I have long loved the stories in the first book of Kings dealing with the prophet Elijah. His name tells us all we need to know about him. "Elijah" is the Anglicization of the Hebrew Eliyahu, which means, "Yahweh is God."
People can be named from what they worship, what they hold to be of highest value. Thus, someone who values her work above all is a "company woman;" one who prizes his family above all is a "family man;" someone who seeks pleasure as his highest good is a "good-time Charlie," etc.
Elijah is a Yahweh man, for he worships the God of Israel. With this, we know all we need to know about how he thinks and acts. Because he is a Yahweh man, he stands athwart the idolatry of King Ahab; because he is a Yahweh man, he is forced to flee the persecution of Queen Jezebel; because he is a Yahweh man, he seeks refuge on Horeb, the mountain of God.
While sojourning on Horeb, he hears that the Lord will pass by. A mighty wind, an earthquake and a devouring fire ensue, but the Lord, he knows, is not in those events. Then he hears "a tiny, whispering sound," and he knows the true God is about to speak.
Listen for God's whisper.
What is this barely noticeable sound which Elijah finds infinitely compelling? It is, I submit, the voice of the conscience, that instinct of the heart by which we determine the difference between right and wrong.
John Henry Newman referred to the conscience as "the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul." Newman held, of course, that the pope is the legitimate vicar of Christ on earth. Yet he thought that the conscience is a more fundamental, a more interior representative of Christ.
Today we are all too willing to write off conscience as the internalized voice of our fathers, as the inherited prejudices of our society, or as the bitter fruit of irrational repressions and hang-ups. Nevertheless, try as we might to dismiss it, the conscience quietly but firmly asserts its authority. It rewards us when we do something morally praiseworthy and sharply punishes us when we do something immoral.
A comparison might enable us to see the distinctive profile of the conscience more clearly. When I compose a column, I usually have a sense, born of many years of experience, whether the piece is relatively good or relatively weak. My writer's sensibility either "rewards" me or "punishes" me for my effort.
If I have written a less than stellar article, I might feel disappointed, and I might feel obliged to improve what I've composed. But my writer's sense never makes me feel ashamed of what I've written. However, the conscience, which accuses me of immoral behaviour, produces precisely this sense of shame, the kind of feeling I have when I have hurt someone that I love. Concomitantly, when I perform an act of great generosity, forgiveness or compassion, my conscience gives me a feeling of satisfaction.
This is because the conscience is much more than a sensibility or a criterion of judgment; it is the representative in us of Someone we love. This is why, Newman concluded, we rightly refer to the voice of the conscience, though we wouldn't refer to our aesthetic sensibility as a voice.
It is the voice of Someone who is himself the final criterion of right and wrong and who is capable of probing the human heart in its deepest interiority: "Lord, you search me and you know me; you know my resting and my rising. You discern my purpose from afar. Before ever a word is on my lips, you know it, Lord, through and through" (Psalm 139).
In our culture, we have been strictly trained to notice and deplore neurotic guilt, but we are often slow to appreciate the appropriate guilt which is the fruit of a robust conscience. The sense of moral desolation should not be automatically covered up, denied or medicated, for it can be tantamount to a keenly felt experience of God.
Elijah could hear the tiny, whispering sound of God's voice, even amidst the clamour of so many competing sounds, precisely because he was a man of Yahweh. His heart and mind and feelings were attuned, above all, to God.
As has always been the case, people today (especially young people) hear myriad voices promising joy, peace, success, fulfillment. Sex, pleasure, ambition, political power, wealth - they all have avatars who shout in the public arena.
However, the only voice that matters is the tiny, whispering sound of conscience. You will hear it clearly if you become another Elijah, another man or woman of God.
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He is the creator and host of a new 10-episode documentary series called Catholicism and also hosts programs on Relevant Radio, EWTN and at www.WordOnFire.org.)