“Know thyself,” said Socrates. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This has always been an important maxim, but for us it should take on a certain urgency during Lent. One of the best ways to know thyself is to take up an ancient spiritual practice: the examination of conscience.
“Examination of Conscience” sounds peculiar to modern ears. I teach high school. A typical teen reaction to “Examination of Conscience?”
“Eeeewwww. What is that?”
Well, believe it or not, it’s not as scary as it sounds. At least, it usually isn’t.
So, what is an examination of conscience? It is simply an opportunity to stop and honestly reflect, in God’s presence, on the condition of one’s soul and on the way in which one is living the Christian life. This reflection takes only a few moments.
We look at our day to see if we are living up to our baptismal promises. We look at our actions to see if they befit a child of God. If not, then we simply ask God to forgive us and give us the strength to do better. The whole point of the examination of conscience is to make progress in the Christian life.
There are three basic examinations we can make: preventive, particular, and general.
The preventive examination usually takes place in the morning. We look at our usual faults and make a simple plan for the day on how to improve in those areas.
The particular examination focuses on what is called our predominant fault. Everyone has a predominant fault. It is the one area in which we fall most often. It is usually bound up with our personalities. Pride, selfishness, envy, greed, anger – these are some examples of predominant faults.
These are ingrained sins that influence our daily actions and relationships. It is helpful to make the particular examination around midday. It is like a check-up: “How am I doing so far with this fault? What can I do better?”
The general examination takes place at night, usually just before bed. It is a time to review the day and to mark one’s progress. Once again, we look at the areas in which we failed and ask forgiveness.
We also look at the times when we succeeded: that moment when I almost lost my temper, but by God’s grace it was held in check; the gossip at the water cooler that I was able to avoid, by God’s grace.
By looking at our little successes we can see how God is really working in our daily lives. The general examination helps us to take our spiritual temperature. It also helps us prepare for the day ahead.
An examination of conscience is really a simply matter. It takes only a few minutes and, according to many saints, is very effective in nurturing our growth in Christ. It is an excellent tool to help us enter more deeply into the season of Lent, especially as Holy Week approaches. So, know thyself, and experience the mercy of Christ!