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?
In our first post we covered the “why” and an introduction to the “how” of a daily examination of conscience. This post will help you with the practical steps you need to achieve the benefits of the blessings available in this practice.
To begin, make the sign of the cross and remind yourself that you are in the presence of God, your Father, who loves you with a personal, determined, and everlasting love. Then ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten you, so that you can know yourself better so as to be able to give yourself better to God. You can do this in your own words, or use a prayer like this one:
O Holy Spirit come in Thy mercy;
enlighten my mind and strengthen my will
that I may know my sins,
humbly confess them,
and sincerely amend my life.
The middle of the examination of conscience consists in serenely, prayerfully looking over your day. It’s like taking a helicopter flight back over the ground you covered on foot. You want to keep an eye out for two things especially: moments of victory and moments of failure.
Victories are moments when God’s grace triumphed in your behavior (you didn’t lose your patience in a situation where you usually do, for example), or when his grace embraced and enfolded you in a special way (he gave you an intimate awareness of his goodness while you did your morning meditation, for example). When you find these victories, smile at them, enjoy them, and thank God for them.
Failures are the contrary: moments when you cut yourself off from God’s grace, willfully or simply through weakness and distraction; moments when you did not image God’s goodness in your thoughts, words, and behavior; moments when you sinned by commission or omission. As you spot these failures, you should allow yourself to “mourn” them (“blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted” Mt 5:4), but never give quarter to discouragement. Instead, always turn discouragement into humility. Don’t think: “I am such a selfish wreck; I am not making any progress.” Instead, pray: “You see, Lord, how weak I am, and how much I need your grace!”
As you look for victories and failures, it helps to keep a special eye out for the points that are included in your program of life. In this way, you will become more familiar with the manifestations of your root sin, and this will enable you (gradually) to respond more quickly and virtuously to difficult situations and temptations.
At the same time, however, you have to allow yourself to dig beneath the surface. When you spot a victory or a failure, ask yourself, “Why?” Why did you lose your patience again, when you really didn’t want to? Why did your meditation this morning go so much better than usual?… As we reflect on the causes of our behavior, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our self-knowledge increases significantly.
You always want to conclude the examination of conscience with two things:
1. A renewal of your commitment to try and follow Christ faithfully tomorrow. This can be a general renewal, or you can formulate some kind of a specific resolution, e.g., “Lord, tomorrow, with your help, I don’t want to gossip during our lunch party, so please help me to change the subject when it starts, or at least give me the strength to walk away.”
2. An act of contrition telling God you are sorry for your sins. This doesn’t have to be a formal act of contrition (you can use your own words), but sometimes it helps to use a simple formula. For example, you can use the act of contrition utilized at the end of confession, or the “I confess to almighty God…” prayer we utilize at the beginning of Mass.
This may seem like an incredibly complicated way to spend five minutes. But in reality it isn’t. You will find your own rhythm, and the Holy Spirit will help you. The important thing is to make this examination of conscience a staple of your daily diet. If you find it hard at first because your mind is racing, you may want to try doing it in writing: a) write down two specific things you are thanking for from the day; b) write down one thing about your behavior from the day that you would change if you could go back in time; c) write down a petition for the grace to follow Christ faithfully tomorrow.