The Fathers and other ancient teachers on the torment of a guilty conscience

January 13, 2022 • 3 min

From The Sinner’s Guide, page 167

A philosopher has wisely said that by an eternal law of God it is ordained that fear should be the inseparable companion of evil; and this is confirmed by Solomon, who tells us: “The wicked man fleeth when no man pursueth, but the just, bold as a lion, shall be without dread.” [Prov. xxviii. 1.]

This thought is also expressed by St. Augustine, who says: “Thou hast ordained, O Lord! that every soul in which disorder reigns should be a torment to herself; and truly it is so.” [“Conf.”, i. 12.]

Nature teaches us the same. Does not every creature suffer for infringing the law of its being? Consider the pain which follows the displacement of a bone in the body. What violence a creature endures when out of its element! How quickly does sickness follow when the different parts of the body are not in harmony!

Since, then, it belongs to a rational creature to lead a regular life, how can he escape suffering, how can he fail to become his own torment, when he disregards the laws of reason and the order of Divine Providence?

“Who hath resisted God and hath had peace?” [Job. ix. 4.] Hence we see that creatures who submit to the order of God enjoy a peace and security which abandon them the moment they resist this divine law. Man, in his innocence, was absolute master of himself; but after his disobedience he lost his peaceful empire and began to experience remorse and an interior warfare against himself.

“Is there any greater torment in this world,” asks St. Ambrose, “than remorse of conscience? Is it not a misery more to be feared than sickness, than exile, than loss of life or liberty?” [“Do Officiis,” L. iii. c. 4.]

“There is nothing,” says St. Isidore, “from which man cannot fly, save from himself. Let him go where he will, he cannot escape the pursuit of an accusing conscience.” The same Father adds elsewhere: “There is no torment which exceeds that of a guilty conscience. If, then, you desire to live in peace, live in the practice of virtue.”

This truth is so manifest that even pagan philosophers acknowledged it.

“What doth it avail thee,” says Seneca, “to fly from the conversation of men? For as a good conscience may call all the world to witness its truth, so a bad conscience will be tormented by a thousand fears, a thousand anxieties, even in a desert. If thy action be good all the world may witness it; if it be evil what will it avail thee to hide it from others, since thou canst not hide it from thyself? Alas for thee if thou makest no account of such a witness, for its testimony is worth that of a thousand others.” [Epist. 97.]

“Great,” says Cicero, “is the power of conscience; nothing can more effectually condemn or acquit a man. It raises the innocent above all fear and keeps the guilty in perpetual alarm.”

This is one of the eternal torments of the wicked, for it begins even in this life and will continue for ever in the life to come. It is the undying worm mentioned by Isaias. [lxvi. 24.]

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