The Interior Sinai, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 8 January 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'Modern science has explored the whole surface of the earth, made the sea reveal the secrets of its depths, the sun tell the story of its wanderings, and the stars the mystery of their light – but all this exploration is external. Modern man has done little yet to explore that region which is nearest to him, and yet most unknown, namely, the depths of his own conscience. To such an exploration I would invite you.

What is conscience? Conscience is an interior government, exercising the same functions as all human government, namely, legislative, executive and judicial. It has its Congress, its President, and its Supreme Court, it makes laws, it witnesses our actions in relation to the laws, and finally it judges us.

First of all, conscience legislates. One needs only to live to know that there is in each of us an interior Sinai, from which is promulgated amid the thunder and lightning of daily life, a law telling us to do good and avoid evil. That interior voice fills us with a sense of responsibility, reminding us, not that we must do certain things, but that we ought to do certain things, for the diiference between a machine and a man is the difference between rmist and ought. Without even being consulted, conscience plays its legislative role, pronouncing some actions to be in themselves evil and unjust, and others in themselves moral and good. Hence when citizens fail to see a relationship existing between a human law and the law of their own conscience, they feel they are free to disobey, and their justifying cry is, “My conscience tells me it is wrong.”

Secondly, conscience not only is legislative, in the sense that it lays down a law, but it is also executive, in the sense that it witnesses the application of the law to actions. An imperfect, but helpful, analogy is to be found in our own government. Congress passes a law, then the President witnesses and approves it, thus applying the law to the lives of citizens. In like manner, conscience executes laws in the sense that it witnesses the fidelity of our actions to the law. Aided by memory, it tells us the value of our actions, tells us if we were total masters of ourselves, how much passion, environment, force and fury infiuence us; whether our consequences were foreseen or unforeseen; shows us, as in a mirror, the footsteps of all our actions; points its finger at the vestiges of our decisions; comes to us as a true witness and says : “I was there, I saw you do it. You had such and such an intention.” In the administration of human justice the law can call together only those witnesses who have known me externally, but conscience as a witness summons not only those who saw me, but summons me who knows myself. And whether I like it or not, I cannot lie to what it witnesses against me.

Finally, conscience not only lays down laws, not only witnesses my obedience or disobedience to them but it also judges me accordingly. The breast of every man bears a silent court of justice. Conscience is the judge, sitting in judgment, handing down decisions with such authority as to admit of no appeal, for no one can appeal a judgment which he brings against himself. That is why there gather about the bar of conscience all the feelings and emo- tions associated with right and wrong, namely, joy and sorrow, peace and remorse, self-approval and fear, praise and blame. If I do wrong it fills me with a sense of guilt against which there is no escape, for if the inmost sanctuary of my being is assaulted by the stern voice of this judge, I am driven out of myself by myself. Whence, then, can I fiy but to myself with the sickening sense of guilt, remorse and disgrace, which is the very hell of the soul. If, on the contrary, conscience approves my action, then there settles upon me, like the quiet of an evening dew, the joy which is a stranger to the passing plea- sures of sense. The world may call me guilty, its courts may judge me criminal, its irons may weight down my fiesh and bones like deep sea anchors, but my soul builds a paradise within, against the raging opposition without, and fioods it with an interior peace which the world cannot give and which the insults of the world cannot take from me.

“He that has light within his own clear breast May sit in the center, and enjoy bright day; But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts Benighted walks under mid-day sun – Himself in his own dungeon.”

Thus it is that by turning the searchlight into the hidden recesses, I find that my conscience reveals itself as making laws, witnessing my obedience to them, and finally as passing on them judgments of praise and blame, innocence and guilt. Manifestly, this triple role, upon the model of which all human government is based, must have a reason for its order. But where seek it? If a normal intelligence, looking out upon the order of the heavens and the marvelous harmony of its brotherhood of orbs, passing by one another without a hitch or a halt, reasons back to a Mind behind the universe, why too should not one by looking into the world of conscience with its laws and commands, its interlacings of counsels and precepts, reason back to some great Moral Governor as its source, which we call God? Since the external nature of the heavens is orderly and harmonious, I cannot suppose that the moral law within my breast is disorderly and chaotic. If there could never be a universe without a Mind, how could there ever be a law without a Lawmaker?

First of all, what is the source of the legislative role of my conscience which bids me to do good and avoid evil, but which does not make things right or wrong anymore than the eye makes color red or white? It merely lays down the law, thus betraying that it is an intermediary between someone else and me. This law is certainly not of my own making, nor does it come from society.

It does not come from myself, for no one can be his own legislator and a superior to himself. Furthermore, if the law of conscience were of my own making, I could unmake it, but I cannot do this, for it comes to me in defiance of my own will. When my will is set against hearing it, or even obeying it, it comes as a delegate with absolute right to rule over me. This means that I did not make it, but that I am only free to obey it or to disobey it.

Neither does it come from society, for society is merely the interpreter of the law of conscience and not its author. Human laws may sanction it and elaborate it, but they do not create it. The approval or disapproval of society did not make the right and wrong of my conscience, because sometimes con- science bids us to flaunt the laws of society, when they are inimical to the laws of God, as was the case with the martyrs who died for the faith. Further- more, every decent man and woman on the face of the earth knows full well there are certain things which should not be done, if he or she were the only person on earth, and that right is right if nobody is right, and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong.

If, therefore, the voice of that interior Sinai of conscience is neither from me nor from society, and if it is universal in its whisperings and articulations, so that no moral creature can wholly shake it off, it must be that behind this law there! is a Lawmaker, and behind this voice there is a Person, and behind this command a Power, which we call God Who has sealed upon every man coming into the world the light which slays darkness and illumines souls in the paths which lead to the land of peace and the homeland of the children of liberty.

Secondly, what is the source of the executive power of my conscience? I realize that my conscience is a witness in a court-room, something, when I am guilty, which comes to me with a “tnousand several tongues and every tongue brings in a different tale and every tale condemns me as a villain.”

Who is this witness within me who takes the stand and turns state’s evidence against me? Who is this witness who cannot be bought by gold, nor crushed by threats, nor won by praise? Who is this great executive who accepts no excuse, but signs the law made by conscience and applies its action? Who is this witness who is always upholding the cause of truth and righteousness?

In vain do I say that it comes from society, for conscience sometimes denies the testimony of society and calls me vicious when society calls me virtuous. In vain do I say that it comes from myself, for if it did, then I could make it testify in my own defence, as some alienists who witness to the truth of the side which hires them. Since, therefore, my conscience witnesses constantly to truth and righteousness, and since this fidelity is not of my own making nor the making of society, it must therefore be that behind this Truth and Righteousness there is a Piety and a Holiness; and since Piety and Holiness can belong only to a Person, I must conclude that such a Holy Person Who witnesses my actions is in some way the same God as the Power Who laid down the law of my conscience and now urges me to be faithful unto it even for eternity.

Thirdly, the sentiments of praise and blame which follow upon the judgment of conscience are meaningless unless my actions are an offense against a personal being. If men thought that they were responsible for their evil thoughts and words and actions to no one higher than themselves or their fellows, it is inconceivable that the consciousness of guilt and the fear of punishment would have been what both heart and experience testify them to be. Prayers and penances, sacrifices and atonements would never have prevailed so widely if there were no underlying sense of the existence of One before Whom we are responsible and Whose wrath must be turned aside. Were there no God to fear, the criminal would never be so alive to his guilt and so haunted and appalled by the fear of a judgment and a justice more terrible than that of men. As Cardinal Newman has put it: “Inanimate things cannot stir our affections; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on hurting a mother; if, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away… If the cause of these emotions does not belong to this visible world, the Object to which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine; and thus the phenomena of conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive.” Thus an examination of my conscience and its triple role forces me to conclude that just as the eye corresponds to things visible, the ear to things audible, reason to things intelligible, so too the law of my conscience must correspond to a Power which legislates, the witness of my conscience must correspond to a Righteousness which executes, and the praise and blame of my conscience to a J ustice which judges, and since Power, Righteousness and Justice correspond to the essential attributes of a Person, I must conclude that that Personal Power is Intelligent in order to make laws; that that Personal Righteousness is All Knowing in order to have a perfect insight into moral character; and that that Personal Justice is Supreme in order to pass sen- tences after His judgments. And that Wise Power, All Knowing Righteousness, and Supreme Justice, before Whom I kneel in sorrow even when I have not broken a single law of the land, and confess with deep anguish of soul, “Against Thee have I sinned”; that Power Who calls me away from the sin which corrodes even when it does not glare, and under- mines even when it does not crush; that Righteous- ness Who has implanted a Spiritual law of gravita- tion within me to draw me away from the earth, beyond the stars to Himself as the Source of Life and Truth and Love; that Justice Who has implant- ed in me a spark which the wings of angels fan into a flame of everlasting happiness – is the Power, the Righteousness and the Justice which is God for Whom our hearts are restless until they end their quest in Him; for

“There is a quest that calls me
In nights when I am lone.
The need to ride where the ways divide
The unknown from the known.
I mount what thought is near me
And soon I reach the place.
The tenuous rim where the Seen grows dim
And the Sightless hides its face.

“I have ridden the wind,
I have ridden the sea,
I have ridden the moon and stars,
I have set my feet in the stirrup seat
Of a comet coursing Mars.
And everywhere.
Thro’ earth and air
My thought speeds, lightning-shod,
It comes to a place where checking pace
It cries, ‘Beyond lies God.'”