One of the most important but neglected spiritual practices is the daily general examination of conscience. No business would last very long without taking stock daily, calculating how much profit was made, etc., and there is no business more important than our soul. Socrates famously said that, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We could say that an unexamined life is dangerous. It’s important to examine how we are doing fairly regularly in order to improve. When our goal is off in the distance, a little misdirection early in the journey–if it is not corrected–can spell disaster, landing us far off the mark.
General examinations of conscience go hand-in-hand with regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession, and they help better prepare us for confession. The basics are rather simple, but if we’re not in the habit of regularly examining our conscience, it might help to do a more thorough one first. Some people prefer to walk through the ten commandments when they examine their conscience thoroughly. That can be helpful, but especially if you have a guide that helps elaborate on each of the commandments and the many ways we may have failed in the concrete circumstances of our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church‘s discussion of the Ten Commandments is fairly thorough and may be of some help, but there are also many places online and many booklets that also have good suggestions for examining one’s conscience. Some people find it helpful to walk through the “7 Deadly Sins” (pride, anger, greed, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony) and their various manifestations. Eventually, however, as you get to know yourself better, and know the areas of regular struggle, it can be helpful to have only a few questions to put to yourself in your daily exam as you look over your day in the presence of God, so that it need only take a few minutes.
An important point to remember is that the exam is meant to be a prayer. It’s another bookend of the day. In the last post we discussed the morning offering. Morning offerings and evening examinations of consciences are like bookends of the day, helping us begin and end our day with a few moments of concerted time in the presence of God. The morning offering helps us begin our day well. The nightly exam helps us end our day well.
The exam can be as simple as putting ourselves in the presence of God, asking for the light of the Holy Spirit, and trying to see what areas we did well that day, so that we can give thanks to God, and what areas we did not so well, so as to tell God we’re sorry. Then we can make a concrete resolution to do better the next day. Perhaps I was in a foul mood all day, especially when home with the kids. As I examine the roots of my anger, perhaps exhaustion was one of the reasons I was so bad-tempered. Maybe, as I think about why I was so tired, I might notice that I stayed up too late using social media, or watching a t.v. program, or something else, staying up later than I intended. My resolution to be more cheerful and not blow up at my kids for little things, might become more concrete by making a firm resolution to go to bed on time the following night. The heart of the exam should be our contrition, both the act of contrition but also trying to really be contrite. Such general exams can thus help us see where we were wounded in our daily battle so that we can protect those areas better the next day. They thus help us to move forward, little by little, up the incline plane of the interior life, and prepare us better for our next confession.
So, this Lent, let’s end our days right taking stock of the day with a brief but sincere examination of conscience.