The Awakening Conscience 22

By Fr Jason Smith

The Awakening Conscience

We ache because we are not full.

In The Awakening Conscience William Holman Hunt places his finger—or brush, better said, on the ache found deep within every person: We either have God who alone can fill us, or we will endlessly try to pursue the things that cannot do so.

By most standards today, the woman in Hunt’s painting should be blissfully happy, if wealth, prestige, social status, gourmet eating, sexual encounters, and the like, indeed left one filled.

Take luxury, for example. Everything in her home is new if not gaudy: The wallpaper, the chair, the bright colors, the carpet, and the piano; still, the cat, hidden under the table, with a  trapped bird under its paw, is a vivid analogy that she herself has been trapped in a web of riches and falsity, leaving her feeling miserable inside.

Even more to our point is the man who is the source of her corruption. It would seem that at this moment her bliss would be full. She is with her wealthy lover and enabler; they were just singing while cuddled together; she is in a state of undress, hinting at the physical intimacy still to come; yet the absence of a ring on her wedding finger points to her being a kept woman, and the man’s impeding arm hints it might not be easy for her to break free.

Yet the painting brings hope. She springs forward looking towards the light outside, a light that represents her conscience, her freedom, her dignity, and perhaps representing the inner light of Jesus’ lantern, from Hunt’s earlier painting, Christ the Light of the World; Jesus, all along, has been knocking at the door of her heart.

By grace, she has suddenly grasped that she is made for a beauty and pleasure that is far greater, and she jumps up towards the prospect of achieving it. The freedom and deliverance on her face says it all. Paradoxically, the man and the riches–the very sources of her emptiness–became the vehicles that awakened her conscience and helped her see the light.

Now that gives all of us reason for hope, doesn’t it?

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776

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22 comments

  1. What an excellent post! And truly our hearts are restless, empty, until they find peace and sustenance in the Bread of Life. God bless!

    • An excellent connection you make in the relationship between having a pure, clear, and attentive conscience and receiving the Sacrament worthily. Thanks Ivan and God bless!

    • Apparently, Holman Hunt intended for there to be a connection between this paining and his earlier one, Light of the World. The contrast between the two paintings is striking when considered in that way. It is reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, where Christ and his austere disciple arouse Saint Matthew from his opulent setting. In both cases, Christ calls to leave the luxurious life behind for a humbler, fuller, “richer” and more peaceful life. Of course, we need to understand peace as Christ gives it; not as the world gives it. In Christ, there is happiness and hope. Thank you for your comment 8-Kids and God bless!

  2. I loved this, Biltrix! I went and looked at the painting in my reader to get it larger and I loved her face! To me her face said it all. Thanks for doing this and God Bless, SR

  3. Good words to go with a painting that would look much better if she were playing at the piano – alone! Too bad there is not a follow up painting as I love the colorful surroundings.

    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Thanks, Wendy. I suppose the artist wanted to depict the reality of the “near occasion of sin.” Apparently that boundary was already breached, but it seems that the conscience was awakened at a moment when things could have gotten worse. You are right, had she been playing the piano alone, it would have been more pure, but then it would have had a different title.

      God bless!

  4. Thank you for this post. Your interpretation of both paintings, especially the one in Behold………..is one of the most beautiful readings I have done in the last few months. Thank you.

  5. Hey, I really liked this post. It is so much easier for me to fully grasp concepts through a painting. I was unfamiliar with this one, so that made it doubly interesting to learn about something totally new. The story in the painting makes the words fresh again, and reaches me on many different levels–perhaps more influential than reading St. Augustine’s purely intellectual comment about our restless hearts . . .

    • I know what you mean. Art as a medium of culture and education can be a very effective way to evangelize. In many cases today, we really need to evangelize people’s consciences. They may not pick up heady books or persever through them. But with a paining you can capture their gaze and attention, and by speaking directly to the heart, leave a lasting impression.

  6. Thank you for all of your insightful comments. This painting helped me to see that the vanities of the world will never fill our hearts since they were meant to be filled, “by the utter fullness of God.” Eph 3:19. Our conscience awakens us to this truth about ourselves.

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