Guilt and Conscience

This past week we began the season of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. This is a season that certainly generates no shortage of reactions. The more stereotypical reactions would be akin to groaning and, perhaps, a panicked search for something to “give up.” We instead ought to hope some part of us would experience something closer to eagerness.

Among the words very often associated with our understanding of Lent and the perceived preoccupation with sin – and this would likely apply to Catholicism in general – is guilt. “Catholic Guilt” is, I would estimate, in the top five reasons people leave the Church, and given the understanding many of us carry from childhood, that would be forgivable. Unfortunately, many of us lack a proper frame of reference with which to form a healthy definition of “guilt.” We describe guilt in terms of shame and judgment, attempting rather to mask or hide it than deal with it. A lot of our upbringing and childhood formation has prevented us from a healthier approach, because it has traditionally centered on preventing sin through fear motives and attempting to instill a disgust for sin itself. However, we must move beyond fear (for, indeed, “perfect love casts out all fear” – 1 John 4:18) to form a healthy definition.

What then is guilt through love’s lens?

The fundamental truth of love is that it is all about relationship. Love is concerned with how my behavior impacts my beloved or the way I relate to my beloved. Therefore, guilt, when approached from a place of love, is not inward-looking, fixated on “my fault,” which fosters shame. Rather guilt is far more the awareness that something I did has harmed the one I love, or worse, has damaged the way I relate to my beloved.

In this way, rather than fear of harming my beloved, my principal motivation is care and affection for them. It is the desire to positively grow and develop that relationship and advance the interest of the one I love. Guilt is not a shaming mechanism. It is the natural pang I experience having grieved the one I love – this is imminently healthy.

If I lack this awareness, I have a defect of another poorly understood interior mechanism: the conscience. Now, in converse relationship to the concept of guilt, conscience is understood in a backward way in this day and age.

Conscience is not my standard by which I measure my own behavior or weigh a course of action. That is a deformed conscience because it is self-referential. Where love is concerned, conscience is my knowledge of my beloved, and thereby my knowledge of what harms them or the love and trust-based relationship we share.

What we need to understand better in this day and age is that we do not live by or for ourselves. If we do, we are truly malformed as human beings. We must and do, whether willing or not, live for those who are dear to us, or even merely in contact with us. Our happiness is in giving of ourselves, based on the cloth from which we are cut, whose “image and likeness” we share.

So, instead of some kind of dread aversion to the sacrifices and disciplines, rather let these become the tools we employ in reconciling with God. He has built the bridges, paved every road. He has made all the ways clear to connect with him and to commune with him, but when we allow blocks to be set up by our sins, or by the clutter of the world, we impair our own relationship with God.

By paying heed to the voice of the Spirit in Scripture, in the Church’s teachings, in nature, and in the stillest, most quiet and unaffected places in our souls, our conscience can receive a true and trustworthy formation that will illuminate those things by which we separate ourselves from the Lover and Shepherd of Souls.

Given this formation, and with zeal and ardor, we can embark on the journey of Lent with sure, purposeful steps toward renewed and increased intimacy with God the Father. “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2A)


David M. Dunst

Director of Music

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