When all is said and done each person faces his conscience resulting in peace or guilt, satisfaction or remorse depending on his thoughts and actions before God. In a great sermon titled “The Testimony of Conscience,” St. John Henry Newman comments on the words of St. Paul: “Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you.” 2 Cor. i. 12.
Newman comments on the meaning of simplicity and sincerity of heart, and offers St. Paul as an example of one who lived in this manner.
“You know that it is a frequent account of the kings of Judah in the Sacred history, that they walked or did not walk with God, with a perfect heart. In contrast with this phrase, consider what our Saviour says of the attempt made by the Pharisees to serve God and mammon, and St. James’s account of a double-minded man.” Furthermore, Newman continues: “A man serves with a perfect heart, who serves God in all parts of his duty; and, not here and there, but here and there and everywhere; not perfectly indeed as regards the quality of his obedience, but perfectly as regards its extent; not completely, but consistently.”
The one with a perfect heart contrasts with the one who is a hypocrite, ”the one who, though his heart would tell him, were he honest with it, that he is not serving God perfectly, yet will not ask his heart, will not listen to it, trifles with his conscience, is determined to believe that he is religious.”
Newman offers various instances of this insincerity of heart:
-Some who act “shrinking from the absolute surrender and sacrifice of self to God.”
-Others who “dare not profess in God’s sight that they will serve Him. They dare not promise; they dare not pray to Him. They dare not beg Him to make them wholly His.”
-Others like the rich young man who “flattered himself that he was perfect in heart when he had a reserve in his obedience.”
-“Still others who, although conscious of doing wrong “from pride, or other wrong feeling, they shrink from going close to it, and, as it were, embracing it. And so again, if they have been in fault, they will make excuses, or half confess.””
-“Lastly may be mentioned, the case of persons seeking the truth. How often are they afraid or loth to throw themselves on God’s guidance, and beg Him to teach them!”
In the season of Advent the Church puts before us the figure of St. John the Baptist. He lived with a perfect heart. He surrendered himself completely to God. Rather than boast of his mission, he acknowledged not being worthy to untie the sandals of the Lord. When imprisoned he was steadfast in his confession to God and was given the fortitude to die a martyr. He rejoiced in the testimony of his conscience.
We are weak and yet often rely on our strength. We fail to give ourselves wholly to God and to ask for his grace. When we decide to turn to God wholly everything begins to change. The ice becomes a flowing stream. God blows with his wind and waters flow.
“So is it when God prevails on a heart to open itself to Him, and admit Him wholly” writes Newman. Man really gives himself up to God, “when he gets himself honestly to say, “I sacrifice to Thee this cherished wish, this lust, this weakness, this scheme, this opinion: make me what Thou wouldest have me; I bargain for nothing; I make no terms; I seek for no previous information whither Thou art taking me; I will be what Thou wilt make me, and all that Thou wilt make me…” Then we have peace in our conscience.
As we approach the Child in the crib, let us tell Him with the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph that we wish to love him with simplicity and sincerity of heart, serving Him with a perfect heart.