Veritatis splendor — conscience as sanctuary

I would like to begin some meditations on John Paul’s Veritatis splendor. The document is very dense — and its structure is very important. But I wish to jump into a key passage in the middle that unites the beginning and the end. In subsequent meditations I shall look at this structure.

Conscience is described as a “sanctuary of God.” In 1983 Pope John Paul II said “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.” (General Audience, 17 August 1983) He repeats this statement in section 58 of Veritatis splendor. Conscience is not so much a “process of moral reasoning” or a moral syllogism or self-reflection but primarily a “dialogue of man with God.” He reminds us that Saint Bonaventure teaches that “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.” We listen and we receive something in this sanctuary.

The protection of religious freedom, or the right to conscience, is a protection of the deepest “sanctuary” in the person, the aspect that defines the person as a person, not as creator of value, but as capable of responding to God. Capax Dei.

Augustine arrives at this deep structure of the human person in Book X c. 25 of the Confessions. He says — “But where in my memory dost thou abide, O Lord? Where dost thou dwell there? What sort of lodging hast thou made for thyself there? What kind of sanctuary hast thou built for thyself?” Augustine travels, according to Gilson, from the exterior to the interior, from the inferior to the superior. From the senses and appetites through memory, choosing and thinking, Augustine arrives at something that transcends human power — truth.

So our encounter with truth is a receptive moment, implying a hollow, if you will, in our own making and doing. But this encounter opens us to something numinous or light-filled and beautiful. We can return to the encounter. How is this possible? He speaks of a sanctuary in our memory where God resides.

The idea of a sanctuary — it is a holy place, but it is also an open space. It is not some object belonging to Augustine (or you or I) It is a place of encounter — a place to listen. A place to see. So silence and emptiness is so important for conscience. And of course that is why in the modern world, conscience is muffled. We are bombarded by messages from without, by offers of so many good and promising things. How can we hear God, i.e., the truth in conscience?

I draw upon a third source, the wonderful British Catholic writer, Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God. She writes with a humility, a purity, and beauty like no other writer. This woman reflects the beatitudes with hard crystalline light and if you have not read her I hope you do so soon. The Reed of God is Mary. And Ms Houselander proceeds forthwith in chapter one on “emptiness.” Emptiness, she opens, is a “virginal quality.” Such emptiness is “not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary, it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it was intended.” Mary is the virgin, the Reed of God — hence this emptiness is like “the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.” The richness of her meditation is overflowing in its poetry and signals her own profound love of God and man.

But she challenges as well — she says both zealots and triflers flee the emptiness and crave to fill the empty space with important projects or unimportant noises and things. “They dread silence because the do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is a knock on the door of death.” The dark and lonely emptiness of death, she says, is so different from that “still, shadowless ring of light round which our being is circled.”

We must rediscover the sanctuary of conscience, the depth of memory, the point of dialogue with God in our souls. We must, she says, sift and sort out “everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us.” Then we are ready for moral reflection. And its goal, ultimately making sense of law and virtue, is love. And what purpose God has for us.

There is no replacing a full examination of conscience on many points of morality. But here is Houselander’s simple, but profound question for an examination of conscience at the very root of our life: “Are we reed pipes? Is he waiting to live lyrically through us?”.

1 Comment
  1. I try to read Houselander's book every Advent. Your praise is not overstated. For us to truly touch upon the fullness of our humanity we need that silence (exterior and interior)from we can be come still and know that He is God.

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