Sunday, April 1, 2012

Talking About Conscience XVIII (the Final Post of the Series, I Promise!)

We would dissolve Christianity into mere moralism if we were to fail to present a message that transcends our own actions… We can see this in an image from the world that also indicates how the anamnesis of the Creator in us reaches out toward the Redeemer and how every man is able to comprehend that Christ is the Redeemer, because it is he who answers our innermost expectation.

I have in mind the story of Orestes, who had killed his mother. He had committed this murder as an act of conscience (the language of the myth calls this an act of obedience to the commandment of the god Apollo). But now he is hunted by the Erinyes, who are to be seen as mythical personifications of the conscience that torments him, out of a deeper memory, by objecting that his decision of conscience, his act of obedience to the ‘divine oracle’ had in reality incurred guilt.

All man’s tragedy becomes visible in this conflict between the ‘gods’ in this contradiction of conscience. Before the sacred court, the white stone of Athene brings acquittal and sanctification to Orestes. The power of this sanctification changes the Erinyes to Eumenides, spirits of reconciliation, since expiation has transformed the world.

This myth portrays more than just the transition from a system of blood-revenge to the ordered law of society, and Hans Urs von Balthasar pressed this extra dimension as follows: “The calming grace always assists in the establishing of justice, not the old graceless justice of the Erinyes period, but that which is full of grace.” This myth bears witness to a longing that the objectively correct verdict of guilt pronounced by the conscience and the resulting inner distress may not have the last word and that there may exit an authority of grace, a power of expiation, that removes the guilt and makes truth genuinely redemptive.

This is a longing for a truth that does not merely make demands of us but is also a transforming expiation and forgiveness, through which –as Aeschylus puts it—“guilt is washed off” and our being is transformed from within in a manner far exceeding our own powers.
This is the real novelty of Christianity: the Logos, the Truth in person, is also this expiation, the transforming forgiveness that transcends all our own abilities and inabilities.

This is what is really new and on which the greater Christian memory is based, and that memory in turn is the deepest response for which the anamnesis of the Creator looks in us. If we fail to see and proclaim this core of the Christian message clearly enough, truth will indeed become a yoke too heavy for our shoulders, a yoke that we must try to throw off,. But freedom won in that manner would be empty, leading us into an utter wilderness, and such a freedom would disintegrate of its own accord. The yoke of truth became light when the Truth in person came, loved us, and burned up our guilt in his own love. It is only when we know and experience this from within that we become free to hear the message of conscience with joy—and without fear.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 98-99

Reflection – Well, here we are, finally at the end of the conscience series. I have a longer excerpt from Ratzinger than normal, since the whole passage hangs together so beautifully. It also needs some commentary, I think, so this blog post is going to be a bit longer than normal. According to my stats, hardly anyone is still reading these posts about conscience anyhow, so I guess that’s OK!

You know, though, the above passage is deeply relevant to Palm Sunday and the sacred mysteries of Holy Week we are entering. The story of Orestes is one of the most profound pre-Christian reflections on the anguish of humanity, an anguish that calls out precisely for a redemption coming from beyond us.

You all remember Orestes, right? Maybe not… although I do recommend just reading the three plays of Aeschylus, the Oresteia. They’re not that hard to read; they are beautiful; and just think how smart you’ll feel if you can casually throw references to Electra, Clytemnestra, and the Libation Bearers into your conversation.

Essentially, Clytemnestra and her lover murdered Agamemnon, her husband. Electra and Orestes, their children, are bound by the laws of revenge to murder the two, yet forbidden by the laws of filial piety from murdering their own mother. Orestes at last performs the deed, and the rest of the story is outlined above.
In this bloody Greek tragedy emerges this central human insight: that conscience and morality, our striving for the good and the true, place us in an existential situation of anguish, guilt, failure, and tragic fall. The Greek dramatists looked profoundly into this situation, this human tragedy, in a depth and pathos that has never been matched since.

And this is the anamnesis of our humanity. Our remembrance of the good and the true, coming to us in a world of violence, hatred, darkness, deceit, is an anguished remembrance. It brings us into a place where we have to make terrible choices that may lead to no good outcome that we can see, where we are beset by contradictory impulses and imperatives, where moral failure and compromise lurks around every corner and under the surface of every situation.

The anamnesis of the good, then, far from being a panacea of banal smug moral certainties, brings us rather to desperately cry out for relief, for grace, for mercy. It pulls us out of our own self-sufficiency, our own complacency and easy answers, and in so doing draws us into the reality that we need a savior.

And we have a Savior. Grace has been given to us. There is a way out; there is hope. We are not left in the position of having to flee from the truth which is too much for us, or living in shame and guilt because we have all failed and fallen short, or hardening our hearts to a life of brutal self-interest.

We can live, instead, in the mercy of God. And this is the heart of the matter; this is where conscience and our struggles to form and follow our conscience leads us. It leads us to the foot of the Cross, to the pieta, to the tomb of Christ. It leads us to the stark and sobering fact that humanity, in its rejection of the Good, has killed the Son of God, has killed Goodness itself in our midst. It leads us to the deeper fact that we cannot kill Love, cannot destroy the Good, cannot abolish God from the world. He has come; He loves us; He has saved us. Mercy and grace are poured out upon all mankind, and the world is reborn in the light of his Resurrection.

Happy Holy Week to you all.


  1. This whole article by Ratzinger is very important for an understanding of where we are as a western culture. And he basically hinges the argument on our ability to recognise the truth. If our consciences are dulled, then what is true (i.e. what is simply a given) is difficult to notice. Hence people can use contraception without realising it is wrong, for example. I think in the end if we are to get to the "truth of all things" (as one philosopher once called what is given to us as the basic datum of reality), then, as you say Fr, we need to just be there at the foot of the Cross. We need to just shut up and allow Christ to speak in the Church, to us. Then we can recognise what is good and true and beautiful. If our conscience is clear, then we will always be meeting Christ. So let's face the truth (which, Pope Ratzinger says to a group of priests at the beginning of Lent 2012, is the same as humility) and allow him to work. Ooops a bit long that. Thanks for the excellent commentaries Fr and for the heads-up on this amazing article, one of the best things written ever.

  2. You say, “According to my stats, hardly anyone is still reading these posts about conscience anyhow, so I guess that’s OK! ” Your reflection comes to me by email, so I do not necessarily enter your blog that would increase your stats. Have you taken into account the number of subscribers via email? Fr Denis your blog is lovely but I must say a little deep that may discourage the average intellect (mine). However I keep reading!

  3. I echo Lynn's thoughts. I also receive via email so likely do not count statistically. Yes it does get deep at times but I count on that actually. Go ahead. Make me think. Make my day. Wisdom deserves and demands diligence.

  4. Thanks for the encouraging words,all! I hadn't realized that e-mail subscribers don't show up on my stats.
    Fr. Flynn - yes, I agree that this essay of Ratzinger's is among his finest work.

  5. I don't get the blog post to my email but I do read it in Google reader. I think that I am also not present in your stats.
    Thanks for the great articles!


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