"The fundamental polarity of human life between what is and what ought to be, between lack and fulfillment, between determination and freedom, is not abnormal; it is the norm. Every person is exposed to it because of the inescapable structure of human formation." (Adrian van Kaam, The Transcendent Self, Dimension Books, 1979, 172.)

Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 8. Conscience and Vocation

Notes by Michael Whelan SM
JColo River Sally June 2015 Square

Our existence – our very being – is what it is. In that, it demands our “Yes!” It awaits our agreement and affirmation, as it were. Life is a journey in which we gradually join our “Yes!” with the “Yes!’ of our beings. This is always a shifting centre of gravity, from self-centredness towards self-transcendence.

Thomas Merton sums it up nicely:

If we take a more living and more Christian perspective we find in ourselves a simple affirmation which is not of ourselves. It simply is. (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1968/1989, 266.)

Merton then goes on to draw our attention to the complexities of this in our living out the journey towards a complete “Yes!”:

In our being there is a primordial yes that is not our own; it is not at our own disposal; it is not accessible to our inspection and understanding; we do not even fully experience it as real (except in rare and unique circumstances) .... Basically, however, my being is not an affirmation of a limited self, but the ‘yes’ of Being itself, irrespective of my own choices. Where do ‘I’ come in? Simply in uniting the ‘yes’ of my own freedom with the ‘yes’ of Being that already is before I have chosen to choose. (Ibid.)

This is the home of both conscience and vocation.

Conscience may be understood as the voice or witness of Being in our beings. At the core of our beings there is something that is non-negotiable – an ‘existential must’. Our very existence is a ‘must’. Our true freedom and our unique and communal identity, is found in submitting to that ‘must’ rather than any familial, cultural, political, societal or ethnic ‘must’:

If I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you. (Abraham Twerski, Successful Relationships at Home, at Work and with Friends: Bringing Issues Under Control, Shaar Press, 2003, 89.)

When we are baptized into Christ (cf Romans 6:3), the voice of conscience becomes the very voice of Jesus Christ. St Paul expresses this powerfully:

“I live now, not I but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:19)

We could think of life as a conversation, a constant listening to what is happening in order to hear the truth emerging in our experience, so that we can submit to that truth. Conscience summons us to this journey. Vocation is the journey – you are your vocation.

Central to this conversation are the four relationships through which we are constituted in our humanity – with the Absolute (however we name the Absolute), with ourselves, with other people and with the world of events and things.

Nobody has the right to obstruct that journey. Everyone has the obligation to seek that journey. Far from leading to individualism, this is a journey through relationships into communion – with the Absolute, with other people and with the world at large.

And we must never ignore the universal human capacity for self-deception and selfishness. We must therefore cultivate deep listening, the habit of facing honestly what is going on within us, always submitting to the truth of that in so far as we can know it. The voice of conscience will summon us into the truth without counting the cost. Counting the cost can lead us away from conscience. Conscience is a way in not a way out. Pope Benedict writes:

My encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself. (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (2007), #33.)

Mahatma Gandhi gives us a good summary:

There come to us moments in life when about some things we need no proof from without. A little voice within us tells us, ‘You are on the right track, move neither to your left nor your right, but keep to the straight and narrow way’. There are moments in your life when you must act, even though you cannot carry your best friends with you. The ‘still small voice’ within you must always be the final arbiter when there is a conflict of duty. Having made a ceaseless effort to attain self-purification, I have developed some little capacity to hear correctly and clearly the ‘still small voice within’. I shall lose my usefulness the moment I stifle the ‘still small voice within’. Penances with me are no mechanical acts. They are done in obedience to the inner voice. (Mahatma: A Golden Treasury of Wisdom – Thoughts and Glimpses of Life, 28. This book was purchased at Gandhi’s Mumbai house in February 2015.)

For further reflection

“The world's Creator has stamped man's inmost being with an order revealed to man by his conscience; and his conscience insists on his preserving it. Men "show the work of the law written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness to them." (Romans 2:15) And how could it be otherwise? All created being reflects the infinite wisdom of God. It reflects it all the more clearly, the higher it stands in the scale of perfection.” (Cf. Ps. 18:8-11) (Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 5.)

“Moreover, human beings have a natural right to be respected. .... We have a right to freedom in investigating the truth.” (Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 12.)

“For we have in our hearts a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of the human person; according to it we will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths.” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 16.)

“Respect for a person's conscience, where the image of God himself is reflected (cf. Gen 1:26-27), means that we can only propose the truth to others, who are then responsible for accepting it. To try to impose on others by violent means what we consider to be the truth is an offence against human dignity, and ultimately an offence against God whose image that person bears.” (Pope John Paul II, World Day of Peace Address, January 2002.)

“The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.” (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #64.)

“So we also ... must learn to listen more to our conscience. And be careful, however : this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth ...”. (Pope Francis. 30th June, 2013.)