How to Make Your Examination of Conscience (With Illustrations!)
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In recent years, some have noted a widespread crisis in the Church regarding the practice of the examination of conscience. On the one hand, for many it has become a legalistic examination (basically putting oneself in the courtroom), done exclusively within the context of confession, which can produce side effects such as scrupulosity, depression and discouragement — in some cases even approaching pathological anxiety. On the other hand, in reaction, others have shifted towards a more secularized psychology, drained of the spiritual altogether. Exercises of self-observation aimed at achieving “mental hygiene” (whereby, basically, what’s important is that I feel good about myself) have replaced the more traditional and holistic practices.
So, what’s the problem? Very simple: in each of the errors above, the focus of my examination of conscience is me, when, properly understood, it ought to be God & me.
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First, I would like to present a few key ideas to help understand the proper theological and spiritual context for the examination of conscience. I want to set the stage properly before we put the actors to work! For all of you pragmatists out there, be patient… we will get to the “How-To?” soon enough.
Bring memory back!
In our age, memory has been given the short end of the stick. There’s an app for that, right? Memory has been reduced to data storage. Memory is like an extra piece that attaches to our motherboard. It’s useful but it doesn’t affect our daily life (our operating system). The first thing we need to do, then, is keep in mind that when I remember an event in my life, I am not just recalling information; rather, in a sense, I am re-living the past.
The word memory comes from the Latin verb, re-memor. ‘Re’ expresses intensive force, while ‘memor’ refers to the mind or heart. So, we can say that to remember is to reinsert something back into the heart. Evidently, our model here is Mary; she knew how to “keep all things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51)
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Take a peek at this video. A young wife, fighting to save her marriage, takes her husband to the places where they first fell in love, as if to echo the Book of Revelation, “You have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Rev 2.4). What follows? “Remember then from what you have fallen.”
Death to Moralism
The next question is, “What are we going to remember?¨ Many consider the examination of conscience a tool that helps us to call to mind (i.e., to remember) our sins and failings during a period of quiet reflection before approaching the priest in Confession. This is true. The examination of conscience is that, but if it is only that then we are setting ourselves up for some serious spiritual setbacks.
Benedict XVI put it perfectly when he said this:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1).
Moralism is when you act because of a rule, not because of someone. It’s ethics with Alzheimer’s; the old man buys flowers, but only because it’s his habit … he has forgotten the face of his beloved. Who wants to open up the bible to Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments) while skipping all the good stuff that happened in the previous 19 chapters (God freeing his people from slavery)?
Long live the love story!
The heart of our faith is our relationship with God. Relationships depend upon encounters. Making a Sherlock Holmes-style deduction, we can conclude that what we need to be remembering above all are encounters, more specifically, our encounters with God.
Now to prove that I am not the one making this up: What else is the bible except a series of encounters between God and man? In fact, I would say that our faith is largely a memory of God’s activity. Exodus is chock-full of amazing ones! His chosen people beaten and battered, God steps in and saves the damsel (Israel) in distress. The campy fireworks celebrations of “Independence Day” are nothing compared to the song of praise that we find in Exodus 15:
“I will sing to the Lord … Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea… In your steadfast love, you led the people whom you redeemed…”
Only after unequivocally proving his merciful love for his people does God reveal to them the law which will lead them to a more authentic relationship with Him. This means that every examination of conscience should start with a joyful song that recalls the great deeds of God’s merciful love in our history, be it years ago or this morning at breakfast.
It’s Time to Restructure the Foundations
Whether we are aware of it or not, our day-to-day life is hugely affected by what we remember. Let’s take an example: things at home are not going too well and while you are out doing a few errands, you receive a message that really ticks you off. Furious, you are heading back to the house but, on the way, soon find yourself in a cosmic-sized traffic jam. You are stuck there for about 25 minutes, fuming. “Great,” you say, “just what I need!”
Now, in a moment of difficulty or suffering it is extremely difficult to recognize anything positive, much less God’s presence. But later that day, while you are you doing your examination of conscience, you realize that your have two options: 1) you can stick with that sensation of frustration and impatience for having had to undergo not one, but two trials today, or, 2) you can ask yourself if perhaps God was accompanying you throughout the day and, in fact, that traffic jam was his way of giving you time to let off the fumes before causing more harm than good at home.
God’s presence is one that always brings life. In discovering it, even those situations which seem to offer only darkness and pain begin to take on a new light and meaning: they are in a sense transfigured and resurrected by his presence.
Still, we have to be wary of simplistic positive thinking or forced/false optimism. The question isn’t ‘what is something positive that I can take out of this,’ but rather, ‘God, how were you present?’ We must be open to the fact that many times God is indeed present and working in our lives even through the worst of circumstances. These wounds may remain, but when they’re offered in trust and obedience they become wounds of glory which manifest God’s loving salvation in our lives.
Two fundamental practices that teach us and allow us to achieve this restructuring are meditating the Sacred Scriptures and actively participating in the Liturgy.
Sacred Scripture: The Christian Memory
Have you ever felt that spontaneous urge to learn more about your family? Maybe somewhere down the family line there’s a saint? Or perhaps your great grandparents were heroic emigrants, or brave soldiers, or even fragile sinners.
Few Christians have truly treasured in their hearts the memories of the People of God. Daily meditation on the scriptures is fundamental! The Old Testament teaches us time and time again of the victories and defeats (more defeats than victories really) of the People of Israel and how God never gave up on them, how his merciful love bent down and embraced them over and over again.
The New Testament too is replete with details of God’s merciful Love which becomes flesh and dies so that man may live in Him. Remembering these encounters, reliving them daily replaces our weak foundations (Godless memories) with Christian ones (God filled memories. This doesn’t mean that we will no longer have painful memories, it does mean however that we’re no longer living them alone (though sometimes we end up having atheistic memories – recalling times and places when we denied God’s existence).
Liturgy: Where God’s memory and man’s memory meet
As we will see in greater detail, all of this is aimed at learning to remember as God remembers, to learn to look at History — and ultimately our own personal history — with God’s eyes. Sacred Scriptures introduce us into this school, and in the Liturgy we live it out a very special way.
As we said before, to remember is to re-live; this in the Liturgy reaches its maximum fulfillment.
Answering Christ’s invitation to “do this in memory of me”, we are remembering the Paschal Mystery (the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) in the deepest sense of the term, that is, we are re-living it.
Thanks to the Holy Spirit, memory becomes true participation; memory of our encounter with God becomes true encounter in an entirely new way.
It is here that the memory of Christ, of who He is, what He has done for us, and how He sees us transforms our memory (how we see our past) and reshapes our mentality in general. It transforms the way we live, our moral activity, and the way we judge our own lives.
It’s Story time!
I like the idea of ‘storytelling’ because I think the examination of conscience needs to be a moment when we place ourselves in the presence of God and recount him the story of our day, narrating both the bright moments and the obscure ones.
This isn’t a time for just monologues, though! You must take turns. First you tell your story, then allow God to retell you the story from his own point of view. Genesis 45:4–5 is beautiful example of this. Joseph, after having passed through long and painful trials, breaks out into tears before his brothers that betrayed him:
Come nearer to me… I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.
This is our account of the story, true things, but told only from his point of view. No need to sweeten things up here, Joseph was betrayed in the worst of ways and sold into slavery. His life was potentially ruined in the worst of ways, all because they were jealous of him.
Joseph, being a holy man of faith, however, doesn’t stick with just that, he goes further. He allows God’s vision of things transfigure his own vision of his story and turn it into a history of salvation, both for himself and for others:
Be not afraid, and let it not seem to you a hard case that you sold me into these countries. For God sent me before you into Egypt for your preservation… God sent me before you, that you may be preserved upon the earth… Not by your counsel was I sent hither, but by the will of God.
This is the joy of an examination of conscience done well: we tell our story –– one many times full of difficulties and frailty – from our point of view, but then we listen to God and allow him to reveal his presence, his providence, his action in our lives which takes our frailties into account and manages to do wonders nevertheless; and, in doing so, our memory is daily transformed by his grace into memory of salvation.
Plenty more could be said (and said better), but hopefully the ideas above will help you to situate that actual practice in an authentically Christian context. What follows below is a more practical, step-by-step explanation to help you begin the practice of the Examination of Conscience:
1. Open yourself up to God’s Presence
Practical tip: find a quiet corner in your home or in a chapel. Having a sacred image in front of you is ideal. Light a candle. Take a few moments to breathe and relax. Start by making the sign of the Cross.
Every now and then when a child is playing, he or she will look back just to make sure his mother or father is looking at him. In the gaze, he finds security, courage, joy … put simply, he finds love. This first moment of our examination of conscience is a time to turn our heart’s gaze in the direction of the Lord and rediscover his love for us. Reading a brief passage from Sacred Scripture might be helpful too.
2. Let God Pull Out the Photo Album
Have you ever sat next to a grandfather while he showed you the photo album of his children? Do you remember all the warmth, affection and intimacy that he exuded? Now it’s time to let God do the same. Before we review our day, the idea is to remember who we are from God’s point of view: beloved children.
Try recalling some of the passages from scripture (God’s photo album). Let him tell you about how he rescued Israel, how he got Joseph out a tough spot, how he forgave David. Remember, liturgy and Sacred Scripture are the two sources where our own memory is renewed and transformed into God’s memory. Bring to mind the patience and faithfulness that God showed with the people of Israel. Recall how often human frailty seemed to have had the last word, until God found a way to show that he is the Lord of history and the Lord of our story too. Bring to mind all those people that Jesus loved, all those hearts he touched, all those wounds he healed … remember that you are right now in the presence of that same Jesus. Think of how he might talk of these people, and then remember that he thinks of you in the same way.
3. Dialogue about your day with Jesus
With all this in mind, review your day, but do so in dialogue with Jesus. Go over the main points in your day: what struck you, what was beautiful, what was difficult, what wasn’t clear, etc. No need to be rigid here, give your memory a little space and time and allow things to flow smoothly.
Once you have finished, pause, take a break, and be silent. Here, we want to listen closely with our hearts. Remember this is a dialogue, not a monologue. Before getting down to the specifics, try to meditate on where you think the Lord might be leading you by what you are experiencing, by your attitudes, your actions, your encounters, your thoughts, your trials, your victories, etc.
– Lord, who do you call me to be? Lord, who do you see when you look at me?
– Lord, how are you working in my life? Where are you?
– Lord, in what ways am I growing closer to you? In what ways am I falling away from you? How much am I putting others in the center of my life?
– Am I cooperating with you? Am I perceiving and listening to your voice?
4. Admit your faults
Thank God profoundly for the way that he is working in your life, for how he never gives up on you. In doing so, it is natural to also recognize that there have been ways that you haven’t been a faithful son or daughter. You’ve tripped up on the path. You’ve denied your own identity. You have rejected God’s truthful gaze of yourself and others and imposed your own vision.
Here, it’s important to try to recognize both what you did specifically as well as some possible causes as to why. What led you act the way you did? How can you avoid or improve the next time?
This part can be tough, but trust that mercy and freedom are just on the other side. When you recognize your faults, don’t beat around the bush. Admit that it was you who did them, that you are responsible for those actions. Remember, without responsibility there can be no reconciliation.
Sometimes we can be excellent at justifying or sweetening up our own sins. Jesus is merciful and loving, but he is also the Truth. If you aren’t so sure whether something was a sin or just a temptation, I would suggest you take a look here. Passing over a list of possible sins can sometimes give us a more objective look at things. Online you can find a plethora of good material that can help you with this step:
– Catholic News Agency: Examination of Conscience
– Laudate also offers an examination of conscience and preparation for confession.
5. Renew your Baptism: Going from Death to Life
Many times after recognise a fault or a sin, the temptation is to think, “Ok, how can I fix this?” Sin is something, however, that can be “fixed”, and certainly not by our own strength. Sin needs to be forgiven. What’s more, sin causes wounds. Wounds needs to be treated and healed; otherwise they fester.
As such, coming to the end of your examination of conscience, now is the time to immerse yours sins in the River Jordan. We are only baptised once, but too often we forget to renew our awareness of being baptised. Too often we forget that “baptism is the first and chief sacrament of the forgiveness of sins: it unites us to Christ, who died and rose, and gives us the Holy Spirit” (CCC 985).
Place them, then, on the altar and allow the Holy Spirit to transform these deadly realities into living ones. Authentic repentance allows the Holy Spirit space to act: disobedience to God now becomes an act of repentance, of obedience. Something new, something good, something beautiful is born: the spirit of sonship is taking root in your heart!
The parable of the prodigal son is a wonderful illustration: once debased, ragged and consigned to feeding pigs, he returns, repentant, to his Father’s merciful arms, and is once again adorned in the clothes befitting his sonship.
Keep in mind that this daily act of repentance should go hand in hand with monthly confession. Called by the holy Fathers “a laborious kind of baptism,” the sacrament of Penance is necessary for salvation for those who have fallen after Baptism. If you become aware of having committed a mortal sin, then you should look to go to confession as soon as you can (and abstain from receiving communion). If you aren’t so sure about the difference between mortal and venial sins, you can take a look at the explanation in the Catechism.
6. Drawing up a Game Plan
In sports, a good coach will always set aside time to look back over last week’s game with his staff. We can follow a similar game-plan in the spiritual life. After reviewing your day, take a moment to think of how you can improve tomorrow. No need to be naïve, you aren’t going to graduate from the little leagues to the Super Bowl in one day. Still, either we are moving forward or we are going backwards. Try to come up with some simple way of growing in what you believe Christ is calling you to grow in.
Keep this idea or reflection in your mind and try to recall it the moment you wake up the next day. Maybe you can even write it down on a sticky note (it can be a phrase you wrote, or maybe a scripture passage that spoke to you, or even just a word). Much of our day depends on the first moments. Forming the habit of briefly exercising what we set out for us in our examination of conscience can be very healthy in our life as Christians.
Finally, remember that the examination of conscience is not a scrupulous exercise of pointing a magnifying glass on all of the dirt in your life and feeling bad about it. It should be joyful experience of redemption. Take a moment to rejoice and give thanks to God.
As Fr. Rupnik says:
“In it we learn a sound realism that strips us our illusions of moral, disciplinary, or psychological perfection, because we experience the grace of ongoing transformation due to the death and resurrection of Christ. An examination of conscience carried out in this way leads to what was so dear to the heart of Dostoyevsky: feeling free in relation to God, living in freedom as his children… Only free children can present and bear witness to the true image of the father.”
Many of the intuitions and some phrases were taken from a book written by Fr. Rupnik that I highly suggest: Human Frailty, Divine Redemption