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.
Used with permission from Inter Mirifica.
Dom Scupoli on Identification of our Predominant Passion
and the Pursuit of the Opposing Virtue
(from The Spiritual Combat)
- If you desire to attain solid virtue and complete mastery over self, dividing the exercise of different virtues so as to assign particular virtues to particular days is to be avoided, resulting as it does in a state of perpetual vicissitude. The method that should be adopted seeks to root out the most predominant passions, striving the while to cultivate to an eminent degree the contrary virtue. For being once possessed of so essential a virtue, the rest may be acquired with less difficulty, as but few acts will be required for that end. And indeed so integral is the connection of one virtue with another, that whoever possesses one in its entirety, possesses all.
You must never set a definite time for the acquisition of any one virtue, specifying so many days, weeks, or years; rather like a vigorous soldier combating an unseen enemy, you must fight without ceasing until by a complete victory, the way to perfection is won. Every moment should be an advance on the way to Heaven, and everyone who stops, rather than gaining breath and rest, loses both ground and courage. The advice to advance continually is meant to safeguard you from imagining you have reached the height of perfection, to encourage you to seize every opportunity to exercise new acts of virtue, and to preserve to the highest degree, a horror for sin.
In order that this may be accomplished, every duty must be performed with the greatest fervor and exactness, and you must on all occasions be habituated to the practice of every virtue. Embrace, therefore, any opportunity of advancing towards perfection and sanctity, especially such as are difficult; for such efforts are most effective in forming virtuous habits in the soul within a short time. And love those who furnish you with such opportunities, exercising caution at the same time as regards that which may be in the least prejudicial to chastity.
- Considerable prudence and moderation are to be practiced in regard to the exercise of certain virtue which may prove deleterious to health. Such are severe discipline, hair shirts, fasting, long meditations and similar indiscreet penitential works. Rather than to be pursued too eagerly, the practice of exterior virtues must be a step by step process. On the other hand, the interior virtues such as the love of God, a hatred of the world, self-contempt, contrition for sin, mildness and patience, charity for enemies, know no bounds and should be practiced in the most eminent degree.
- Let the culmination of all your plans and endeavors be the submission of the passion with which you are engaged, regarding such a victory as of the greatest consequence to you and the most acceptable to God. Eating or fasting, working or resting, at home or abroad, contemplative or active, let your aim be the conquest of that predominant passion and the acquisition of the contrary virtue.
Shun the luxuries and pleasures of life and the attacks of vice will be enfeebled, their force being drawn from the love of pleasure. But if you indulge in one sensual satisfaction while shunning another, if your war is against but one vice, be assured that although your wounds may not be grievous, the encounter will be sharp and the victory doubtful.
Keep, therefore, the words of Holy Scripture before your eyes: “He who loves his life, loses it; and he who hates his life in this world, keeps it unto life everlasting” [John 12, 25]. “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, that we should live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live” [Rom. 8, 12].
- I conclude with a parting admonition to make what, if not necessary, is most salutary, viz., a general confession, with the requisite dispositions, that you may secure a perfect reconciliation with God, the Source of all graces, the Giver of victories, and the Dispenser of crowns.