I remember giving a talk to a joint meeting of the Institute of Criminology and the Faculty of Theology at Cambridge University held at Trinity Hall where I got into difficulty talking about ‘conscience’.

I was thinking about this today, partly because next month I have to give a similar talk (to a very different audience) on people in prison and their practice of the spiritual life (principally through meditation and yoga); and, partly in relation to the outbreak of lawlessness occasioned by last week’s rioting (where conscience could be said to be absent either pathologically not present or held in temporary abeyance).

I got into difficulty because the working assumption of my sophisticated audience at Cambridge (including the chairman, the distinguished sociologist, Tim Jenkins) was that ‘conscience’ was a social construct, developed (or not) in response to different people’s patterns of socialisation. Meanwhile, my understanding was that of the desert fathers and mothers of the early church that it was a faculty of the soul, that obscured by sin, had to be cultivated in the practice of self-scrutiny, stillness and the cultivation of agape/compassion.

It was a fascinating experience, finding myself a neo-Platonist in an audience of post-modernists and I am afraid I stumbled.

I should have said that whereas I recognised that the operation of conscience is affected (either amplified or distorted) by upbringing (and that is a rich and complex story in itself: the development of empathy) if you paid close attention to the phenomenology of how conscience arose as a result of the practice of meditation, the best explanation was to see conscience as constitutive of human nature, rather than constructed. Time and again people find that as ‘space in mind’ develops, they gain an enhanced ability to navigate their lives, and recognise that they are being held captive to a distorting pattern of vices. These they could now see arise as thoughts before they act them out and thus have a renewed opportunity to make meaningful choices. These choices too are more deeply grounded in a developing empathy with and compassion for others. Whereas before they were captured by their thoughts, with no space between thought and action, now their stillness allows thought to detach from emotional reaction and a space for choice enters. Likewise you begin to see yourself as the occupant of a shared field of being with others, rather than a separate entity, isolated within a fragile skin.

Our recognition of the difficulty of doing this fully grows as our stillness and scrutiny deepen, and space widens. Hence, as you grow in spirit, you deepen in repentance. Your ability to miss the mark of your being, the fullness of your possibility is brought home to you.

Recognition of sinfulness is a mark of holiness.

With regard to the riots, there is much to be said for methods of restoring order, and indeed of cultivating a socialisation around the virtues but a true transformation can only arise if people have the interior space from which genuine empathy and choice can arise, and in which it can be anchored.

This is a challenging space to develop but it is a necessary one.

As a coda, I had one participant in Cambridge get very hot under his collar at my suggesting that we could compare people in prison, 'criminals,' with the saints of the early Church. This outburst I thought quite extraordinary - first because more than one desert fathers began their lives out of biographies that were criminal and second because as you become a saint you become ever more aware of your compromised humanity and thus your compassionate identification with all beings, most especially criminals. It is only Christians who imagine that saints are not one us and we, as Christians, are not one of them - criminals or perverts or party-goers or take your pick - that seem to have a difficulty with the shared sinfulness of us all.


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