For example I may be under the impression that I am being an eager servant when in fact I have succumbed to a bout of self importance !
I have used the examen of conscience over years sometimes diligently, sometimes fitfully, but find it to be a very helpful tool. For me the great issue regarding the conscience is one of discernment of
true motive. This is because our believing and acting out ‘the right thing to do’ may be the product of a moral and loving heart but it may equally be an act of subtle pride. The simple examen I have described seems remarkably effective, over time, at sniffing out the shades of nuance that make up our sometimes shadowed psyche.
Extending your last paragraph — there is also the danger of scruples. Some of us, either by habit, by temperament or by circumstances, can lock themselves down. They may be helped by a confessor or by a wise friend. Accepting that sanctity is a process rather than a state can help.
RE Rahner… Yes a great thinker but VERY hard to read!!! I admire him for his honesty and integrity of vision, I may not always agree wit his conclusions.