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

June 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Conscience Exam, Fr. Bartunek

Dear 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?

In our first post we covered the “why” and an introduction to the “how” of a daily examination of conscience. This post will help you with the practical steps you need to achieve the benefits of the blessings available in this practice.

The Beginning

To begin, make the sign of the cross and remind yourself that you are in the presence of God, your Father, who loves you with a personal, determined, and everlasting love. Then ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten you, so that you can know yourself better so as to be able to give yourself better to God. You can do this in your own words, or use a prayer like this one:

O Holy Spirit come in Thy mercy;

enlighten my mind and strengthen my will

that I may know my sins,

humbly confess them,

and sincerely amend my life.

The Middle

The middle of the examination of conscience consists in serenely, prayerfully looking over your day. It’s like taking a helicopter flight back over the ground you covered on foot. You want to keep an eye out for two things especially: moments of victory and moments of failure.

Victories are moments when God’s grace triumphed in your behavior (you didn’t lose your patience in a situation where you usually do, for example), or when his grace embraced and enfolded you in a special way (he gave you an intimate awareness of his goodness while you did your morning meditation, for example). When you find these victories, smile at them, enjoy them, and thank God for them.

Failures are the contrary: moments when you cut yourself off from God’s grace, willfully or simply through weakness and distraction; moments when you did not image God’s goodness in your thoughts, words, and behavior; moments when you sinned by commission or omission. As you spot these failures, you should allow yourself to “mourn” them (“blessed are those who mourn, they shall be comforted” Mt 5:4), but never give quarter to discouragement. Instead, always turn discouragement into humility. Don’t think: “I am such a selfish wreck; I am not making any progress.” Instead, pray: “You see, Lord, how weak I am, and how much I need your grace!”

As you look for victories and failures, it helps to keep a special eye out for the points that are included in your program of life. In this way, you will become more familiar with the manifestations of your root sin, and this will enable you (gradually) to respond more quickly and virtuously to difficult situations and temptations.

At the same time, however, you have to allow yourself to dig beneath the surface. When you spot a victory or a failure, ask yourself, “Why?” Why did you lose your patience again, when you really didn’t want to? Why did your meditation this morning go so much better than usual?… As we reflect on the causes of our behavior, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our self-knowledge increases significantly.

The End

You always want to conclude the examination of conscience with two things:

1. A renewal of your commitment to try and follow Christ faithfully tomorrow. This can be a general renewal, or you can formulate some kind of a specific resolution, e.g., “Lord, tomorrow, with your help, I don’t want to gossip during our lunch party, so please help me to change the subject when it starts, or at least give me the strength to walk away.”

2. An act of contrition telling God you are sorry for your sins. This doesn’t have to be a formal act of contrition (you can use your own words), but sometimes it helps to use a simple formula. For example, you can use the act of contrition utilized at the end of confession, or the “I confess to almighty God…” prayer we utilize at the beginning of Mass.

This may seem like an incredibly complicated way to spend five minutes. But in reality it isn’t. You will find your own rhythm, and the Holy Spirit will help you. The important thing is to make this examination of conscience a staple of your daily diet. If you find it hard at first because your mind is racing, you may want to try doing it in writing: a) write down two specific things you are thanking for from the day; b) write down one thing about your behavior from the day that you would change if you could go back in time; c) write down a petition for the grace to follow Christ faithfully tomorrow.

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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 RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Angela

    Thank you Father! Once again this is a treasure for those of us struggling to live a spiritual life in today’s world. I love how you framed this examine to be both a rejoicing and a renewing. This has a very positive and loving tone to it which many do not associate with examinations or confession but it is what we ideally want to experience.

    I have struggled with traditional examination of conscience lists because so often they don’t speak to my sins — I am not rejecting the Faith, or acting out in big ways (like murder or adultery) and yet I know that there are roots of sin and little things I am doing that need to be examined none the less. Your approach does away with the list idea and makes it so personal and individual. That’s just what I needed to hear.

  • Cynthia

    Dear Father,

    I too appreciate the gentle tone of the examen as you describe it here. I have been practicing a nightly examen according to St. Ignatius for a couple of years now. This follows that form, but you have added so many subtle helps and practical suggestions. Every time I am exposed to new thoughts about ‘old’ things my spiritual life is energized. Thank you!

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