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Examen of Conscience
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The examination of conscience is an essential part of the spiritual life. All intelligent people make a periodic self-assessment. Our purpose here is to speak of the daily examen of conscience which is recommended by all the writers of the spiritual life.
For most people, the examination of conscience is part of their preparation for their reception of the Sacrament of Penance. However, our focus here is rather on what we technically call the examen of conscience. This is a daily prayerful reflection on our service of God. There are two basic examens of conscience. One is called the general examen and the other the particular examen.
The general examen, as the name implies, is a general overview of my moral behavior during the past day. We must assume that our conduct has been both praiseworthy and blameworthy. We should also look forward to the next day and prepare ourselves beforehand on how we should do God's will in the immediate future that awaits us.
Consequently, it is wise to distinguish three areas of prayerful reflection for the daily general examen of conscience.
In the presence of God, I should reflect on what blessings the Lord has given me during the past day for which I gratefully thank Him. These blessings may not all have been pleasant. As a matter of fact some may have been painful. No matter. God manifests His will to us, urging us to do what we enjoy. Those we may call pleasant graces.
But God will also ask us to do what we may dislike or refrain from doing something we may like. That is immaterial. The only question is, do I do as God wants me to do or give up something He wants me to give up? Once I know what God wants of me in my life, I decide to do it with my mind and choose to do it with my will.
The first part of the general examen of conscience, therefore, is to thank our Lord for the graces He has given me, whether pleasant or painful, with which I have faithfully cooperated. For this I thank Him.
Next, again in God's presence, I should ask myself where I have failed to cooperate with the grace that God has given me during the day. Most of us have a pattern in our moral behavior. I may have failed in the practice of humility, or prudence, or charity, or patience, and so on down the list of our human weaknesses. Simply assume that you had failed in some way or another in responding to the will of God in your life. Be concrete and specific.
Briefly recall the circumstances which occasioned your moral failure. And then do the obvious thing of asking our Lord to forgive you and give you the strength not only to avoid this sin in the future but enable you to be more generous in His service as an expiation for your past failure.
Finally, plan for the future. Sacred Scripture could not be plainer. The just man anticipates what he will do and is not caught unaware of what God expects of him. This part of the general examen is indispensable in the spiritual life.
It means that I look forward to what I am to do, and avoid doing, in the next day. It further means that I ask myself, in God's presence, how I should do what my conscience tells me is God's will. It even means that I anticipate how much time I will spend, say in conversation with someone, or on a particular task that lies ahead of me. Clearly this calls for both prudence and prayer.
I must foresee what God expects of me and plan on how I am to fulfill this expectation. But it also, and especially, means that I pray for the light to know what I am to do and how to do it, and for the strength of will which only God can provide to do His will effectively.
A standard dictionary definition of agenda is "a list, outline, or plan of things to be considered or done." For the believing Christian, agenda are the things that God wants me to do.
Our natural tendency is to do first the things that we like, and then the things that are useful, and finally the things that are necessary. We need Divine help to reverse this natural process. That is why the third purpose of the general examen of conscience is absolutely crucial if we wish to grow in holiness. I must daily anticipate God's will for my next day and ask Him for the grace I will need to do His will instead of following my own.
One brief suggestion. It is a good idea to jot down, however briefly, what I foresee the Lord expects me to do in the next day.
The particular examen of conscience follows logically on the general examen. All of us have certain tendencies across the whole spectrum of moral misbehavior. Yet no two of us are identical in which of these tendencies is predominant.
Some are more prone to pride than to lust. Some are more prone to anger than to greed. Some are more prone to envy than to sloth. In fact, each one of us changes from time to time in what failure of our moral conduct is dominant, depending on the circumstances and persons who enter our lives.
The particular examen concentrates on coping with the predominant moral weakness of our own personality.
St. Ignatius of Loyola is so commonly associated with the particular examen that some have mistakenly supposed he invented the practice. He did not. He reduced it to a methodical form, and made it essential to the Spiritual Exercises. The retreat movement so spread throughout the world that the particular examen became the stock-in-trade of modern asceticism.
Already in ancient times the Greek philosopher Pythagoras obliged his disciples twice daily, morning and evening, to answer three questions: What have I done? How have I done it? What have I failed to do? Among the Christian Fathers, St. Basil promised the early monks, "You will certainly grow in virtue if you make a daily account of your actions and compare them with the previous day."
The wisdom of the particular examen lies deeper than the old maxim, "Divide et impera" ... "Divide and Conquer." Evidently we have a better chance to master our tendencies if we take them one at a time and concentrate our efforts on the one weakness that now predominates in our lives. Centuries of moral wisdom has shown it is better to do this than scatter our energy of will over the whole field of our passions.
St. Francis de Sales as a young man was given to melancholy, which sometimes bordered on despair. He specialized in overcoming despondency to the point where he became the modern apostle of joyous confidence in God.
It is impossible to exaggerate the value of the examen of conscience in the spiritual life. It is the foundation of a life of prayer. It is the prayer of humility, in which we admit our ignorance and weakness. We beg our Lord to supply for the needs that we have in this life in order to reach Him in that everlasting life for which we were made.
Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.
Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica
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