There is no better way to journey through Lent than by tending to one’s conscience. Why? Because Lent is a forty-day period of preparation for the solemn celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Everything points to and culminates in the sacraments and rites of the Triduum and the vigil Mass for Easter, when catechumens are baptized and the whole Church renews its baptismal faith, and conscience is at the heart of the theology of Baptism.
The apostolic Church understood Baptism as a cleansing of consciences. St. Peter instructs us that Baptism “is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (I Pet. 3:21) Baptism initiates us into the New Covenant, sealed by the blood of Christ, that is, by His merciful love. This blood, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “purifies our consciences” from works of death, that is, from sin. (Heb. 9:14; see also Heb. 10:22)
The text of Hebrews 9:14 is significant because it asserts that the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah has been fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice in which His blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Jeremiah previsioned a new and definitive covenant that would be written on people’s hearts, their transgressions would be forgiven, and God would no longer call their sins to mind. (Jer. 31:33–35) The Letter to the Hebrews quotes this passage in chapter eight, and chapters nine and ten show how He fulfills it by His sacrifice.
There is, however, a slight difference in vocabulary: whereas Jeremiah speaks of “hearts,” Hebrews speaks of “consciences.” God writes His law on hearts when Christ’s blood purifies consciences. His blood being a symbol of His love, this means that the cup of the new and everlasting covenant is God’s merciful love. It means that our consciences can again call good and evil by their true names by making their judgments about right and wrong in reference to the definitive revelation of God’s love on the Cross.
This is a crucial point. A conscience purified by Christ’s blood through Baptism genuflects before every truth that God has revealed in Christ. Using liturgical language to describe conscience’s submission to truth may seem exaggerated. In reality, it is an act of intellectual veneration of the truth, and through this veneration of the truth it is an act of adoration of God, the Source of truth. The purification of consciences by Christ’s blood makes us “true worshipers [who] will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (Jn. 4:23)
By coming to know and to believe in the love God has for us (I Jn. 4:16), we know that love is the motive for every commandment that Christ enjoins on us. This is why to transgress any one of His commands is to reject His love. It is to say, in effect: “I know better than You do what is best for me.” Of course, we don’t, and the result is that in every act of sin either evil is called good or good is called evil. The disobedience of any of God’s commandments is self-diminishment, the self-chosen forfeiture of our true good. A conscience purified by Christ’s blood abhors the thought of committing what could be called interior blasphemy by speaking falsely about what God has established as good and evil.
Another quality of a conscience purified by Christ’s blood is that it sees sin as a personal offense against God. Because the authority of Christ’s love stands behind each commandment, faith is a package deal, an all-or-nothing affair. St. James demonstrates this when he underscores that God’s personal authority is the origin of every commandment: “You see, anyone who keeps the whole of the Law but trips up on a single point, is still guilty of breaking it all. He Who said, ‘You must not commit adultery’ said also, ‘You must not kill.’ Now if you commit murder, you need not commit adultery as well to become a breaker of the Law.” (Jas. 2:10–11) Purified consciences are acutely aware of the profoundly personal dimension of faith, and their chief concern is to avoid offending the One Who loved them “to the end.” (Jn. 13:1)
The first duty of conscience is to seek the truth. A purified conscience is one that turns to Christ for the truth. He Who is the truth (Jn. 14:6) speaks only the truth that He has learned from His heavenly Father. (Jn. 7:16) The origin of His teaching, then, is Heaven, and by observing His instructions we fulfill the petition of the Our Father: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” The fulfillment of Christ’s teaching “is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” (I Tim. 1:5) If we are serious about praying, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” we must be people of conscience. We could say that in purified consciences earth opens up to Heaven and Heaven descends to earth. If we are made for Heaven and called to Heaven, this can only mean that we are made and called to be people of conscience.
How does one become or advance in being a person of conscience? By listening to God’s voice. Where can one go to hear this voice? How does one turn to Christ? By turning to His Church. What Jesus said to the Apostles, “He who hears you hears Me” (Lk. 10:16), is true also of their successors, the pope and bishops. By reading the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the popes’ writings, and the lives of the saints, we hear God’s voice.
Informing one’s conscience is certainly necessary, but it is also necessary to do so with a disposition of humility, a readiness to assent to the truth and to conform our thoughts, words, and actions to the truth whenever it penetrates our consciences. This requires that we cultivate a habit of interiority. In its teaching on conscience, the Catechism says: “It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection.” (n. 1779)
“Oh, that today you would hear His voice: Do not harden your hearts.” (Ps. 95:7–8) Lent is the time to heed the Lord’s plea! “Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor. 6:2) Lent is the “today” of our salvation! His voice, our salvation: this is the meaning of every moment of conscience. As Vatican II teaches: “God, Who probes our hearts”—which, we have seen, are the same as our consciences—“awaits us there.” (Gaudium et spes, n. 14) The human heart and conscience: this is the only place in the universe where a personal encounter with God can take place.
The best way to prepare during Lent for Baptism and the renewal of baptismal faith is to become more fully a person of conscience. The devil certainly does not desire this, nor is it a value for the world. No, their work is to draw us outside of ourselves, to so preoccupy our attention with things of the world that we never visit that one place where God awaits us. Lent is a season for spiritual battle, and it is helpful to know the enemy’s strategy. In the contest over souls, Satan has home field advantage so long as we remain worldly, outside of ourselves, out of contact with our consciences. His tactic is to make sure that the necessary conditions for meeting God in the conscience—quiet, stillness of soul, attentiveness to God’s voice—never materialize. God has home-field advantage when we are men and women of conscience, when we turn inward to meet Him Who awaits us there.
St. Paul exhorts us: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col. 3:2) We do this every time we enter into the inner sanctuary of our own consciences, where we hear God’s voice and, by the power of Christ’s blood, God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L., is Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, where he holds the Blessed John Paul II the Great Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization.