SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

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

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