Of the General Examination of Conscience

by admin on August 28, 2010

THE general examination of conscience contains five points. The first is to give thanks to God for benefits received. This calling to mind of benefits received is put first in order that, contrasting therewith the faults and sins that we have committed in return for so many bene­fits, we may thence take occasion better to enter into senti­ments of confusion and heartfelt sorrow. Thus, the Prophet Nathan first recounted to David the favors that God had done him in order to show the deformity and magnitude of the sin that he had committed. The second point is to ask of our Lord grace to know the faults and sins into which we have fallen. The third, to take account of our soul, going through our conduct from the hour at which we made our resolutions, first for thoughts, secondly for words, thirdly for actions. The fourth point is to beg God’s par­don for the faults that we find we have committed, grieving and repenting for the same. The fifth, to purpose amend­ment by the grace of the Lord, with an Our Father.

This general examination of conscience should be made always along with the particular; for immediately in the morning on rising we should offer to our Lord all that we are going to do that day. So our Father says, speaking of the particular examen, that immediately on rising we should purpose to be on our guard against that particular vice which we wish to correct; and this is the first time for the particular examen. We should also at the same time offer to God all the thoughts, words, and actions of that day, that all may be for His glory, purposing at the same time not to offend Him and begging His grace to that end. It is reasonable that all should have the custom of doing this. Afterwards, twice a day, at midday and at night, we must make the gen­eral examen along with the particular. Such is the custom of the Society founded on our Constitutions, and we find it expressed in the first of the Common Rules: “Let all twice a day give the time marked out to them for the examination of their conscience.” Thus, as the clock is regulated and the weights wound up twice a day, at morning and at night, that it may keep time, so we ought to regulate the clock of our conscience by the morning and night examen that it may always keep time. Thus at noon, when we go through and take account of the times that we have failed in the matter of our particular examen, from the hour at which we made the purpose, which was when we rose, down to then, so also we must run through and take account of the faults we have committed in thought, word, and deed from the time that we rose till then; and after that we must move ourselves to shame and repentance for the faults com­mitted in the matter of our particular and general examen together, and purpose amendment for the afternoon as well in the one as in the other. And at night we must make in like manner the particular and the general examen together, going through and taking account only of the time since our previous examen at midday.

The main thing to notice about the manner of making this general examen is the same as we said of the particu­lar, that all its force and efficacy lies in these two latter points, that is, in repentance and shame for the faults we have fallen into and a firm purpose of amendment for the afternoon or for tomorrow morning; in that consists our making our examen well and drawing fruit from it. Father Master Avila says of this examen: “You should make account that you have entrusted to you a prince’s son to take continual care of, to see after him and set him in the way of good habits and clear him of bad ones, and that every day you call him to account.” Now if you had such a charge, it is clear that you would not lay the main stress of his amendment on his telling you how many times he has fallen and failed today, but in making him acknowledge his fault, in rebuking him and giving him admonitions and drawing from him purposes of amendment; and you would tell him plainly, in so many words, that being the son of him whose son he is, he must mend his ways. So, then, in this manner you ought to regard your soul as a thing entrusted to you by God and in this manner you ought to deal with it in the account that you ask of it. And on this you ought to lay the stress of your examen and self-amend­ment—not on calling to mind the faults that you have com­mitted, but on shame and repentance for having committed them and on rebuking yourself as you would rebuke another person of whom you had the charge, and on making firm resolutions not to fall again into these faults.

And we ought to be aided hereto by the consideration that the general examen is the proper and legitimate prep­aration for confession; and this is the title that our Father gives it in the Book of Spiritual Exercises: “A general examination of conscience for a man to cleanse his soul and better prepare for confession.” And the reason is manifest. For two principal things are required for con­fession; the first is examination of one’s faults, the second is sorrow for them. These things are done completely in the examen of conscience and so, if we make this examen well, we shall make our confession well. And it is to be observed that the sorrow necessary for confession, as the Council of Trent and that of Florence says, includes two things: regret and repentance for sin, and purpose not to sin any more. Where either of these two things is want­ing, there will be no sufficient disposition for confession. Some think that then only is their confession null and void, when they leave out some sin through shame; but I believe that there are many more cases of confessions’ being bad, sacrilegious, and null, for want of true sorrow and pur­pose of amendment than for want of due acknowledgment of sins.

Hereby may be seen how necessary this preparation is and how important it is to accustom ourselves in our exa­men to excite ourselves, and take time over exciting our­selves, to sorrow for our faults and purpose never to fall into them again. And so I say that of the three principal points that there are in the examen – the other two being what we may call preludes—the chief part of the time should be spent on the two last, that is, on begging God’s pardon and moving ourselves to repentance and shame for our faults, and on making purposes of amendment. The lesser portion of the time should be spent in running through and calling to mind the faults into which we have fallen. For this latter point, albeit it is one of those three principal points, the third part of the examen time is suffi­cient. The other two parts should be kept for the other two points, since they are the principal points and on them the force and efficacy and fruit of the examen depends.

But someone will say: “How shall we be able in such a short time as the third part of a quarter of an hour to go through all the times that we have fallen in the matter of the particular examen, besides the faults that we have com­mitted in that of the general examen by thought, word, and deed? Why, even the whole quarter of an hour would seem too little for this,” The best means for this is to bring the first point already done when we go to examen. It is told of our blessed Father Ignatius that every time he failed in the matter of his particular examen he tied a knot on a shoe-string that he carried on his girdle for this express purpose, and afterwards by the knots he knew the number of times without stopping any more on it. And as for what regarded the general examen, he did not let an hour of the day pass without recollecting himself, leaving all else alone to examine his conscience. And if perchance some business came in upon him, so grave and so urgent an occupation as not to allow him that hour to fulfil his devotional practice, he made it up the next hour or as soon as the occupation gave him a vacant moment.

This would be a very good devotion, every time the clock struck to cast a glance at our conscience. Some even have the practice of examining themselves over every action they do. And if it seems much to you to do this every hour or over every action, it will be good to do it at least over every one of the principal actions of the day; and of some we have special directions that on finishing them we should make examen of them, as we have said above. St. Bona-venture says that a servant of God should examine himself seven times a day. And if in the particular examen we keep that addition of putting our hand to our breast every time we fall, we shall easily remember thereby the number of times that we have fallen. Although our Father does not appoint this addition to enable us to remember our faults, but to make us repent of them at once, and therefore he prescribes this gesture of putting the hand to the breast, as though to say, “I have sinned”; yet, after all, if we keep this addition, it will be a great help to us afterwards to remember easily the times we have fallen. Add to this that, when one keeps a reckoning with oneself and lives with a careful eye to making progress, whenever one falls into a fault such a person at once feels remorse of consci­ence, which is the best awakerier to make him remember it.

This is the final answer to two sorts of persons. For some there are to whom a whole quarter of an hour seems little time enough to remember the faults into which they have fallen, and to these we have already given a method how to bring the first point as it were already done, that so they may have time over to busy themselves with the two following. Others there are on the contrary whom the quarter of an hour of examen leaves much at large, and they do not find anything to spend it on; these we may more easily satisfy. We have already said that alike at midday and at night the general examen must be made along with the particular, and after having seen the faults into which we have fallen in the one examen and in the other, we should occupy ourselves in sentiments of shame and repentance for them and in begging pardon and in firm purposes of amendment and in asking of our Lord grace thereto; on which occupation the more we dwell, the better.

St. Dorotheus adds to this a piece of advice very help­ful. He says that at examen we should not only take account of the faults into which we have fallen, but much more of the roots of those faults, examining the causes and occasions that led to our fall, that so we may be fore­warned and on our guard against them from this time onwards. Thus, if by going out of my room I have broken silence or murmured, I must resolve not to go out of it henceforth without necessity, and then to go forewarned, and so of others the like things. Otherwise, it will be like a, man stumbling over a stone and, for not paying attention to the occasion of his stumbling, stumbling there the next morning also; or as a man wanting to set a blighted tree right by merely cutting off some branches and the rotten and worm-eaten fruit. If we make our examens in this way, the time prescribed for them will not seem too ample, but short.

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