The Importance of Examination of Conscience

by admin on August 5, 2010

ONE of the principal and most efficacious means for our spiritual advancement is examination of conscience, and as such the saints recommend it. St. Basil, who was one of the earliest instructors to give rules for monks, com­mands them to make this examination every night. St. Augustine in his rule commands the same. St. Anthony Abbot taught and commended it much to his religious; so do St. Bernard and St. Bonaventure and Cassian and commonly all. The blessed St. Chrysostom, on those words of the Royal Prophet David: Have compunction and shame for your sins upon your beds (Psalm iv. 5), treats of this examination and advises its being made every night before we go to bed, for which he gives two good reasons. The first for the day following, that we may find ourselves bet­ter disposed and prepared not to sin nor to fall into the faults into which we have fallen today, because today we have examined ourselves and repented of them and made a purpose of amendment, which clearly will be a check upon us not to commit them again on the morrow. The second for the day itself; even today it will be some check upon us to have to examine ourselves at night, for the conscious­ness that we have to render an account and have our con­duct overhauled that same day, will make us behave advis­edly and live with greater reserve. As a master, says St. Chrysostom, does not allow his steward to fail to give in his accounts day by day, that there may be no chance of his being careless and forgetful and his reckoning’s there­upon going wrong, so also it will be reasonable for us to call ourselves to account every day, that negligence and forgetfulness may not throw the accounts out.

St. Ephrem and St. John Climacus add a third reason, and say that, as diligent merchants every day make a com­putation and reckon the losses and gains of that day and if they find any loss, are very careful to make it up; so we should every day examine and take account of our losses and gains, that the loss may not go on increasing and swal­low up the capital, but may be made good and remedied at once. St. Dorotheus adds another great advantage, which is that by dint of examining ourselves and pulling ourselves up every day for our faults, the vice and passion does not take root in us and grow into a habit and evil custom. On the other hand, they say of the soul that is not careful to examine herself that she is like the vineyard of the slug­gard, of which the Wise Man says: I passed by the field of the sluggard and the vineyard of the fool, and lo, it was all full of nettles,, and the ground covered with thorns, and the stone wall was broken down (Prov. xxiv. 30). Such is the soul that makes no account of examining her conscience; she is like an uncultivated vineyard, full of brambles and briers. This evil earth of our flesh never ceases to send up sundry evil weeds, and so it is ever necessary to go, hoe in hand, hoeing and rooting out the weeds and tares that are sprouting. The examination of conscience serves this purpose of a hoe, to make a clearance and root out the vice and evil propensity that was beginning to sprout, and not let it go farther or take root.

What have I done? How have I done it? What have I left undone of what I ought to do?

Not only the saints but even the heathen philosophers knew by the light of natural reason the importance and efficacy of this means. That great philosopher Pythagoras, as St. Jerome and St. Thomas relate, among other instruc­tions that he gave to his disciples, gave them this as a main point, that everyone should have two times marked out, one in the morning and one at night, at which to examine himself and take account of three things—What have I done? How have I done it? And what have I left undone of what I ought to do?—rejoicing over what was good, and grieving over what was evil. Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, and others recommended the same.

Our blessed Father Ignatius, resting on the doctrine of the saints and on reason and experience, recommends to us examination of conscience as one of the chiefest and most effectual means that we can employ on our part for our improvement. And he gave us a rule thereon: “Let it be their practice every day to examine their consciences.” And elsewhere he says that this should be done twice a day. And in some sort he esteemed this examination more than meditation because by the aid of examination of conscience we put in execution the resolutions we drew from meditation, to the mortification of our passions and the extirpation of our vices and defects. And so much account is made of it in the Society that we are called to it twice a day by sound of the bell, once in the morning and again at night, and we are visited at examen as at meditation, that none may omit making it either in the morning or at night. And our Father was not content that we ourselves should practice this examination, but he would have us persuade those with whom we deal to do the same. So the good workmen of the Society, in dealing with anyone, at once teach him to make the general examination of conscience and also the particular examination of conscience in order to get rid of any bad habit —such as swearing, lying, cursing, or the like. Such was the practice of our first Fathers, as we read of Father Peter Faber that this was one of the first devotions that he gave to those with whom he dealt. And we read of our blessed Father that, not content with giving this method of the particular examen to anyone whom he wished to cure of any vice, he took means not to let him forget to put it in practice. He made him before dinner and before bedtime give an account to some confidential agent whom he assigned to him, and tell him if he had made the examen, how he made it, and whether he had made it in the man­ner appointed. And we know also that he kept his first companions for a long time with no other support than that of examinations of conscience and frequentation of the sacraments, thinking that, if that was done, it would be quite enough to preserve them in virtue.

Hence we should gather great esteem and appreciation of this practice of examining our consciences twice every day, as being a most important and efficacious means towards our spiritual progress. We should accordingly practice it every day, and the day that we fail therein we should consider that we have failed in one of the chiefest points of our religion. We should hold no occupation suffi­cient to justify our omitting this examen; and if through any unavoidable occupation we have not been able to make it at the appointed hour, we should take care to make it as soon as possible, say, the first thing of all after dinner. Even sickness and indisposition, which is sufficient to excuse us from any long prayer, should not excuse us from making our examens. Thus it is right for all to hold as a first principle that the examens must never be omitted, neither the general nor the particular. An invalid has plenty of matter on which to make his particular examen; for instance, on conforming himself to the will of God in the sickness and pains that He sends and the remedies ordered by the doctor, which sometimes are more painful than the illness itself; or on bearing with patience the neg­lect that he fancies people have of him; or on being indif­ferent and resigned to live or die as God pleases.

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

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