Not Recognising Ourselves in the Mirror

Wickedness is fearful, it beareth witness of its condemnation: for a troubled conscience always forecasteth grievous things.’ – Wisdom 17:10

There comes a time in everyone’s life where we catch glimpses of the true state of our life and our soul. It is reflected in the angst of modern popular music where singers describe not being able to recognise themselves in the mirror. For example, the popular Irish singer-songwriter Mick Flannery in his song, ‘Keepin’ Score’ sings, ‘I pass the mirror, and I look into my eyes, And I see a man there that I do not recognize’ and the popular English band ‘You Me at Six’ sing, ‘Just got the mirror on the way out, Don’t recognize myself anymore now’. (‘Fast Forward’). This experience is also reflected across mental health forums and groups where many people who are having psychological issues report this ‘not recognising oneself’ phenomenon. (A quick internet search using the term ‘I do not recognise myself’ reveals the extent of this angst in our current times). These moments can be full of agony and turmoil. Yet, these glimpses can give us insight into the path we are on. They are often wake up calls about the reality of our lives. They can be a manifestation of our conscience and often show us things that we would rather not see. Sometimes, they are not just glimpses, but clear illuminations of the state of our souls. They sometimes give us an insight into the state of our souls almost as clearly as the changing portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel (See footnote 1).

So, what do we do when we catch these glimpses of truth in our reflections? The immediate option might be to run from the image we have seen of ourselves or we may wish to hide away from it or cover it up. But eventually as Dorian Gray realises, this running and hiding from his true reflection only leads to his own demise. So, what can one do when one catches a glimpse of an unrecognisable figure in the mirror?

Yet, before we answer this question, we must acknowledge a simple and clear reality:

The Reality of Conscience:

In our world, multiple erroneous, pseudointellectual, and irrational theories have arisen to explain consciousness and conscience. To these questions about consciousness and conscience, one either receives illogical and irrational answers or theorists ignore these questions altogether and build their false theories about human beings on a foundation of sand. G K Chesterton points out, in his biography on ‘St Thomas Aquinas’, how a science about man that does not answer fundamental questions about man cannot be considered a science: ‘It is necessary to know whether [man] is responsible or irresponsible, perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal, doomed or free: not in order to understand God, but in order to understand man. Nothing that leaves these things under a cloud of religious doubt can possibly pretend to be a Science of Man…Has a man free will; or is his sense of choice an illusion? Has he a conscience, or has his conscience any authority; or is it only the prejudice of the tribal past? Is there any real hope of settling these things by human reason; and has that any authority?…Now it is all nonsense to say that these are unknowable in any remote sense, like the distinction between the Cherubim and the Seraphim, or the Procession of the Holy Ghost.  The Schoolmen [i.e. Scholastic Philosophers] may have shot too far beyond our limits in pursuing the Cherubim and Seraphim. But in asking whether a man can choose or whether a man will die, they were asking ordinary questions in natural history; like whether a cat can scratch or whether a dog can smell. Nothing calling itself a complete Science of Man can shirk them.’ (my emphasis). For hundreds of years, we have been immersed in sciences that have shirked these ordinary and vital questions about man or have explained conscience away as ‘prejudice of the tribal past’. Yet, a little investigation reveals that these questions have been decidedly answered already, especially by the ‘Schoolmen’, i.e. scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, e.g. St Thomas Aquinas, thus establishing a complete ‘Science of Man’. (See footnote 2)

The Importance of Conscience

If conscience is certain, leaves no doubt, and shows clearly what should be done, it must be followed. What it commands must be done; what it forbids must be omitted; what it allows may be done or omitted.’ – Professor Charles A. Dubray, ‘Introductory Philosophy’

Our conscience is an essential guide in our path towards true happiness and peace of soul. While it is not infallible and it is not always clear it is often a warning light that alerts us to the dangerous path we are on. Mostly one’s conscience produces occasional sharp glimpses of this lethal path we are on. For example, we are given brief moments when we catch ourselves in the mirror but we do not recognise the person we have become. At other times, it may be more powerful than this. The extent of one’s misery can become as clear as day and, when its commands are followed, rapid change can occur, as happened to Blessed Villana de Botti, whose early life was full of vice and vanity:  ‘One night Villana was preparing for an entertainment of unwonted splendour.  She was dressed with all the sumptuous extravagance of the times; jewels sparkled in her hair, on her arms, on her very shoes.  Before leaving her room, she went to cast one parting glance the mirror. But, instead of the dazzling image of her own beauty, a horrible spectacle met her eyes. God had permitted that the deformity of the soul within should become visible on the outward person. Her hair, bound with gold and jewelled chains, she beheld transformed into a mass of coiled and venomous serpents; her fair face was darkened into that of a hideous negro; her eyes were red and fiery, and, instead of her beautiful mouth and ivory teeth, there grinned the open jaws of a monster of hell.  Then Villana’s heart opened to know where and whence she had fallen. She tore the jewels from her hair and left her palace, not for the gay entertainment that awaited her, but for the neighbouring church of the Dominicans, where, flinging herself at the feet of a holy Friar, she made, amidst tears of contrition, the confession of her life.’ (‘Short Lives of the Dominican Saints’, ed. Fr John Proctor). At other times, one’s conscience is pricked by those who hold up mirrors to ourselves. For example, in the life of St John Bosco, it is related how a person tried to rob him. St. John Bosco humbly asked the thief why he would resort to such a thing knowing it was against his conscience. The thief, seeing the reality of the words that this great saint spoke, ceased his efforts and, instead of trying to rob St John Bosco, he asked him for confession. (‘St John Bosco: Seeker of Souls’ by F. A. Forbes). Our conscience is a useful guide and simply acknowledging its counsels and following them can be the best advice that can be given to a person. This is reflected in the words of advice of St. Bernard to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Listen to your conscience, examine your intentions, consider the facts.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux: As Seen Through His Selected Letters’, translated by Rev. Bruno Scott James).  But we must humbly ‘consider the facts’ so that there is no doubt in our conscience and it becomes clear what should be done. So, let us look at the facts explaining what a good conscience is so that we can safely listen to and follow it. First, we will look at the potential obstacles to the formation of a good conscience.

The Fallibility And Persistence of One’s Conscience:

Our conscience can err. What we occasionally catch glimpses of in the mirror may not be as hideous nor as beautiful as we believe it to be. We may see ourselves as more deplorable, helpless, and hopeless than we actually are or we may see ourselves as more beautiful, righteous, and noble than we actually are.  Many of us who seek the truth also desire to know the truth about ourselves. We want answers to the glimpses we see of ourselves. There is a sense that we have caught a glimpse of something within ourselves that may be true, but it has frightened, perplexed, or frozen us. Even hedonistic distractions and keeping ourselves constantly busy cannot shake the memory of what we saw. Like Dorian Gray we may try to hide these images away, but we cannot do so without them coming back to haunt us.

‘Escapism never succeeds. In every sinner whose frustrations and neuroses are due to a burdened conscience, there is a latent contradiction. He is pulled in two directions. He is not so much at ease with sin as to be able to make it his definite vocation, nor, on the other hand, is he so much in love with God, as to disavow his faults.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen, ‘Peace of Soul’

We can try out all sorts of medications to correct a supposed ‘chemical imbalance’ when it may very well be the voice of our conscience speaking to us. We can bounce from one type of therapy or treatment to another, yet that restlessness remains. We can try to justify our vices, but a part of us knows our justifications are mere excuses. Instead of pursuing the higher path and the virtuous life we often try to cover up our failings and pursue lower, more base pleasures. If one who is called to the religious life engages in this sort of behaviour it has all sorts of hideous consequences as Fr Eugene Boylan points out, ‘If [the religious] try to find peace in the pursuit of some lower pleasure, he soon finds that he must go to extremes to try to drown the prickings of his conscience and the pangs of that deep-seated hunger of his higher self that can find no food in such folly, and so his days are full of ever-growing misery.’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’) (This goes some way to explain why once priests fall into vice they can fall into such scandalous perversion). Now, all of us can engage in all sorts of depravity to sedate the conscience so much so that we can resemble the voice of lost souls who no longer even glimpse happiness, ‘Where is happiness?’ and his warped conscience answers, ‘There is no happiness.’ (Dom Anscar Vonier, ‘The Human Soul and its Relations with Other Spirits’). Yet, in this life, the voice of conscience remains, however dimly felt it might have become. There is still the sense that ‘I am not all that I should be’. The teachings of the Catholic Faith and the lives of the saints provide the external guides to what we should be. The voice of, a still sensitive, conscience provides some further internal guidance as to what we should and should not be. Yet, it is fallible so how do we know when to assent to the reality it hints at?

In order that conscience may be a safe rule and criterion, its judgements must be a reflex of the divine judgements. It must show us to ourselves such as we really are, and appear to the eyes of God Himself. It must be like a balance which corresponds to the recognised standard of weight; like a clock which marks faithfully the passing moments of time, like a thermometer which indicates accurately the degrees of heat and cold.’ – R. J. Meyer, S. J., ‘The Science of the Saints’

As I have related in other articles, if we need help in calibrating our conscience, we should seek counsel from wise authorities rather than just any authority. We must go to those who have expert knowledge on matters of conscience just as we would seek medical advice from those who have medical expertise. As Professor Dubray explains, ‘In the same way that, if I do not see, I may rely on, and be guided by, those who do, and that my eyes be treated by the oculist, and my errors corrected by others or by my own deeper study and reflection, so my moral judgement may be based on another man’s authority, changed, improved, and corrected.’ (‘Introductory Philosophy’). We must seek guidance from people who understand the truth about what man is and what man should be. We should avoid those who flatter or placate us with ‘sweet, little lies.’ We should make efforts to avoid deceiving our conscience by listening to vain babblings or sophisticated pseudo-intellectual arguments which justify our vices and sinful ways. Rather, with the help of God, we should look at ourselves in the mirror and tackle what we see there. We must ask God to give us the fortitude to see ourselves clearly. With Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, author of the classic book, ‘Divine Intimacy’, we can pray to God that He ‘take away from my conscience the mask of vain, pitiful excuses which prevents me from seeing myself as You see me and know me, as I really am in Your eyes.’ We, like Blessed Villana, must count it as a grace to see the truth about ourselves and, like her, we can respond to this grace in a humble and contrite manner (See footnote 3).

‘I endeavour to have always a conscience without offence towards God, and towards men.’ – St. Paul (Acts 24: 16)

When we seek counsel, we must be wary of who we trust with this difficult but essential task. As St Bernard advised his wayward nephew, ‘If sinners shall entice you, consent not to them. Believe not every spirit. Be at peace with many, but let one in a thousand be your counsellor. Gird yourself, cast off your seducers, shut your eyes to flatterers.’ Yet, there are those who can help us on our way to ‘a conscience without offence towards God, and towards men.’ There are those who will direct us towards the real solutions when we are faced with a confused, perplexed, or rattled conscience, i.e. when we do not recognise ourselves in the mirror. This can often take the form of a wise and loving friend or a pious and knowledgeable family member or a prudent and holy priest or you may find some assistance in the service that I offer here. Whoever it may be, may they help you on the straight and narrow path.

Finally, may you receive the grace to see yourself clearly in the mirror. May you succeed in your efforts to inform, understand, and follow your conscience and may charity, peace of soul and liberty of spirit be the fruits of these efforts.

God bless

Footnote 1: This piece (see here: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/art/the-long-conversion-of-oscar-wilde.html) by Andrew McCracken provides more information on Oscar Wilde’s novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, which he describes as a ‘portrayal of a sensitive man numbing himself to all feeling for others, of an ego turning monstrous, of a soul choosing evil.’  He shows the close relations between this novel and Wilde’s own life, which appears to have ended in a much happier way than the main character in his novel.

Footnote 2: For further insight into the scholastic understandings about conscience and for a more detailed analysis of conscience, see: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04268a.htm

Footnote 3: Like Blessed Villana, and despite of the difficult times we find ourselves in, may we follow this grace that reveals the truth about the state of our soul and seek out the Sacrament of Confession/Penance. ‘Penance, as a virtue and as a Sacrament, has for is object and effect the blotting out of our faults, the eradication of sin, and the purifying of the conscience, so that grace may reign and bring forth fruit in the soul from the pure motive of pleasing God.’ (Fr Genelli, ‘The Life of St Ignatius of Loyola’) (My emphasis)