What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask – A Consideration of a Powerful but Puzzling Prayer

prayerThe Collect (Opening Prayer) for this coming Sunday (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. Prayer sometimes leads us to look into areas of our life where 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 God is offering 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.

Let’s look at each.

[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 may wish to assemble in an attempt to suppress the conscience, there is still, deep within, that voice of God that is calling us. Deep down, we know what we are doing and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we assemble to 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 for reminding us what God says. If our teachings and corrections were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us, would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their consciences trouble them, deep down inside 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? Again, because deep down they know that we are right; they know what is 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 a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

And this is true for believers as well, who, though not intensely hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it incites. It is true 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 being able to change or of God’s healing love). The proper dread that conscience incites 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?

But prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing and consoling things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of the 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 very exact. The Latin 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 of the prayer, which is 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 be done with the voice of God echoing in their depths. But consider that we resist asking for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s stance when he asked God to make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was fearful in asking the Lord to remove something that he liked.

And thus there are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. The attitude is “Ask not, lest ye be answered”! Many are not ready to forgive, to be chaste, or to be more generous; they fear the changes that such things would bring.

Perhaps here one can at least pray, “Lord, at least give me the desire to be chaste if I don’t even have that.” “Give me the desire to share with and love the poor, which I don’t currently have.”

If we begin to desire what God is offering, we are more chaste, generous, and forgiving because we want to be. And thus 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 seeking to suppress or deny 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 resistance.

4 Replies to “What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask – A Consideration of a Powerful but Puzzling Prayer”

  1. The petition translation is both “grant me what I am not worth to ask for” and “grant me what I dare not ask” because God, Who prays with us and in us to Himself and Who answers His and our prayers to Himself, is Infinite. We must not limit Him.

  2. What about ceasing to ask for something which is always denied, because it is possibly God’s Will that it is as He wants it? Along the lines of “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

    1. Thank you Maria (and – of course – Mgr Charles!). I too love the ‘Serenity’ prayer and have kept it at my side for many years.
      But – I think we have to be ever so careful to not allow the ‘Serenity to accept the things I can’t change’, to become an excuse for letting sleeping dogs lie!
      I believe that particular part is referring to things outside of ourselves, over which we have no control whatever. And – there is no point in beating ourselves up over something like that – better just to accept it and suffer it for Christ’s sake.
      I do believe that God always gives us the courage to change those things that we ‘can’ – but – the question is, do we actually have the strength of will to do so? Or, put another way, do we really ‘want’ to change?
      Let me give a small example. When I finally gave up smoking, 40 years ago, I had already ‘given up’ at least twelve times before!! I prayed for God’s help to enable me to do this, but I began to realise that the reason I very quickly went back to the tobacco, was because I didn’t really ‘want’ to give up – that I actually enjoyed it too much . . . . . I always kept a packet of smokes in hand, – just in case!
      Making changes means making sacrifices too. When I finally took the plunge in 1977 I woke up one morning with a sore head and a sore throat from too many cigarettes and, I was moved to say to God, “I ‘can’ do this with your help – and this time I really ‘want’ to!” And I was immediately given the strength to get out of bed, collect all my cigarettes and other tobacco and pipe paraphernalia, and go out into my back yard and place it all in a pile on the patio and – jump up and down on it!! I realised that this was the victory I had been praying for, and suddenly that ‘sacrifice’ didn’t seem like a sacrifice at all! It was in fact – a blessing! I have never touched tobacco since.
      So – I continue to pray for the ‘desire’ to change, to give up this or that sin – and, sad to say, I recognise there are still many areas of my life that need this desire to come to fruition. I shall keep on praying and keep on trying.
      But it seems to me that it is ‘wanting’ to do it that makes the difference and then to follow through.
      It’s a bit like a child standing shivering on the pool’s edge listening to his father trying to persuade him to jump, “Because Daddy will look after you.”
      How much do we trust our ‘Daddy’ in Heaven to catch us and carry us through to victory?
      St Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13.
      God bless all – Ray Portsmouth UK.

  3. Thank you, Msgr, as always, for your deep insights and the energy you expend to share them with us. Thank you, Ray, for sharing yours as well from across the Pond, and smooth sailing to you.

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