The Third Instruction. On the Conscience

Photo: Vladimir Khodakov.
Photo: Vladimir Khodakov.
When God created man He sowed in him something divine, a certain thought which has in itself, like a spark, both light and warmth; a thought which enlightens the mind and indicates to it what is good and what is evil—this is called conscience, and it is a natural law. This is that well which, as the Holy Fathers interpret it, Isaac dug and the Philistines covered up (Gen. 26:18). Following this law, that is, conscience, the Patriarchs and all the saints pleased God before the written Law. But when men through the fall of sin buried and trampled upon it, then the written Law became necessary, the Holy Prophets became necessary, the very Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ became necessary in order to reveal and move it (the conscience)—in order that this buried spark might again be ignited by the keeping of His Holy Commandments.

Now it is in our power either to again bury it or to allow it to shine in us and illuminate us, if we shall submit to it. For when our conscience tells us to do something and we disdain it, and when it again speaks, and we do not do what it says, but rather continue to trample upon it, then we bury it and it can no longer speak clearly to us from the weight that lies upon it. But like a lamp which hangs behind a curtain, it begins to show us things more darkly. And just as no one can recognize his own face in water that is obscured by many weeds, so after the transgression, we also do not understand what our conscience tells us—so that it seems to us that we have no conscience at all. However, there is no man who has no conscience, for it is, as we have already said, something divine and never perishes. It always reminds us of what is profitable, but we do not feel it because, as has already been said, we disdain it and trample upon it.

Wherefore the Prophet laments over Ephraim and says (Hosea 5:11) Ephraim altogether prevailed against his adversary, he trod judgment under foot. By adversary was meant the conscience. Wherefore also in the Gospel it is said (Matt. 25,26) Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou has paid the uttermost farthing. But why is the conscience called the adversary? It is called adversary because it always opposes our evil will and reminds us what we must do but do not do; and again, what we should not do but do, and for this it judges us, which is why the Lord calls it the adversary and commands us saying, Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him. The way, as St. Basil the Great says, is this world.

And thus, O brethren, let us strive to preserve our conscience while we are in this world, let us not allow it to refuse us in any matter. Let us not trample upon it in any way, even in the smallest thing. Know that from disdaining this small thing which is in essence nothing, we go on to disdain also a great thing. For if one begins to say, "What does it matter if I say this word? What does it matter if I eat this thing? What does it matter if I look at this or that thing?" From this "what does it matter about this or that?" one falls into a bad habit and begins to disdain what is great and important and to trample down one's conscience, and thus becoming hardened in evil, one is in danger of coming to complete lack of feeling. Wherefore guard yourselves, O brethren, from disdaining what is small, guard yourself from trampling upon it, looking down upon it as something small and unimportant. It is not small, for through it a bad habit is formed. Let us pay heed to ourselves and be concerned for what is light while it is still light, so that it will not become heavy: for both virtues and sins begin from the small and go on to become great good and evil. Therefore the Lord commands us to preserve our conscience and, as it were, He especially exhorts each of us, saying: "Look what you are doing, unfortunate one! Come to yourself, be reconciled with your adversary while you are in the way with him." Then He indicated the lamentable consequences of not preserving this commandment: lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou has paid the uttermost farthing. For the conscience accuses us, as I have already said, both in good and in evil, and it shows us what to do; and again it is it that will judge us in the coming Age, which is why it is said, Lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the rest.

The preservation of the conscience has many forms: for a man must preserve it in relation to God, to his neighbor, and to things. In relation to God, a man preserves his conscience if he does not disdain God through His commandments; and even in what people do not see, and in what no one demands of us, he preserves his conscience towards God in secret. For example, one may have grown lazy in prayer, or a passionate thought has entered his heart, and he did not oppose this and did not restrain himself, but accepted it; or when one has seen his neighbor doing or saying something and, as it often the case, he judged him. In short, everything that happens in secret, which no one knows except God and our conscience, we must preserve; and this is preservation of the conscience in relation to God. And the preservation of the conscience in relation to one's neighbor demands that we do nothing at all which, as far as we know, offends or tempts our neighbor by deed, word, appearance, or a glance. For one may offend one's brethren in appearance also, as I often repeat, and even by a glance. In short: a man should not do anything at all that he knows to have the intention of offending his neighbor. By this his conscience is defiled, recognizing that this was done in order to harm his brother or make him sad—this means preserving one's conscience in relation to one's neighbor. And the preservation of the conscience in relation to things consists in not having a careless attitude toward anything, not allowing the conscious to be spoiled, and not throwing it out. If we see something thrown out we should not disdain it, even if it be something insignificant, but should pick it up and put it in its place. Likewise, we should not behave carelessly with regard to our clothing. One might wear his garment for a week or two or even a month, and he often washes it prematurely and thus ruins it, and instead of wearing it for five months or longer. By frequent washing he causes it to become old and useless, and this is against the conscience. Likewise in relation to one's bed—one person may be satisfied with a single pillow, but another seeks a large bed; or he has a rough shirt but wishes to change it and obtain a different one, a new or a beautiful one out of vainglory or despondency. Someone may be satisfied with a single blanket, but he seeks another, better one, and he even quarrels if he does not receive it. If he furthermore begins to take note of his brother, saying, "Why does he have one and I do not?" then he is far from maturity. Likewise, if someone hangs his clothing or blanket in the sun and is slothful about taking it down in time and allows it thus to be ruined by the heat, this also is against the conscience. Or with regard to food, one person might be able to satisfy his needs with a small quantity of vegetables or lentils, or a few olives, but he does not want this, and rather seeks some other food that is tastier and better. All this is against the conscience. The Fathers say that a monk should never allow that his conscience reproach him for anything. Thus it is essential for us brethren to always heed ourselves and preserve ourselves from all this, so that we will not be subjected to that misfortune about which the Lord Himself warns us, which we have stated above. May the Lord grant us to hear and fulfill this, so that the words of our Fathers will not serve as judgment against us.

Abba Dorotheos


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