I recently read a book by Australian author Geraldine Brooks, and as any good book does, it got me thinking. A historical novel, it recounts the story of King David, with the author’s research and imagination putting flesh on the biblical account in the Second Book of Samuel.
David, a shepherd boy, the youngest of ten sons, is plucked from his fields, and anointed as successor to the then ruling king of Israel. On the death of .Saul David is catapulted into a life of luxury and power. He becomes a powerful ruler, a great army general, a poet and a musician. It was said his singing voice had a timbre unlike any other.
Luckily for David, he has a mentor, an advisor, the prophet Nathan. Unlike the flatterers and toadies who surround the throne, Nathan speaks the truth to David. He tells him when he is acting incorrectly, sinfully, where is going astray. He can do this precisely because he is a prophet. David trusts Nathan and on the whole listens to his advice.
In a sense, Nathan is the embodiment of the King’s conscience, his own inner voice. He lives in a hut near the palace, so he is always near at hand, he can approach the King even when not summoned.
We have all heard the story of David’s infatuation with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s generals; how he saw her on her roof nearby, sent for her, seduced her;cf he saw her bathing on the roof… worse, he then ordered .another general, to send Uriah into the front line of battle, where he will be sure to be killed, which in fact he was. ‘Station Uriah in the thick of the fight and then fall back behind him, so that he may be struck down and die.’ Nathan comes to the king and confronts him with his sin. David replies, I have sinned against Yahweh. And Nathan replies, Yahweh forgives. But then he outlines the retribution that David must undergo…….
I said to myself on reading all this, I could do with a Nathan, someone to bring me into line, to point out my deceits, my selfishness, my lack of compassion.
But then, I don’t really need him, because I have an inbuilt Nathan, the voice within, the voice of conscience ……. – No, don’t do that; you should have acted more kindly towards that person…..and so the voice goes on, continually reminding me, nudging me towards the better path. I was taught in Primary school that the voice of conscience is the voice of God. Perhaps it is, or maybe it is the inevitable product of our evolutionary path. Who can say? Whatever its origin, we all have that voice, and if we don’t obey it there are consequences – guilt, mental anguish, even physical manifestations. As well as consequences, there must be atonement. If I have harmed someone I have to apologise. Then I have to make amends, not always possible, the harm done may be irreversible, but I have do what I can. It is not enough for our governments to say Sorry to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, though that is a start. In every area, social, economic etc, , as a nation we have to make just recompense.
The voice of conscience seems to be built into our human condition, but, like other attributes it has to be nurtured, maintained, protected, so that it will be a faithful servant. Parents play an essential in the formation of the conscience of children…. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, be kind to that child, and so on. An aberration of this is Isis people training young boys to kill, destroying their inbuilt respect for life. Then there is the voice of our education, the voice of the Church, cultural mores. Moral theologians have given us countless categories of sins, countless possible temptations ready to ensnare us – mortal sins, venial sins, sins of commission, sins of omission, and so on. When I was in primary school we were warned by a teacher not to look at bad pictures. No one told us what a bad picture really was, perhaps they didn’t know themselves. But the possibility of inadvertently looking at a bad picture gave me considerable anguish.
What we need is a well-formed, moderate conscience. We say of someone – he/she has no conscience. Their awareness has become blunted. We need look no further than our government’s attitude to refugees….At the other end of the spectrum there are the over-scrupulous. I have a friend who is constantly anxious lest the slightest decision – even though not of a moral nature – will incur God’s wrath. She has. A warped conscience…
DH Lawrence in his poem “Snake” writes
A snake came to my water trough
and I in pyjamas for the heat
to drink there. He goes on
The voice of my education said, he must be killed
But must I confess how I liked him?
The snake, like the one in the Garden of Eden, is a symbol of temptation, In this poem a debate is going on between the poet’s ego and his Voice, his conscience voice. We’re all familiar with this kind of debate- between what we should do and what we want to do. Sometimes one wins , sometimes the other.
What we want is a conscience governed not by fear – fear of guilt, fear of detection – but one governed by love, which chooses goodness, justice, uprightness, compassion, for their own sake.. As St John writes in his first Epistle – . Perfect love drives out fear
A poem of Rumi describes this state of being
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing
there is a field I’ll meet you there
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense
This field is , of course, the field of love, in whose grass we may lie down. . In that field we will have gone beyond wrongdoing and right doing. We may not yet have arrived in that field, we may never arrive there, but to be on the Way is surely a wonderful thing. This is the same field which St Paul describes in his letter to the Romans-But you do not live as your human nature tells you to; instead, you live as the Spirit tells you to- if, in fact, God’s spirit lives in you
Paul is here not referring to our glorious humanity , which we have inherited from our ancestors, but the inflated ego, which seeks its own satisfaction wherever it can.
The title of the book by Geraldine Brooks is ‘The Secret Chord’. The story of King David has been given a modern interpretation in Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah’
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
that David played, it pleased the lord,
but you don’t really care for music, do you
It goes like this, the fourth the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing –Hallelujah!