By Fr Jason Smith
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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