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 If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us; it would not be at war with us.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 If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach?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

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

  1. You say “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.

  2. You say “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,” but I suspect it’s more likely that many people’’s “conscience” doesn’t actually tell them what you think it should. And then when you insist they’re wrong, that’s what they don’t like. You don’t know their “conscience” better than they do.

    1. @Peggy. Msgr Pope proclaims the teaching and understanding of the Catholic Church down though the ages.

      The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) points out the Ten Commandments reflect the natural law and what is written on our hearts.

      “Who is not conscious that a law is inscribed on his heart by the finger of God, teaching him to distinguish good from evil, vice from virtue, justice from injustice ? The force and import of this unwritten law do not conflict with that which is written. How unreasonable then to deny that God is the author of the written, as he is of the unwritten law.
      But, lest the people, aware of the abrogation of the Mosaic Law, may imagine that the precepts of the Decalogue are no longer obligatory, the pastor will inform them, that these precepts were not delivered as new laws, but rather as a renewal and development of the law of nature: its divine light, which was obscured and almost extinguished by the crimes and the perversity of man, shines forth in this celestial code with increased and renovated splendour. The Ten Commandments, however, we are not bound to obey because delivered by Moses, but because they are so many precepts of the natural law, and have been explained and confirmed by our Lord Jesus Christ.”

      Donovan translation 1829. Page 238

      God Bless

  3. Conscience was there all the time when the facade rolls away like a stagnant fog and the piercing Light of Truth is all that remains.

  4. I believe it was Jesus who sent out His disciples in groups of two to tell people what he had taught and what they had seen while in His company. One of the disciples asked, ” To whom should we tell these things Lord?” Jesus responded, “You wouldn’t give sacred things to dogs and neither should you cast your pearls before swine lest they trample them under their hooves and turn and tear you to pieces.” Unfortunately you don’t have that disgression on a blog

  5. Yes Charles Pope is not privy to the rationalizations, the stereotypes, the fears, the convoluted logic, or the ignorance of the mind of an individual but he is privy to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as well as data of scripture and the teachings of many holy men and women which are all guides to knowing the voice of God in anyone’s heart.

  6. @Morrie, yes indeed, there are many “guides,” and the Church herself explicitly teaches that despite (or because of) the many “guides,” “it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed,” and that when that happens, “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.“. (CCC#1790)

    1. And a person has an obligation to conform his or her conscience to the Truth rather than let it be blunted by unruly and selfish desires and associated errors. If one does strive to conform the conscience to Truth, one will discover that the moral teachings of the Catholic Church are a great guide and are true.

  7. The conscience must be informed and cultivated. Birds of a feather flock together so our fellowship with others reflect who we want to be/or not be. Iron sharpens iron and seed sown on good soil grows into a big healthy tree. Guard your heart and stay in the word. Scripture says “It grows and it knows not how.” The same with us if we keep applying to our lives what God wants most from us….relationship.

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