Sunday, May 6, 2012

1 JN 3:18-24 — “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.”
SYNDERESIS: the word is used by Saint Jerome to describe the bringing together of knowledge, spirituality, and practicality in a decision to do or not to do something. Today we call it “conscience.” It’s what Saint John, in the text above, called loving in deed and in truth, in a way that our hearts do not condemn us. The Greek verb “syndeo” literally means to bind together, and as Saint Jerome applied it to the Christian walk of faith it means to bind my goals and ideals together with those of Jesus Christ. Again, Saint John notes this in the text: “love one another, just as he commanded us.”
We hear the word “conscience” a lot. “Freedom of conscience” is a cherished freedom in any free society, and it is the erosion of that freedom — the freedom to bring together all our knowledge and beliefs into choices and decisions in practical ways — that many are decrying in contemporary America.
What is “conscience?” Every world religion has some concept of conscience, some notion of an inner guide, internal voice, inner light that aids us in making right choices. From a secular point of view, developmental psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson all considered conscience to be an important milestone in human development. Kohlberg considered critical conscience to be an important stage in the proper human development, associated with the capacity to rationally weigh options and make responsible decisions.
Saints through the centuries have considered it an important part of every day to “examine” our conscience – that is, to review the decisions and actions I made during the day and in prayer ask God if they were good decisions. Saint Ignatius of Loyola told his followers that this prayer was so important, even if they hadn’t prayed at all during the day they should never omit the examination of conscience — it is that important in helping us grow in love.
Saint Thomas Aquinas defined conscience as “the last practical judgment concerning the right and wrong of an action here and now to be performed.” That’s a mouthful, but it has some clear points: it is (a) a judgment ; it (b) has to do with right and wrong; and it (c) leads to action. A judgment about the rightness or wrongness of an act or decision — that’s a fairly good and succinct definition of conscience.
In other words, conscience means that I make a decision to do something or not do something. But that decision is not made without some context, and we Believers understand that the proper context for our decision-making is the commandment of Jesus, just as Saint John points out above, to love: to love God above all else, and our neighbor as ourself.
So, before I choose something, before I buy something, before I say something, before I write something, before I hit the “send” button — in all of these things, by bringing my conscience into the act I ask if this will enable me to love more. Will this thing I want to buy or say or do draw me closer to faith, hope, and love? Or will it lead me farther from faith, hope, and love? Saint John teaches us that we know we belong to the truth when “our hearts do not condemn us.” When we know that our guilt is expiated by Christ’s sacrifice, and moreover that we are walking in the path of love, we have a clear conscience: our hearts do not condemn us.
So, how do I learn the ways of love so that I know that my conscience is acting correctly? In Catholic theology, we call this a “well-formed conscience.” How do I form my conscience properly? Here’s the first and perhaps most important point: surprise, it doesn’t come from secular media. You won’t learn the ways of the Gospel from the local newspaper or a national magazine, or even a news website or blog. If that’s your best source of information about what the Bible contains or what the Church teaches, then you probably don’t have a well-formed conscience! Put the newspaper and magazine aside, and pick up the Bible first. Read, pray, study the Bible. Then look around your church for some CD’s or DVD’s or books that will help you to learn the authentic teaching of the Bible and the Church.
God speaks to us in Divine Revelation, and the authentic and definitive source of that revelation is Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Where do you find Jesus? Look first to the Bible, and then to the magisterium or teaching authority which Jesus established in His Church, since the Holy Spirit assists the Church in penetrating the mystery of Revelation. With a good CD that reviews Biblical and Church teaching, you might even start praying for a traffic jam so you can hear more and understand more.
There is no better source than the authentic teaching itself, so look to official web sites like the Vatican’s or the Pennsylvania bishops’ to find the documents themselves. Don’t depend on what s weekly news magazine or cable television network tells you the document says: read it yourself!
Then, with a well-formed conscience that understands what is really being taught, take your decision to prayer. By surrounding every major decision with prayer, before and after, by cushioning it in prayer, by packaging it in prayer, we ask the Divine voice of the Holy Spirit to open our spiritual eyes, to open our heart and mind, to recognize the right choice and to give us the grace to follow through with that choice.
Then how do I know if I’ve made the right choice, a choice that draws me closer to God in faith, hope, and love? That’s the easy part: Saint Paul tells us exactly how to do that. Look for the “fruits of the Holy Spirit.” In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, he tells us that every good and holy decision will leave us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). By contrast, a bad or ill-formed decision will leave us with “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21). Look at the results of your decision: if it leads you closer to faith, hope, and love, and produces the fruits of the Spirit, it was the right decision. A good examination of conscience will help you understand what led you to the decision and how to make a good decision in similar circumstances when they next arise. If the opposite, you know it was the wrong decision. A good examination of conscience will help to show you how to reverse the decision and avoid a similar mistake in the future.
SYNDERESIS: it means bringing together all the elements of my faith and life to make a good practical decision here and now: one that is made with a properly-formed conscience and that will lead to the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
May 6, 2012
Msgr. William J. King

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