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Daily exam of conscience: why & how to do it (I of II)

June 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Conscience Exam, Fr. Bartunek

 examination of conscienceDear Father John, My spiritual director is recommending that I practice a daily “examination of conscience.” I thought this was just for religious, etc. Can you help me understand more about this, how it should be done, and why?

This is a critical issue for deepening your friendship with Christ. Critical. Hands down, this spiritual discipline (the daily examination of conscience) is a central plank in the platform leading to progress in spiritual maturity, for both religious and laity. Thank you for asking the question!


Before getting into the how and why, though, rest assured that you are probably more familiar with the concept than you think. Every time we go to confession, we prepare for the sacrament by doing an examination of conscience. That’s how we identify our sins and failings, so that we can confess them. So don’t think you are starting from scratch when it comes to making this practice part of your daily spiritual program.

First, the “why.” The daily examination of conscience helps remove something that all spiritual writers agree is one of the most common obstacles to substantial growth in holiness (which includes basic human maturity): the lack of self-knowledge. This is so obvious that it is often overlooked. If you want to get to San Francisco, you can’t plot an intelligent route unless you know where you are starting from, where you are right now. If you want to win an Olympic gold medal, you have to built on your strengths, which comes naturally, but you also have to correct, shore up, and improve on your weak points. And you can’t do that if you don’t know what those are, or if you refuse to look at them squarely and honestly.

When it comes to deepening our relationship with God, those natural and obvious reasons for knowing ourselves thoroughly and sincerely are bolstered with a supernatural reason. The life of a Christian is built upon the foundation of grace, of God’s action in our lives. We will only build on that foundation if we truly understand how little we can do to overcome our selfish tendencies and grow in Christ-like love (the heart of holiness and happiness). And we can understand and accept the immensity of our need for God’s grace and mercy only insofar as we come to grips with the immensity of our weakness and misery, which requires authentic, systematic self-knowledge.


Now we can move on to the “how.” The daily examination of conscience is like a mini-meditation. You need to set aside five minutes (start with five, anyway; later you may want to increase it to ten, but five is plenty) towards the end of the day. Religious will do it during compline, the last hour of the divine office (the liturgy of the hours), usually prayed right before going to bed. But St. Francis de Sales recommends that busy lay people try to squeeze it in before the evening meal, simply because tiredness can be such an impediment later at night. If you happen to be the person who prepares the evening meal, you may want to make a deal with the rest of the family by which they clean up the evening meal, while you sneak off for five minutes and do your conscience examen.

What happens during these five minutes can vary in particulars, but the essence is always the same: prayer reflection on how God has acted in your life throughout the day, and on how you have been responding. There are three parts to this prayer reflection: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In our next post on this topic, we will cover the basic “how-to” steps.


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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Karen LH

    Could the examination of conscience be done as well first thing in the morning?

    • Dear Friend,

      Absolutely. It can be done whenever you are best able to do it.

      Blessings to you in your efforts to draw close to him.

  • LSLinda

    How is an “examination of conscience” different from “the examen” as described by St. Ignatius of Loyola?

    • It is essentially the same thing. The only variations are on particular details and approach that any individual might practice.

  • LM

    Is this recommended for someone who is scrupulous? How can I practice this without adding to my scrupolous tendencies?

    • Dear Friend – I would not do so unless you can work with your spiritual director

    • Dear Friend – I would not do so unless you can work with your spiritual director

  • sgl

    Can you please be VERY specific on what a confession of someone who confesses often might look like. I have been reading St. Teresa of Avila and she talks about going to confession so often that her confessor had to stop her from going. I asked the priest in confession this weekend how is it she could confess so often and he said she was closer to God and His light shone on her sins more, that she was able to see better where she falls short. I want that light. When I go to confession I feel like I am not being honest although I am trying to remember what I have done. I want to make a full, complete confession of my sins, as a way of breaking the bad habits I have. Is it right to confess every time I am mentally critical of someones appearance or speak uncharitably to my husband or children? I feel these are sins for the confessional but previous experiences have made me feel like I was being too scrupulous. I feel like if I bring each and every occasion, as well as I can remember it, then it will help me to change those critical parts of my personality.

    • Dear Friend – my apologies for the delay. Your question has a measure of complexity to it that I wanted to be sure to address via the phone with Father John. He just returned from Rome after defending his doctoral thesis. So, an answer should come in the next few weeks.

      • sgl

        Thank you. I am waiting patiently 🙂

        • cam

          I was just reading this article and then your comments and was wondering if a response to your question ever came. I would love to know the response to your question as I wrestle with this also.

          • sgl

            I never received the promised reply. Life gets busy, I know 🙂

          • Sorry! Would you mind sending a shortened form of your question to me at If you could be very concise, that would be helpful. I will do some form of penance in the meantime and maybe go to confession…

    • Becky Ward

      Dear sgl,

      Since it has been some time since you asked the question, although I am not a priest, I would like to share some of what I have learned and found helpful.

      1- We can’t compare ourselves. St. Teresa lived in different times and circumstances……….she’s one of my favorite saints, but we’re not she. God will give you the same light to see your sins if you pray for it.

      2-Thoughts are not sins. It’s what you do with them that matters. If you have repeated critical thoughts like you mentioned (regarding someone’s appearance.) once you notice the thought you must establish a means of doing away with it. I say a Hail Mary. Especially helpful if you say it on behalf of the person you had the thought about in the first place.  It takes time and patience but eventually you realize that the thought process has changed. If you entertain the thought it’s a different matter and likely needs to be confessed. But ask your confessor.

      3- Motive matters. Speaking uncharitably to husband and/or children is different if it is the result of a stressful day and we just ‘snap at them’, rather than a result of say……….a perfectionistic personality and we don’t think they are ‘measuring up’. Again, talk with your confessor.

      Here’s a link to this site’s posts on scrupulosity. The answering post to your question could very well be here.

      • StrongerinHim

        Very true Becky; it is in dwelling on or entertaining a thought that may constitute a sin. A thought that simply ‘passes thru’ ever so briefly is not to be concerned of. We should try to avoid temptations of the eyes; but in this world? difffcult!

        Our Lord’s words say it plainly in Matthew Chap. 5 verse 28: But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.

        In order for something to be sin of the mortal type there are three components grave matter, sufficient reflection (sufficient) and full consent of the will.

        Snapping at another – stress or not would probably fall in the category of a venial sin. A simple act of contrition and asking Jesus in prayer for strength not to ‘snap at’ would probably be enough. (although within a venial sin of snapping may lie a bigger sin to reflect on: why is their stress? too many bills, a bit strong willed (stubborn) lack of orderliness?
        trying to do more than one can? Then the snapping at might be a warning light to examine our living and where our priorities are going.

  • guest

    When I try to do this, I can’t think of anything much I’ve done wrong. I suppose there is a problem here, but what? I don’t know that either.

    • Dear Friend. The answer to this problem is to rejoice! List the blessings of the day and review them with a thankful heart. Praise him for showing himself in your life and all the good that is within you and surrounds you. The daily examen is not always a penetential practice, it can often be a time of encouragement from the Lord.

  • Cool. Thanks for breaking this down, Father.

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