For the head…
While still in seminary, I went on a ski camp for boys, ages 11 to 13. It was my second ski camp, and my skiing talent was tenuous at best. Nevertheless, compared to the previous year’s trip, I was quite good; I spent more time on my skis than sprawled out in the snow.
I was accompanying the boys in the ‘intermediate’ ski-skills group. There were seven of us in our group. On the lift I would pair the boys up, and being the odd man out, I would sit with anyone the lift operators put next to me. On one lift ride, which lasted several minutes, I was sitting next to a gentleman in his 50’s.
I introduced myself, ‘Hello, I’m a student for the priesthood, and am here with a Church youth group. Nice weather.’
He replied, ‘I’m not going to Church.’
‘Well, I’d like to encourage you to go,’ I said. ‘It’s a great day for skiing.’
Then he said, ‘I’m cheating on my wife.’
I thought, ‘Wow! OK Lord, you put the two of us together for a reason.’ I knew I had a captive audience; our chair was at least 100 feet above the ground, and we still had at least three to four minutes left to go. I said something to the effect:
‘Don’t ruin your marriage. Return to your wife. God will help you to do so. You can do it. You will be glad you did.’
He was obviously struggling with a guilty conscience. I tried to encourage him gently but insistently. When we dismounted at the top of the lift, the boys were waiting somewhat impatiently for me. ‘Come on, Br. John, let’s go!’ I kept encouraging him, but he ended our conversation by saying, ‘Go away, you’re making me cry.’ I continued skiing.
This and similar experiences have convinced me that the conscience is very persistent. That is a good thing.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil... For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.... [In his] conscience… [man] is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” [n. 1776].
It is a universal human experience to hear that internal voice that obliges us to do good and avoid evil. It is our moral compass pointing us to the good.
As my acquaintance on the ski lift showed, conscience is usually most evident when it bothers us. It holds a person to a standard he or she did not make, and cannot easily ignore.
If, however, someone chooses to ignore their conscience, that usually entails a struggle, at least in the beginning. To ignore the conscience consistently however, will eventually weaken and deform it. The more we sin, the more blinded to it we become. Once our moral compass is broken, we can quite readily justify other behaviors: ‘Everyone does it.’ ‘It’s no big deal.’ ‘It’s not harming anything.’ Thanks be to God my friend on the lift was still struggling. He had not hardened his heart.
Therefore, to protect ourselves from becoming indifferent to evil, we have an obligation to listen to, and to form our conscience. The Church accompanies us in that effort, by faithfully communicating Christ’s moral teachings, and by offering us his forgiveness through the sacrament of Confession when we fall.
The good news is that the conscience is also resilient. St. John Paul II once said that he did not think it possible to kill off the conscience fully. Despite our efforts to ignore him, our Lord and his law continue to whisper to our hearts. Francis Thompson in his poem ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ describing just such a struggle, says it well:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears, From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, They beat—and a Voice beat More instant than the Feet— 'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me'…
As for my friend from the ski lift, I pray for him daily and look forward to seeing him in heaven.
Fr. John Bullock, LC
Image: hentze-orlikowski / 4 images