God, who gives His creatures all that is
necessary for their perfection, has planted the seed
of virtue in the soul of man, and has endowed him
with a natural inclination for good and an
instinctive hatred of evil. This inclination may be
weakened and perverted by a habit of vice, but it can
never be totally destroyed.
We find a figure of
this truth in Job, where we see that, in the
calamities which befell the holy man, one servant
always escaped to announce the misfortune which had
overtaken his master. So the faithful servant,
conscience, always remains with the sinner in the
midst of his disorders to show him what he has lost
and the state to which his sins have reduced him.
This is still another striking proof of that
providence we have been considering, and of the value
God attaches to virtue. He has placed in the center
of our souls a guardian that never sleeps, a monitor
that is never silent, a master that never ceases to
guide and sustain us. Epictetus, the Stoic
philosopher, was deeply impressed with this truth
when he said that "as fathers are wont to entrust
their children to a tutor who will prudently guard
them from vice and lead them to virtue, so God, after
creating man, confides him to the care of that
interior guide which stimulates him to virtue and
warns him against vice."
But conscience, which is such a kind master to the
just, becomes a scourge to the wicked. It tortures
them with the remembrance of their crimes and
embitters all their pleasures. Among these torments
of conscience, one of the greatest is the hideousness
and deformity of sin, which is so abominable in
itself that a heathen philosopher once said, "Though
I knew that the gods would pardon me if I sinned, and
that men would never know it, yet I would not take
upon me a thing so abominable in itself."
rod with which conscience scourges the wicked is the
sight of the evil caused by sin, which, like the
blood of Abel, seems to cry to Heaven for vengeance.
Thus we are told that King Antiochus, during his
sickness, was so assailed by the thoughts of his past
crimes that the grief they occasioned brought on his
death. "I remember," he cried, "the evils that I did
in Jerusalem, whence also I took away all the spoils
of gold and of silver that were in it, and I sent to
destroy the inhabitants of Juda without cause. I
know, therefore, that for this cause these evils have
found me; and behold I perish with great grief in a
strange land." (Mac. 6:12-13).
The shame and
dishonor of sin form another torment for the wicked.
It is natural for man to desire esteem, but who can
honor the sinner? It is natural for him to wish to be
loved, but who is there who does not hate iniquity?
To these miseries let us add the fear of death, which
never fails to haunt the wicked, unless they are
utterly abandoned. What comfort can they have in
reflecting on the uncertainty of life, the thought of
the terrible account they must render, and the
anticipation of eternal torments? Consider the
sentiments which such reflections must awaken in the
sinner's breast, and you will form some idea of the
torments of his conscience.
Of these torments one
of the friends of Job spoke when he said, "The wicked
man is proud all his days, and the number of the
years of his tyranny is uncertain. The sound of dread
is always in his ears"-the dread sound of an accusing
conscience. "And when there is peace, he always
suspecteth treason," for he cannot escape the alarms
and the warning cries of conscience. "He believeth
not that he may return from darkness to light." He
believes it impossible to extricate himself from the
terrible darkness which envelops him; he almost
despairs of ever again enjoying the peace of a good
conscience. "Looking round about for the sword on
every side," he is in constant dread of avenging
justice. "When he moveth himself to seek bread he
knoweth that the day of darkness is at hand." Even at
table, the place of mirth and rejoicing, the fear of
judgment is upon him.
"Tribulation shall terrify
him, and distress shall surround him, as a king that
is prepared for the battle. For he hath stretched out
his hand against God, and hath strengthened himself
against the Almighty." (Job 15:22-26).
Holy Scripture portray the torments of which the
heart of the sinner is both the theater and the
victim. A philosopher has wisely said that by an
eternal law of God it is ordained that fear should be
the inseparable companion of evil; and this is
confirmed by Solomon, who tells us, "The wicked man
fleeth when no man pursueth, but the just, bold as a
lion, shall be without dread." (Prov. 28:1). This
thought is also expressed by St. Augustine, who says,
"Thou hast ordained, O Lord, that every soul in which
disorder reigns should be a torment to herself; and
truly it is so." (Conf. 1,12).
Nature teaches us
the same. Does not every creature suffer for
infringing the law of its being? Consider the pain
which follows the displacement of a bone in the body.
What violence a creature endures when out of its
element! How quickly does sickness follow when the
different parts of the body are not in harmony!
Since, then, it belongs to a rational creature to
lead a regular life, how can he escape suffering, how
can he fail to become his own torment, when he
disregards the laws of reason and the order of Divine
Providence? "Who hath resisted God and hath had
peace?" (Job 9:4). Hence we see that creatures who
submit to the order of God enjoy a peace and security
which abandon them the moment they resist this divine
law. Man, in his innocence, was absolute master of
himself; but after his disobedience he lost his
peaceful empire and began to experience remorse and
an interior warfare against himself.
"Is there any
greater torment in this world," asks St. Ambrose,
"than remorse of conscience? Is it not a misery more
to be feared than sickness, than exile, than loss of
life or liberty?" (De Officiis, L.3,4).
"There is nothing," says St. Isidore, "from which man
cannot fly, save from himself. Let him go where he
will, he cannot escape the pursuit of an accusing
conscience." The same Father adds elsewhere, "There
is no torment which exceeds that of a guilty
conscience. If, then, you desire to live in peace,
live in the practice of virtue."
This truth is so
manifest that even pagan philosophers acknowledged
it. "What doth it avail thee," says Seneca, "to fly
from the conversation of men? For as a good
conscience may call all the world to witness its
truth, so a bad conscience will be tormented by a
thousand fears, a thousand anxieties, even in a
desert. If thy action be good all the world may
witness it; if it be evil what will it avail thee to
hide it from others, since thou canst not hide it
from thyself? Alas for thee if thou makest no account
of such a witness, for its testimony is worth that of
a thousand others." (Epist.97).
Cicero, "is the power of conscience; nothing can more
effectually condemn or acquit a man. It raises the
innocent above all fear and keeps the guilty in
perpetual alarm." This is one of the eternal torments
of the wicked, for it begins even in this life and
will continue forever in the life to come. It is the
undying worm mentioned by Isaias. (Cf. Is. 66:24).
Having thus seen the sad effects of an evil
conscience, we will be enabled to realize more fully
the blessed peace which the just enjoy.
Virtue shelters them from the remorse and sufferings
which have been described as the lot of the wicked.
The consolations and sweet fruits of the Holy Ghost
fill them with joy and transform the soul into a
terrestrial paradise, where He is pleased to take up
His abode. "The joy of a good conscience," says St.
Augustine, "makes the soul a true paradise." (De Gen.
ad Lit., L. 12, c. 34). And elsewhere he says, "Be
assured, ye who seek that true peace promised to a
future life, that you may here enjoy it by
anticipation, if you will but love and keep the
commandments of Him who promises this reward; for you
will soon find by experience that the fruits of
justice are sweeter than those of iniquity. You will
learn that the joys of virtue, even in the midst of
trials and misfortunes, far exceed all the delights
of pleasure and prosperity accompanied by the remorse
of a bad conscience." (Lib. de Cat. 2,9).
we have said, finds in its baseness and enormity its
own punishment; so virtue finds in its beauty and
worth its own reward. David teaches us this truth:
"The judgments of the Lord – that is, His holy
commandments – are true, justified in themselves.
More to be desired than gold and precious stones, and
sweeter than honey and the honeycomb." (Ps.
18:10-11). This was his own experience, for he says,
"I have been delighted in the way of thy testimonies,
as in all riches." (Ps. 118:14). The chief cause of
this joy is the dignity and beauty of virtue, which
as Plato declares, is incomparably fair and lovely.
Finally, so great are the advantages of a good
conscience that, according to St. Ambrose, they
constitute in this life the happiness of the just.
The ancient philosophers, as we have seen, though
deprived of the light of faith, knew the torments of
a guilty conscience. Nor were they ignorant of the
joy of a good Í conscience, as we learn from Cicero,
who, in his Tusculan Questions, says, "A life spent
in noble and honorable deeds ' brings such
consolations with it that just men are either
insensible to the trials of life or feel them very
little." The same author adds elsewhere that virtue
has no more brilliant, no more honorable theater than
that in which the applause of conscience is heard.
Socrates, being asked who could live free from
passion, answered, "He who lives virtuously." And
Bias, another celebrated philosopher, gave almost the
same reply to a similar question. "Who," he was
asked, "can live without fear?" "He who has the
testimony of a good conscience," he replied. Seneca,
in one of his epistles, wrote, "A wise man is always
cheerful and his cheerfulness comes from a good
If pagan philosophers, knowing
nothing of future rewards, so justly esteemed the
peace of a good conscience, how dearly should a
Christian prize it! This testimony of a good
conscience does not, however, exclude that salutary
fear with which we must work out our salvation; but
such a fear, so far from discouraging us, inspires us
with marvelous courage in the fulfillment of our
duties. We feel, in the depth of our hearts, that our
confidence is better founded when moderated by this
holy fear, without which it would be only a false
security and a vain presumption.
It was of this
privilege that the Apostle spoke when he said, "Our
glory is this, the testimony of our conscience, that
in simplicity of heart and sincerity of God, and not
in carnal wisdom, but in the grace of God, we have
conversed in this world." (2Cor. 1:12).
endeavored to explain this privilege of virtue, but,
despite all that could be said, there is nothing save
experience that can give us a keen realization of it.