16 March, Human Will XI: Conscience and Freedom.

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Fr Daniel Weatherley of St Thomas’ Church in Canterbury continues our reflections on the Will with his thoughts on Thomas’s choice to follow his conscience and God’s will.

It would be easy to look at the martyrdom of St. Thomas in a rather narrow and triumphalist way as the authority of the Church ultimately winning over the State.

Thomas refused to allow divine law to succumb to the earthly, giving his life in its cause…yet, after his murder, the King repented – so all is settled nicely: Thomas is a martyr and the King has admitted his fault and made his peace. End of the story…?

Far from it. Thomas’ self-sacrifice teaches us something more than just the authority of one institution over another. It is certainly true that the divine law can never be dictated to by an earthly one. Indeed, the Gospel must be permitted to critique society: so that earthly matters might be enlightened by the divine.

But Thomas’ supreme testimony is to the primacy of conscience.

In accepting and following the voice of his conscience, fed by divine law and strengthened through a life of piety and devotion, Thomas exercised the true freedom of one whose house is built upon rock, not sand. Like another Thomas, four centuries later, the human pain of becoming an enemy of one who was a close friend did not weaken his resolve to serve God above all others. And in choosing the ‘narrow way’ of integrity and obedience he won for God countless souls who were to flock on pilgrimage to the site where he laid down his life.

We today will do the greatest honour to Thomas (and give glory to God) by doing all we can to feed, nurture and sharpen our consciences by immersion in the Word of God, the teachings of Holy Mother Church and the Holy Sacraments, with a humble confidence that Jesus Christ will transform us and, through us, the world around us.

Seven centuries after Thomas’ martyrdom Cardinal Newman raised his glass to the Pope – but to conscience first. There is a tendency for us to see conscience as ‘choosing what I prefer to do’ rather than the God-given faculty which enables me to exercise my freedom in choosing what would most please Him, and bring about the highest good, even though it may well cause me more suffering in the short term.

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