Dear Father John, My spiritual director is recommending that I practice a daily “examination of conscience.” I thought this was just for religious, etc. Can you help me understand more about this, how it should be done, and why?
This is a critical issue for deepening your friendship with Christ. Critical. Hands down, this spiritual discipline (the daily examination of conscience) is a central plank in the platform leading to progress in spiritual maturity, for both religious and laity. Thank you for asking the question!
Before getting into the how and why, though, rest assured that you are probably more familiar with the concept than you think. Every time we go to confession, we prepare for the sacrament by doing an examination of conscience. That’s how we identify our sins and failings, so that we can confess them. So don’t think you are starting from scratch when it comes to making this practice part of your daily spiritual program.
First, the “why.” The daily examination of conscience helps remove something that all spiritual writers agree is one of the most common obstacles to substantial growth in holiness (which includes basic human maturity): the lack of self-knowledge. This is so obvious that it is often overlooked. If you want to get to San Francisco, you can’t plot an intelligent route unless you know where you are starting from, where you are right now. If you want to win an Olympic gold medal, you have to built on your strengths, which comes naturally, but you also have to correct, shore up, and improve on your weak points. And you can’t do that if you don’t know what those are, or if you refuse to look at them squarely and honestly.
When it comes to deepening our relationship with God, those natural and obvious reasons for knowing ourselves thoroughly and sincerely are bolstered with a supernatural reason. The life of a Christian is built upon the foundation of grace, of God’s action in our lives. We will only build on that foundation if we truly understand how little we can do to overcome our selfish tendencies and grow in Christ-like love (the heart of holiness and happiness). And we can understand and accept the immensity of our need for God’s grace and mercy only insofar as we come to grips with the immensity of our weakness and misery, which requires authentic, systematic self-knowledge.
Now we can move on to the “how.” The daily examination of conscience is like a mini-meditation. You need to set aside five minutes (start with five, anyway; later you may want to increase it to ten, but five is plenty) towards the end of the day. Religious will do it during compline, the last hour of the divine office (the liturgy of the hours), usually prayed right before going to bed. But St. Francis de Sales recommends that busy lay people try to squeeze it in before the evening meal, simply because tiredness can be such an impediment later at night. If you happen to be the person who prepares the evening meal, you may want to make a deal with the rest of the family by which they clean up the evening meal, while you sneak off for five minutes and do your conscience examen.
What happens during these five minutes can vary in particulars, but the essence is always the same: prayer reflection on how God has acted in your life throughout the day, and on how you have been responding. There are three parts to this prayer reflection: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In our next post on this topic, we will cover the basic “how-to” steps.