Thomas Merton on the imitative conscience

While stumbling through Merton’s excellent essay on vocation, I chanced to come across this unrelated passage on the conscience of man. This stuff is dynamite!

I cannot make good choices unless I develop a mature and prudent conscience that gives me an accurate account of my motives, my intentions, and my moral acts. The word to be stressed here is mature. An infant, not having a conscience, is guided in its “decisions” by the attitude of somebody else.

The immature conscience is one that bases its judgments partly, or even entirely, on the way other people seem to be disposed toward its decisions. The good is what is admired or accepted by the people it lives with. The evil is what irritates or upsets them. Even when the immature conscience is not entirely dominated by people outside itself, it nevertheless acts only as a representative of some other conscience.

The immature conscience is not its own master. It is merely the delegate of the conscience of another person, or of a group, or of a party, or of a social class, or of a nation, or of a race. Therefore, it does not make real moral decisions of its own, it simply parrots the decisions of others. It does not make judgments of its own, it merely “conforms” to the party line. It does not really have motives or intentions of its own. Or if it does, it wrecks them by twisting and rationalizing them to fit the intentions of another.

That is not moral freedom. It makes true love impossible. For if I am to love truly and freely, I must be able to give something that is truly my own to another. If my heart does not first belong to me, how can I give it to another? It is not mine to give!

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.28 [Broken into paragraphs]

Being slave to sin means your heart is not really yours to give away. It’s chained down. So how does one’s conscience become more independent? I think the answer is: By the renewal of the mind by the holy spirit (versus the conforming to the world) and by finding one’s dominant life meaning in service to Christ, versus what others think or wish for me. That is not at all easy. What is a good intermediate step perhaps? Keeping good company. Find someone more free and Godly to take a cue from. This is why Paul says to imitate him as he imitates Christ. Hopefully in the end you won’t be imitating Paul either, but it’s a start.