It is not a question of a dialogue with ourselves, but our dialogue with God.
An article on how to examine your conscience? A bit heavy, isn’t it? We gently encourage you to embark on the adventure of this Christian practice, which is as unpopular as it is indispensable. Our aim is to present it to you here in its best light. In the course of our research, we came across Pope Francis’ meditation, dated October 26, 2017 and pronounced at Saint Martha’s House (Vatican), in which he urges us to practice it not just once a year before going to confession, but once a day before going to bed.
To those who think that this is a practice from another age, the Holy Father said that “the struggle that Jesus waged against evil is not something ancient, it is something very modern that is in our hearts every day,”in fact, the examination of conscience accompanies the Christian in this struggle, helping us to “make room for the Holy Spirit.” To those who continue to hesitate, he explains that “there are no tranquil Christians who have no struggle: those are not Christians, they are ‘lukewarm,'” concluding: “The Christian life is a struggle.” This stimulating approach to examining our conscience contradicts those who mistakenly reduce it to an introspection focused on scrupulously spotting one’s sins to berate oneself for poor spiritual performance.
Examining your conscience by looking ahead
“Examining your conscience is an inner exercise that consists of confronting your life with God’s commandments. This gaze of truth is painful because you become aware of your sin, but in the depths of your soul you also encounter the grace of God,” Father Emmanuel Roberge emphasizes. In Veritatis splendor, St. John Paul II notes that it is not a question of our intimate dialogue with ourselves but “of our dialogue with God, the author of the Law, the first and ultimate model of humankind.”
Examining your conscience, then, begins by placing yourself in the presence of God, then identifying your sins in order to ask Him for forgiveness, and resolving not to commit them again. It is not a question of lamenting your poor spiritual performance: a good examination of conscience is forward-looking and guided by the will to get ever closer to Christ. “The aim is not to drive the sinner into simple remorse for sin but to help him get back on track, rise up again. In order to do this, it is necessary to become conscious of the mediocrity of our soul. St. Ignatius insists that discovering the horror of one’s sin must be directed toward the desire for greater holiness,” recalls Father Jean-François Thomas, S.J.
Examining your conscience every day develops Christian virtues
The practice of examining one’s conscience dates back to the early days of the Church. As early as the 2nd century, the Fathers of the Desert were compelled to do so in order to fight against the bad tendencies that affected their souls and to be able to progress morally and spiritually. But it was St. Ignatius of Loyola who, in the 16th century, developed and rationalized it in his Spiritual Exercises, distinguishing between two types: the specific examination and the general examination.
The specific examination (often known by the Jesuit term “the examen”) is a daily exercise aimed at developing Christian virtues. “It will serve to identify our sins but also the defects that prevent us from progressing, which are not sins per se but can lead to sin. It is not a question of confronting our iniquities all at once, but of fighting them one at a time. It is a long and demanding process,” says Father Thomas. St. Ignatius advises us to identify “in the morning when we get up” the sin we want to correct, and then twice during the day (after breakfast and after dinner) to examine our conscience by noting on a sheet of paper, each time on a different line, the number of times we have fallen. The graph is intended to show our progressive victories.
However, warns Father Thomas, “A notebook or a grid for reading our mistakes is not obligatory for this type of examination. You just have to look at yourself, honestly. We know our major tendencies that lead us to sin.” This is also what St. John Paul II emphasizes in Veritatis splendor: “Deep down in our conscience, we can sense the presence of a law that we have not created, but to which we are bound to obey. This voice, which never ceases to urge us to love and to do good and to avoid evil, resounds at the right moment in the intimacy of our heart: ‘Do this, avoid that’.”
The five steps to successfully examine your conscience
The general examination is intended to prepare ourselves for confession. It is the one to which we are most accustomed and which we sometimes do at the last minute as we wait in line to go to confession. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s a little too late,” Father Thomas says. “Because what we tend to think of at the last moment are the mortal sins, which we may have committed only once, while the lesser sins, which we do so often and become indifferent to, continue their work of undermining the depths of our souls and remain in the shadows.”
The Guide to the Examination of Conscience published by the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary emphasizes that “a good confession is always the consequence of a sincere and thorough examination of conscience, which, ultimately, is the only thing that can lead the believer to feel sorrow over the sins committed and to want to be freed from them as soon as possible through the encounter with divine mercy in the sacrament.
How do we specifically do it? St. Ignatius explains the five steps:
- Give thanks to God for his blessings
- Ask Him for the grace of light to know your sins and to reject them
- Review your thoughts, words, and actions for what may have been in opposition to the divine commandments
- Ask for forgiveness for your mistakes
- Then make a commitment to change
Pitfalls to avoid
As regards more specifically the examination of one’s sins, consulting certain guidelines can be of great help: the Decalogue, as suggested to us by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Beatitudes, the Our Father, the seven deadly sins, or a reading of our duties to God, to our neighbor and to ourselves. Using them alternately works well, as is taking advice from a priest to help us adapt them to our personal profile. A child does not commit the same faults as an adult, a single person as a married person, a student as a mother. In this regard, the Les Petits Ostensoirs website offers customized examinations of conscience for children according to their age, for parents, and for spouses.
During this examination, two pitfalls are to be especially avoided. “One should not have a narrow mindset that focuses exclusively on sins, forgetting that they are called to holiness, but neither should they think that it is free, and does not require any purification or conversion,” warns Father Roberge. And how do we know if we have made a thorough enough examination of our conscience? “You can never be entirely sure,” he continues, “but one of the graces of the Sacrament of Forgiveness is that the more one confesses, the easier the examination of conscience is and the better you see yourself in truth.”