November 2012 Print

Examination of Conscience: What is it? How do we make it?

Fr. Daniel Chavarria, SSPX

What it is: an act of the Presence of God. It is part of our Faith and a truth well known by anyone who is well instructed in the catechism that every penitent has to confess his sins before confession.1 In that respect an examination of conscience falls under the aspect of formal integrity in which the penitent presents all of the mortal sins not previously confessed.2 This disposition is necessary simply for the validity of the sacrament. It would, however, be a grave injustice to reduce examination of conscience to just the bare necessity for validity of a sacrament. More than an obligation of law, examination of conscience is a necessity of nature.

Catholic moral teaching leaves a certain freedom in the method of examination of conscience, but mere general directives to ensure fruitful practice.

First, it must be done every day: “Optima est consuetudo faciendi examen conscientiae quolibet die.”

Second, it must consist in a quiet meditation under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost: “Instante tempore confessionis poenitens invocet Spiritum Sanctum illuminantem corda humana. Deinde in loco quieto recogitet vitam suam a ultima confessione, servans clarum ordinem.”

Third: It is a review of our lives. “Fideles autem saepe confitentes melius conscientiae statum agnoscent, si recogitaverint, quomodo obligationes status sui, obligationes erga proximum, obligationes religiosas etc. impleverint.”3

It would seem strange for a Catholic moral theologian like Prummer to place the aspect of meditation in an examination of conscience. Is it not rather a factual practical summation of problems to be taken care of, a checklist that we must complete to then enter into prayer? Meditation would fall outside that scope as it is: Reflective prayer. It is that form of mental prayer in which the mind, in God’s presence, thinks about God and divine things.4 How can this be an examination? Is not the examination of conscience a prelude to a cleansing of soul to achieve a union with God or a prayer?

The answer? Both! Precisely because it is difficult to know the true nature of our interior feelings, we must examine them closely. And this examination, far from turning us away from the thought of God, should keep bringing us back to it.5 The statement is as startling in its depth as its profundity. A true examination includes both aspects. What Prummer expresses as the recogitatio is broad enough to reflect man’s whole soul. Re-cogitare is to think again, to think again of what we are, have been, and hope to be. The scope of human destiny cannot be shackled by the mere practical directives of obligation but guided by them to the deepest true end of its life, the thought of God Himself.

In fact what we ask for is above and beyond any purely human vision. Not only in a proper examination of conscience do we direct the soul’s sight to the end, but we ask for the Source’s light to lead us there. Moreover, we must ask for divine light to see our soul a little as God Himself sees it, to see our day or the week that has just ended somewhat as it is written in the Book of Life, somewhat as we shall see it at the Last Judgment.6 We seek therefore to put our life in the direction to eternity and under the light of eternity.

Seen in this way, the only true perspective, our examination is placed under a completely different light and the link between it and meditation becomes obvious. Light comes from our perspective and gives true understanding of what this examination consists in, an elevation and not a morbid self-deprecation. Left to our­selves, without this divine orientation it could indeed become so, but we are saved from this as from all else by the merciful charity of God Himself. His (man’s) thought almost always falls back on what is inferior in him, and though he often shows intelligence and cleverness which may even become craftiness and cunning, his intellect, instead of rising, always inclines toward what is inferior to it. It is made to contemplate God, the supreme truth, and it often dallies in error, sometimes obstinately defending the error by every means. It has been said that if life is not on a level with thought, thought ends by descending to the level of life. All declines, and one’s highest convictions gradually grow weaker.7

The same exercise yet with such a different outlook! The light is God’s, the viewpoint is God’s, and the end is God. We will present to the eye of our conscience under the guidance of the Holy Ghost our day to see if God is our end. Sins become obstacles to His grace to be subjected to the gentle remedies of the Divine Physician. Gone from the picture are the pedantic nitpicking of the scrupulous or the uninspired rote recitation of the tepid. We are sons of a Father, and we place ourselves in the honesty of good sons under His gaze so that we can go to Him.

How We Make It: With the Holy Ghost in Gratitude, Sorrow, and Determination

Having seen that our examination is merely a return to the governing presence of God in our lives, we should make sure to understand the method of the exercise. Not being content with identifying a brief five minutes before bed with a remembrance of the presence of God, we should also have in mind some concrete means to ensure that our examination reaches its proper end, a union with God.

If our goal is God and the light is God’s, then we must seek it from the true source, the Holy Ghost. Every good examination of conscience must begin with an invocation to the Holy Ghost, who “searches the reins and the hearts” of men, and beg Him to show us the inmost recesses of our soul by bestowing upon us the gift of knowledge, one of whose functions is to help us know ourselves and thus to lead us to God.8 The gift of knowledge, and most importantly that of self-knowledge, already spoken of, is the way to begin our examination.

Remembering always that the examination is a means of union with God, we next must turn to the way by which all men return to Him, Our Lord Jesus Christ. We look at ourselves in relation to the God-Man and by the light that His Truth casts upon our faults. Nor shall we be disheartened at the sight, for Jesus is also the Healer of souls whose anxiety is to dress our wounds and heal them.9 We have to make our examination to Our Lord and seek our reconciliation with Him. This is but an extension of sacramental confession when we speak to Christ Himself in the person of the priest.

Our purpose clear and direction established, we must align as much as possible our disposi­tion to that of one desiring to make a good examination of conscience. Though a view of the actions of each day has to be detailed enough to be encompassing and brief enough to avoid scrupulosity, an honest glance at them within the balance of good common sense should be enough to give enough matter to the examination. The dispositions, however, in which the examination is done are everything as they make it an act of union with God.

The primary disposition in this examination should be gratitude. In this context it is helpful to start by remembering not just the faults we have committed that day, but more importantly the graces God has given us. Remembering that the protection of Providence in general has been a refuge and incentive to us in any daily success and recalling individual instances of gifts for which we are grateful is a good start to any examination of conscience.

Arising from that gratitude can only be sorrow, sorrow arising from true knowledge of the depth of the goodness of our Father and our separation from Him. It does not preclude joy, but rather encourages it since knowledge of not just sin but also forgiveness gives us the happiness of souls who know they are loved and want to return that love. Remembrance of sin should lead to an act of contrition that expresses that sorrow.

Lastly and most importantly, we have to approach our examination with a true determination to sin no more, atoning for past sins by acts of penance and taking the means necessary to fight against our faults in the future. This determination must resolve a delicate balance between the extremes of presumption and confidence by faith, and this resolution can only come by the light of faith. We both have a complete confidence and a healthy self-fear because our determination rests upon the power of God and not the weakness of our own will.10

God’s presence is in our whole life, a presence which the saint acknowledges and the sinner tries desperately and pointlessly to hide from. By an examination of conscience we return to that presence. We return as prodigal sons in gratitude, sorrow, and determination. Confident of our forgiven past and present state of being loved, our sins become a way to be loved more, not less. Even by sin we can be brought back to the purpose of life, the honor and glory of God.

 Fr. Daniel Chavarria is an alumnus of St. Mary’s College in St. Marys, Kansas. He was ordained in 2012 and teaches at the SSPX school in Phoenix, Arizona.

1 Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 899.

2 Merklebach, Summa Theologiae Moralis (Bruges: Desclee, 1949), III, 521.

3 Prummer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis (Barcelona: Herder, 1961), III, 385.

4 Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1980).

5 Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947), I, 304.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., p. 41.

8 Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life (Rockford Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, 2000), p. 225.

9 Ibid., p. 226.

10 Ibid., p. 230.