Arts and Culture

The Direction of Life

Fifth and last in a series

THIS SERIES OF columns that I have been writing about the mystery of human freedom has led me in many directions in relation to my own self-knowledge and also in my appreciation of other people’s self-knowledge. What has emerged from all this reflection for me is new awareness of how mysterious we humans we are both to ourselves and to others and how freedom is at the center of that mystery.

In his book “Should Anyone Say Forever,” Father John C. Haughey, S.J. refers to a book by Rollo May, “Love and Will,” that had a profound influence on me when I read it many years ago. Father Haughey comments about May’s insights, especially in relation to deepening our understanding of freedom. Commenting on May’s psychological insight, Father Haughey wrote:

“This notion, which is called ‘intentionality,’ has been developed, at some length by Rollo May … According to May, the intentionality of our being underlines all of our intentions. It is prior to and undergirds all of our decisions. One’s intentionality is the direction one is going in. It is one’s response to the structure of one’s world. It determines the experiences we have, and to some extent, gives them the meaning we tend to impose upon them … May sees intentionality more in terms of the tendency of a person’s life rather than that which is explicitly volitional in a person’s life. That fact does not lessen the person’s responsibility to bring to fuller consciousness, insofar as that is possible, his or her intentionality.”

Both a person’s intentionality and primordial commitment reveal the depth of a human person and the importance of freedom in charting one’s life and in directing one’s self toward what seems important and of value. Reflecting on intentionality and primordial commitment, I thought of the experience that Catholics should have in preparing for the sacrament of reconciliation. I am certainly not encouraging any kind of scrupulosity, but I am encouraging an honest and in-depth examination of conscience before celebrating the sacrament.

Scrupulosity is an anxiety neurosis in which a person thinks of all sorts of completely innocent acts as sinful. Often scrupulosity focuses on sex. When I was a student in the seminary more than 50 years ago, many students suffered from scrupulosity. Some suffered from the neurosis for a day, some for a month, some for years, some, perhaps so severely, that they could not be ordained. I suspect a similar phenomenon existed with young ladies in various novitiates. The neurosis, which was once called “the Catholic disease,” seems to have largely disappeared from most Catholic consciences.

What I am imagining as a better experience of examining a conscience is to look not only at seemingly isolated, unrelated faults, but also virtues and the general direction a person’s life is taking through free choices. I am imagining a person, as far as possible, looking at his or her relationship with God. I think such an examination might be freeing and might have a beneficial effect on an individual’s conscience. I think of a conscience as the habitual way that a human consciousness judges in moral matters. Many realities influence a person’s conscience: parents, siblings, friends, schools attended, films and television viewed, books read and many other factors.

Because a conscience is a habit, it does not change easily. Celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation is one way that a conscience can be challenged. When I was a young priest, five of us heard confessions every Saturday for four and a half hours. That’s a total of over 20 hours of confessions every Saturday. Today that number has changed dramatically. Has the habit of a serious examination of conscience disappeared along with long confession lines?

In writing these five columns about the mystery of human freedom, the marvelous mystery that God has given us along with our existence as persons, I have intended to encourage awe and wonder at God’s love for us, a love that we will never comprehend completely. Because we are free, we can say “yes” to God’s self gift and offer ourselves back to God. St. John of the Cross expressed our destiny perfectly: ”In the evening of our lives we will be judged on how we have loved.”


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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