That the Matter of the Particular Examination of Conscience Should Not Be Lightly Changed, and for What Length of Time It Is Well to Keep It on the Same Subject

by admin on August 20, 2010

IT is to be observed here that we must not lightly change the matter of the particular examination of conscience, taking now one thing, now another, for this is, as they say, to beat around the bush and get no forwarder. Our policy must be to follow up one thing right to the end and after that take up something else. One of the reasons why some people make so little profit by their particular examination of conscience is very often this, that they do noth­ing but by fits and starts, making the particular examen on one thing for a week or a fortnight or for a month and then getting tired and passing on to another thing without hav­ing gained the first, and then make another new start, and then another. One who takes it into his head to raise a stone up the slope of a mountain right to the top and, after lifting it some way, gets tired and drops it and lets it roll down to the bottom, will never succeed, however much he labors, in getting the stone to its place. So it is with those who begin to make their examen on one thing and, before bringing it to a head and gaining what they sought, abandon it and take another and then another. This is to tire yourself out without result, always learning and never arriving at knowledge of the truth (II Tim iii. 7). In the business of perfection success is not won by fits and starts, but by long perseverance. It is necessary to per­sist and take one thing to heart and hold to it until you have got it, though it be at great cost. St. Chrysostom says: As those who are digging for a treasure or mining for gold or silver cease not to hollow out and extract earth and remove all obstacles that come in the way and sink ten or twenty shafts until they strike on the treasure which they seek, so we, who are in quest of true spiritual riches and the true treasure of virtue and perfection, must not grow weary until we strike upon it, overcoming all diffi­culties, so that nothing may stand in our way. I will pur­sue my enemies, says the prophet, and catch them up, and not be weary or turn back until they give in and I gain the victory over them (Psalm xvii. 38). This holy persistence it is that overcomes vice and gains virtue, not fits and starts.

But let us now come to a reckoning. On how many sub­jects have you made your examen since you took the mat­ter up? If you had succeeded in all, you would be a per­fect man by this time. But if there is one in which you have not succeeded, why did you give it up? You will say that you were not getting on well with it. Now it is just for this reason that you do not get on well, because you keep changing and have not the perseverance to carry on any one thing to the end. If, making your particular examination of conscience and taking particular care over that thing, you say that you were not getting on well with it, you will get on worse when you do not make your examen on it. If he who makes resolutions often fails, what will become of him who sel­dom or never makes a resolution? Anyhow, this making a resolution morning, midday, and night, will be some check to prevent your falling so often. And though you fancy that you do not succeed in amending yourself and are doing no good, be not discouraged on that account and do not give it up, but humble yourself and be ashamed at exa­mination time and turn to make new resolutions and start afresh.

For to this purpose God permits these failings, and suffers the Jebusite to remain in the land of your soul, that you may come to understand that you of your own strength can do nothing, but all must come from the hand of God, and so you may have recourse to Him and ever live attached to and dependent on Him. Under this trial a man is often more fervent and diligent in improving himself than he would be if God gave him at once what he desired.

But someone will ask: For how long a time will it be good to keep the particular examen on one thing ? St. Ber­nard and Hugo of St. Victor treat this question: For how long a time will it be good to struggle against one vice? And they answer: Until the vice becomes so enfeebled that, as soon as it rises up in rebellion, you can at once easily put it down and reduce it to reason. Thus it is not neces­sary to wait until one no longer feels the passion or the repugnance, for that would be never to finish. Hugh of St. Victor says: That is more for angels than for men. It is enough that now this vice or passion is no longer very troublesome to you nor gives you much to think about, but that, as soon as it arises, you meet it and cast it from you with facility; then you may well stop the struggle and make the particular examen on something else. Even Seneca teaches us: “We fight against vices, not to overcome them entirely, but not to be overcome”—Contra vitia pugnamus, non ut penitus vlncamus, sed ne vincamur. It is not neces­sary that we should not feel the vice at all; enough that it is now a beaten foe, so as to give us no more trouble nor disturb us in our course of well-doing.

To hit the mark better in this matter, it is well that everyone should talk it over with his spiritual father, for this is one of the chief things on which we need counsel. For some things it is enough to apply the examen for a short time, as we have said above. There are other things in which the examen may be well employed for a year or even many years; for “if every year we rooted out one vice, we should soon be perfect men” (Thomas a Kempis). And there are things such that a whole lifetime would be well spent over one of them, for that would be sufficient for some particular man to attain perfection. Thus we have known persons who have taken to heart one thing and applied their particular examen to it as long as they lived, and so came to signalize in it and do it to perfection—one in the virtue of patience, another in a most profound humil­ity, others in great conformity to the will of God, others in doing all things purely for God. In this manner, also, we should endeavor to come to perfection in some virtue, insist­ing and persevering in it until we gain it. This does not hinder our interrupting this examen sometimes; nay, it is well that so it should be done, turning to make the examen for a week on silence, on doing our spiritual duties well, on speaking well of all, of speaking no word that could in any way offend anyone, and on other such like things as are apt at times to sprout up within us and show their heads above ground. After that we may return at once to our post and follow out our principal purpose until we entirely succeed in our aim.

Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929). Reprinted with permission.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: