What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:

Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:

(1)  [May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

(2)  [May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).

Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing, and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.

I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us; it would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their conscience troubles them, deep down they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.

Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’s healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience arouse is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.

Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?

However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.

[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.

We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we are hesitant to ask for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to take it away.

There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” attitude. For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous because they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and more generous because we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.

The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.

Consider well, then, the beautiful though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

8 Replies to “What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask”

  1. Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for this wonderful reflection on conscience. I believe you are absolutely correct in saying that the reason so many people are angry at the Catholic Church is because we remind them of God’s word and truths. Your post, Msgr. is well worth printing out, saving, to think about this week; and reflect on how I actually deal with things and stand strong despite the storm.

  2. Aah! The conscience! The part of the inner self that I try to drown by just any means especially now with media all around us. But when the noise dies down, when I am all alone, it is seething against all within me that I have done wrong, that I turned my back on what is good and that I have offended My GOD!

  3. “I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says.“

    I’m sorry Msgr., but this seems pretty off base to me. The church deflects from the varied and consistent corruption that they have been demonstrated to take part in, while claiming a moral high ground. That seems more likely to me to be the cause of far more of the frustration that many have with the Catholic Church. Not so much that the church confronts people with moral absolutes.

    1. Chas, you illustrate Mgr Pope’s point. The Church makes no pretence to “claim the moral high ground”. She freely acknowledges that all her earthly members are far from perfect and some very far indeed. Countless other institutions display equal or far greater corruption among their members. Yet they are rarely attacked and certainly never as vehemently and continuously as the Church is attacked. Mgr Pope provides the only rational explanation.

    2. Chas, people aren’t so much demanding that Church members stop being corrupt, but that they stop pointing out the sinfulness of the critics’ favourite sins (which also tend to be the most common sins of Church members). If Church members continued being corrupt but stopped teaching what the critics know deep down is God’s Truth, the critics would leave the Church alone.

  4. Lord,

    You know me better than I know myself.
    You understand my needs better than I do.
    I do not know how to provide for my necessities except by means that always turn out to be very, very insufficient.
    Please, therefore, provide for me all that I need.
    Thank you for providing for all my needs so far.
    Please reveal to me what it is I need again tomorrow.

    Amen.

  5. “Our conscience is . . . the voice of God echoing in our depths.”

    Permit me to complete that:

    When God (or one of His messengers) is mystically speaking to a soul, His voice is actually not that soul’s conscience itself.

    According to the article about the conscience from “The Catholic Encyclopedia” (that, I’d say, more comprehensive catechism), “(t)he natural conscience is no distinct faculty, but the one intellect [or mind] of a man inasmuch it considers [moral] right and [moral] wrong in conduct, aided meanwhile by a good will, by the use of the emotions, by the practical experience of living, and by all external helps that are to the purpose.”

    Then there’s the Law, or at least its primary principles, mystically “written on [our] hearts” (St Paul, Rom. 2:15), which ‘writ’, according to the mentioned definition, would seem is not the whole conscience, but only a part of the conscience (its most fundamental part) – and it’s also a part of our very being, of each of our souls: that’s why every human has at least a vague intuitive knowledge, an innate sense, of the Natural Morality/Law (for comparison I’d say that we can think here about how robots and artificial ‘intelligences’ are programmed, or about how the animals and also we humans have instinctive behaviors ‘hardwired’ in their and our nervous systems).

    “Still, we avoid what conscience dreads.”
    “(M)any of us resist what conscience dreads”.

    Considering the context, you most probably (even certainly) thought and meant to write, that “many of us, who are intending to sin, ‘avoid’/resist/suppress the conscience” itself.

    That’s because asking “to pardon what conscience dreads” means asking to forgive us our sins, for the conscience dreads sin – as you’ve also mentioned yourself:

    “This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience [the conscience’s dread] (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.”

  6. An absolutely wonderful and truly thought provoking article. I come from a family steeped in Catholicism, but since covid, I feel my eyes have been opened. I live in Ireland and the church fully and utterly co-operated with a secular government and closed its doors. The church, from the top is advocating as strongly as any secular government for people to take a morally compromised vaccine. I understand where commenter, Chas is coming from. Something at the very heart of the physical church is rotten, and in the depths of my heart, I do not believe at this particular moment that as an institution it is a guide for eternity. I do however thank God for people like the author of this sermon.

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