We are reflecting together for a few days on the notion of conscience. Here is a passage I love from The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection: “Return to your conscience, question it… Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness” [no. 1779].
It would seem that being present to oneself ought to be perfectly natural. Why even mention it? Yet, anyone who has begun to take seriously the challenge of living an interior life every day (and not just sometimes) soon discovers that it is far from easy. Sooner or later, a painful absence of harmony within ourselves and with others becomes evident. This is one of the results of original sin, and, as The Catechism expresses it, ‘…the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered….’ [see no. 400].
Our capacity to be present to ourselves, our capacity for true interiority is therefore impaired. Unless we try to do something about this, we will only be living out of a small and superficial portion of ourselves. We will be vulnerable to any fads or addictions that seem to promise release from our inner disharmony. Without working on our interior life, without understanding what our conscience is, we will not have the strength to adhere to what is good. We need our conscience in order to fulfil our human potential and claim our dignity as human persons.
Yet, many people today do not desire to be present to themselves. We are apt to go to great lengths to avoid being alone with ourselves. In the car, music must be playing, as it is in most shops. In many homes the television is on all day long, largely unwatched, but providing background noise and the possibility of self-distraction whenever the mind is insufficiently occupied with the task at hand. Now the Internet, with its instant communication, unlimited entertainment, and information on tap, means that some sort of contact with others whenever we want can entice us away from being present to ourselves. Even people who have discovered how unsatisfying a life of self-distraction can be can testify that giving up their distractions was deeply challenging at first. I doubt former ages were really very different from ours. Our alienation from our deeper self is as old as the human race. Self-distraction simply took other forms in other eras.
The reason we are considering the subject of presence to ourselves is to examine the necessity of living in touch with our conscience. The quotation from The Catechism with which I began this post suggests that there is a step one and a step two with regard to conscience. Here is step one: with Christ, with his grace, we must first work to acquire presence to ourselves. This involves turning off the electronic media gadgets from time to time, it means self-discipline, prayer, a measure of silence and a willingness to be alone sometimes. And step two: there must be some self-questioning going on. We need to look at our thoughts and our instinctive drives and to ask them where they are taking us and whether they accord with true goodness. In this way we will draw near to the reality of our conscience. I would like to explore this in the next few posts.