Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
Examination of Conscience
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there is one part of the spiritual life that St. Ignatius stressed, it was the daily – and even twice daily – examination of conscience.
As we read the Spiritual Exercises, we may be overwhelmed by the minute detail of St. Ignatius’ treatment of what he calls the particular examination of conscience. At the same time, he is careful to provide, “Some Notes on Scruples.”
It is very important, therefore, that we form a clear and correct conscience. This means that we cultivate a sensitive judgment which is alert to the least offense against the Divine will and, at the same time, protect ourselves against the wiles of the evil spirit. “The enemy,” says St. Ignatius, “considers carefully whether one has a lax or a delicate conscience. If one has a delicate conscience, the evil one seeks to make it excessively sensitive in order to disturb and upset it more easily. Thus, if he sees that one will not consent to mortal sin or venial sin, or even to the appearance of deliberate sin, since he cannot cause him to fall in a matter that appears sinful, he strives to make the soul judge that there is a sin, for example in a word or passing thought, where there is no sin” (Spiritual Exercises, 349).
It is valuable to reflect on this tactic of the evil spirit before we offer some practical norms for making our daily examination of conscience. Why? Because otherwise, we are liable to overlook the importance of a daily inventory of our moral conduct for fear of becoming scrupulous.
There is such a thing as growing in prudent sensitivity of conscience, without becoming a victim of the “enemy” as St. Ignatius calls him.
We may set this down as a general principle, for those who are sincerely striving to do the will of God:
It is characteristic of God and His angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.
It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtleties, and continual deceptions (Rules for Discernment of Spirits, II, 1).
What are we to conclude from this? That the more zealous we are in trying to please God, the more He will give us a deep interior peace of soul. We should suspect as a temptation from the evil one, when we find ourselves worried or anxious or disturbed, no matter how pious the source of the worry or anxiety may be.
The key to applying this principle is that, before God, I honestly want to do His will even though through weakness, I may fail to live up to my resolutions.
One basic virtue on which we should daily examine ourselves is peace of soul. We should ask ourselves, “Have I given in to worry or anxiety?” “Have I allowed myself to get discouraged?” A good practice is to pronounce the name, “Jesus,” when we find ourselves getting despondent, or say some short aspiration like, “My Jesus, I trust in you,” whenever we become dejected over something.
Particular Examen on the Theological Virtues
Before applying the particular examen to my own spiritual life, it is well to first ask myself, “What are the virtues that I know from experience I most need to develop?”
The reason why this question should first be answered is that no two of us are equally prone to commit the same kind of sins. Nor are we personally always tempted in the same direction. There is wisdom in first knowing enough about myself, to be able to get attention in my spiritual life and concentrating on what is not so necessary for me at this time in my service of God.
Moreover, it would be a mistake to suppose that by attending to my moral failings, I am being “negative” in my pursuit of holiness.
On the contrary. In God’s providence, He allows us to fail in those areas in which He especially wants us to grow in virtue.
We can fail in the practice of these virtues either by commission, omission, or by tepidity, in not acting as generously as we might in responding to the grace we have received from God.
Do I make an honest effort to grow in the virtue of faith by daily mental prayer on the mysteries of the faith as revealed in the life of Jesus Christ?
Do I make at least a short act of faith every day?
Do I pray daily for an increase of faith?
Do I ever tempt God by relying on my own strength to cope with the trials in my life?
Do I unnecessarily read or listen to those who oppose or belittle what I know are truths of my Catholic faith?
What have I done today to externally profess my faith?
Have I allowed human respect to keep me from giving expression to my faith?
Do I make a serious effort to resolve difficulties that may arise about my faith?
Do I ever defend my faith, prudently and charitably, when someone says something contrary to what I know is to be believed?
Have I helped someone overcome a difficulty against the faith?
Do I immediately say a short prayer when I find myself getting discouraged?
Do I daily say a short act of hope?
Do I dwell on my worries instead of dismissing them from my mind?
Do I fail in the virtue of hope by my attachment to the things of this world?
Do I try to see God’s providence in everything that “happens” in my life?
Do I try to see everything from the viewpoint of eternity?
Am I confident that, with God’s grace, I will be saved?
Do I allow myself to worry about my past life and thus weaken my hope in God’s mercy?
Do I try to combine every fully deliberate action with at least a momentary prayer for divine help?
How often today have I complained, even internally?
Have I told God today that I love Him?
Do I tell Jesus that I love Him with my whole heart?
Do I take the occasion to tell God that I love Him whenever I experience something I naturally dislike?
Have I capitalized on the difficulties today to tell God that I love Him just because He sent me the trial or misunderstanding?
Do I see God’s love for me in allowing me to prove my love for Him in the crosses He sent me today?
Have I seen God’s grace to prove my love for Him in every person whom I met today?
Have I failed in charity by speaking unkindly about others?
Have I dwelt on what I considered someone’s unkindness toward me today?
Is there someone that I consciously avoid because I dislike the person?
Did I try to carry on a conversation today with someone who is difficult to talk to?
Have I been stubborn in asserting my own will?
How thoughtful have I been today in doing some small favor for someone?
Have I allowed my mood to prevent me from being thoughtful of others today?
Am I given to dwelling on other people’s weaknesses or faults?
Have I been cheerful today in my dealings with others?
Do I control my uncharitable thoughts as soon as they arise in my mind?
Did I pray for others today?
Have I written any letters today?
Have I controlled my emotions when someone irritated me?
Have I performed any sacrifice today for someone?
Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929).
It Is a Very Helpful That One Does Penance in Association with The Particular Examination of Conscience
Our Father St. Ignatius was not satisfied with sorrow and repentance and inward purposes, but we read in his Life that, for the better composing of the end desired, he recommended the addition of some penance to the particular examination of conscience, marking out for ourselves a certain penalty to exact of ourselves every time we fall into the fault which is the matter of our particular examen. Fra Louis of Granada gives instances of some servants of God whom he knew, one of whom, when he found at his night examen that he had exceeded in some ill-spoken word, would bite his tongue in penance for the same; and another would take a discipline for this and any other defect he fell into.
It is said of the holy Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a pebble in his mouth to gain the virtue of silence. As we here wear a haircloth to mortify the flesh and to serve us as a caller to chastity, so this saint carried a pebble below his tongue that it might be, as it were, his haircloth and serve him as a reminder and caller not to speak more than necessary. And of our blessed Father Ignatius, we read that at the beginning of his conversion he was much tempted to laughter and that he overcame the temptation by free use of the discipline, giving himself as many strokes each night as there were times that he had laughed during the day, however slight the laugh had been. And it is usually a great help, this adding of some penance to the examen, for with the penance the soul feels chastened and afraid to commit that fault another time. The spur makes the beast go, however lazy it be. Such an aid is the spur that no sooner does the creature feel that there is one there, though it does not prick it, than it makes it go. If every time that a man broke silence he had to take a public discipline or dine on bread and water for three days, which was the penance of old, marked in the Rules for those who broke silence, of a surety it would greatly restrain us from talking. Besides this, and the merit and satisfaction there is in it, there is another very great advantage, which is that God our Lord, seeing the penance wherewith a man chastises and afflicts himself, is wont to hear his petition and desire. And this is one of the effects of penance and exterior mortification that the saints set down, and our holy Father sets it down in the Book of the Exercises. The angel said to Daniel: From the first day that thou didst set thy heart to understand, and to afflict thyself in the sight of thy God, thy prayer was heard (Dan. x. 12). The Prophet Daniel added to his prayer fasting and mortification of the flesh, and so obtained the deliverance of his people and moved God to reveal to him great mysteries and do him other very particular favors. And we see that in the Church of God this means has always been very commonly used to obtain and gain the favor of God in distresses and necessities.
When an infant asks of its mother the breast that it needs, and asks it only by expressing its desire by signs, the mother often refuses or puts it off; but when it asks by weeping and wailing, the mother cannot refrain from giving it at once. So when a man asks of God the virtue of humility, of patience, of chastity, or the victory over some temptation, or any like thing, and asks only by desire and word, oftentimes he does not gain what he asks, or is long put off; but when to prayer we join penance and mortification of the flesh and afflict ourselves before God, then we gain our petition much better, with greater certainty, and in shorter time. God has a great love of men and, seeing them putting themselves to pain and affliction to gain what they ask, He is moved to compassion and uses greater mercy with them. We read in Holy Writ that the patriarch Joseph could not contain himself when he saw the affliction and tears of his brethren, but discovered himself to them and made them partakers of all his goods: Joseph could no longer contain himself, and said to his brethren, I am Joseph (Gen. xlv. 3). What will not He do, Who loves us more than Joseph and is our Brother, when He sees our affliction and grief? In every way this means will avail us much.
This agrees very well with what Cassian says, treating of the care and diligence with which we should proceed in the warfare and particular examen, If the struggle and particular examen ought to be, as we have said, on that point of which we have most need; if it ought to serve to uproot that passion or inclination which reigns more in us than others, which more particularly upsets us and puts us in greater dangers and makes us fall into most faults; if it be to overcome that vice, the overcoming of which will carry victory over all the rest, and the gaining of that virtue with which we shall have gained all other virtues, with how much solicitude and diligence will it be reasonable for us to act in a matter of so much importance to us! Do you know with how much ? Cassian tells us: “Against this predominant passion let him employ his man’s force, devoting all his care and solicitude to attacking and watching it; against it let him direct the daily arrows of his fasts; against it let him heave every moment the sighs of his heart and hurl the darts of his groans; against it be the labors of his watchings and the meditation of his heart; against it let him ceaselessly pour out before God the wailings of his prayers, begging Him especially and continually to put an end to the assaults of that vice.”
We must not rest content with taking this care about our examen alone, but also about our meditation; and that not only in the time set aside for meditation, but frequently in the day we must raise our heart to God with ejaculatory prayers and sighs and groans of the heart: “Lord, humility; Lord, chastity; Lord, patience.” For this we should often visit the Blessed Sacrament, asking with much earnestness of the Lord to give us grace to gain a thing so important to us; we must have recourse to our Lady and the saints to be our intercessors. To this end we must direct our fasts, haircloths, disciplines, and subjoin certain devotions and offer certain particular mortifications. If in this manner and with this care and diligence we went to work with our particular examen, we should quickly feel the better for it because the Lord would see our affliction and hear our prayer and fulfil the desire of our heart. And all this must be well observed to aid us also therewith in other temptations and grave needs that occur. St. Bonaventure says that our Lady told St. Elizabeth of Hungary that no spiritual grace-comes to the soul, regularly speaking, otherwise than by prayer and afflictions of the body.
How to Divide a Good Catholic Particular Examination of Conscience According to the Parts and Degrees of Virtues
by admin on August 18, 2010
I. To utter no words that may redound to my own praise and reputation.
II. Not to take pleasure in hearing myself praised and well spoken of, but rather thence to take occasion to humble and confound myself more, seeing that I am not such as others think or such as I ought to be. To this may be added rejoicing when another is praised and spoken well of. And when I feel any resentment at this, or any movement of envy, to note it for a fault; as also when I take any vain complacency or satisfaction at others’ speaking well of me.
III. Never to act from human respect or to gain the good opinion of men or to be seen and esteemed by men, but purely for God.
IV. Never to excuse myself, much less throw the blame on others, whether in outward word or in my own mind.
V. To cut off and lop away at once all vain, arrogant, and proud thoughts that occur to me from things that touch my honor and reputation.
VI. To take all others for my betters, not speculatively merely, but practically and in act, behaving to all with that humility and respect which I show to superiors.
VII. To take well the occasions of humility that come in my way. In this I should go on growing and advancing by these three steps: (1) taking such occasions patiently; (2) taking them readily and promptly; (3) taking them cheerfully and with joy. And I must not stop until I come to be glad and rejoice in being disparaged and held in small account, to resemble and imitate Christ our Redeemer, Who chose to be disparaged and held in small account for me.
VIII. In this matter and in others like it the particular examination of conscience may be applied to making acts and doing practices of humility or of any other virtue on which the particular examination of conscience is made. These acts and practices may be either interior or exterior. We should rouse ourselves to these acts so many times in the morning and so many times in the afternoon. We should begin with fewer and gradually add more until the habit or custom is gained of this particular virtue we are in quest of.
Of Brotherly Love
I. To shun detraction or any mention of the fault of another, even though it be slight and public. Not to pull to pieces his doings or show any sign of undervaluing him either in his presence or in his absence, but try to let it be that for anything that proceeds from my mouth all men are good, honorable, and estimable.
II. Never to tell another, “Jack says so-and-so of you,” when the matter is such as might cause annoyance, however small it may be; for this were to sow discord and tares among brethren.
III. Not to utter sarcastic words or harsh and peevish words that might give pain to another. Not to be obstinate in maintaining a point, nor contradict another, nor rebuke him, unless you have charge of him.
IV. To treat all with love and charity and show it in act, trying to meet others’ wants, assist and give them satisfaction so far as you can. This especially when you are in an office that obliges you to meet people’s wants; to this you should give great attention, and whatever you cannot do in deed, make it up by a gracious manner and kind answers and words.
V. To avoid any aversion for another and still more to avoid showing it, as it would be by refusing to speak to him for some displeasure you had conceived against him, or by refusing to meet his need when you might, or by giving any other sign that you have a grudge against him. VI. Not to behave to any particular person as you would not behave to anyone else; to avoid familiarities and particular friendships that give offense.
VII. Not to pass judgment on anyone, but rather try to excuse your neighbor’s faults, in your own thoughts and in company having a high opinion of all.
I. To mortify myself in things and occasions that offer without my going to seek them, whether they come immediately from God or come by means of superiors or by means of neighbors and brethren or in any other way, trying to bear them well and profit by them.
II. To mortify myself and overcome myself in everything that is likely to hinder me from keeping my rules and doing my ordinary and daily duties well, spiritual as well as external; because all the faults that we commit therein come of our not overcoming and mortifying ourselves in a matter which takes some trouble, or of not abstaining from some pleasure and gratification.
III. To mortify myself in conducting myself with the modesty that is to be expected of a religious, especially as regards the eyes and tongue, when there might be any fault therein.
IV. To mortify myself in sundry things that I might lawfully do, as by not leaving my room, by not seeing some curious sight, by not asking about or seeking to know what is no affair of mine, by not saying things that I have a mind to say, and the like. I am to apply the examination of conscience to making these acts of mortification, so many in the morning and so many in the afternoon, beginning with fewer and gradually adding more, for the practice of these voluntary mortifications, though it be in little things, is very profitable.
V. To mortify myself even in things that I am obliged to do, in this way: When I go to meals, to study, to lecture, to preach, or any other duty that I have a liking for, mortify first my appetite and will, saying in my heart: “I have no mind to do this, O Lord, for my own satisfaction, but because Thou willest it.”
Of Abstinence or Gluttony
I. Not to eat anything before or after the common hour nor away from the refectory.
II. To be content with what is given to the community, not seeking other dishes nor the same dishes differently dressed, not accepting special food except for some known necessity.
III. In these common things not to exceed the rule of temperance in point of quantity.
IV. Not to eat with great eagerness nor very hurriedly, but with modesty and decency, not letting appetite run away with me.
V. Never to speak of food, much less grumble or complain about it.
VI. To cut short and stop all thoughts of gluttony.
Not to give any outward sign of impatience, but rather to show great tranquility in word and action and in the cast of my countenance, repressing all impulses and emotions to the contrary.
II. Not to give place and entry into my heart for any perturbation or resentment or indignation or sadness; much less any desire of revenge, though it be in a matter quite trifling.
III. To take all events and occasions that occur as sent by the hand of God for my good and profit, in whatever manner or by whatever means or channel they come.
IV. To go on exercising myself and bringing myself to act in this matter, first, by taking all things as they come with patience; secondly, with promptitude and readiness; thirdly, with delight and joy, as being the will of God.
I. To be exact in outward obedience, leaving the letter of the alphabet just begun; meeting also the signification of the will of the superior without waiting for an express command.
II. To obey in will and heart, having one and the same wish and will as the superior.
III. To obey also with the understanding and judgment, adopting the same view and sentiment as the superior, not giving place to any judgments or reasoning’s to the contrary.
IV. To take the voice of the superior and the sound of the bell as the voice of God, and obey the superior, whoever he be, as Christ our Lord, and the same for subordinate officials.
V. To follow blind obedience, that is, obedience without inquiry or examination or any seeking of reasons for the why and wherefore, it being reason enough for me that it is obedience and the command of the superior.
VI. To go on to acts of the will, exciting myself to believe, when I obey, that I am therein doing the will of God, and make that all my joy and satisfaction.
I. Not to give or receive from another, either within or without the house, anything without permission
II. Not to borrow or take anything from the house or the room of another without leave.
III. Not to keep anything superfluous, stripping myself of all that is not necessary to me, as well in books and the furniture of my room as in dress and food and everything else.
IV. Even in the necessary things of which I have the use, I must make a point of showing myself a poor man, because such I am; contriving that my things be the poorest, the plainest, and of least value. Thus, in my room, in
my dress, in my food, and in all the rest, the virtue of poverty is ever to shine out and I am to let it be seen that I am a poor man; desiring and rejoicing that the worst of the house be ever for me for my greater abnegation and spiritual profit.
V. To rejoice that even in necessary things something is wanting to me, because this is to be a true and perfect poor man in spirit and an imitator of Christ our Redeemer, Who, being so rich and powerful (II Cor. viii. 9), made Himself poor for love of us. So do I wish to feel want even of necessary things, suffering hunger, thirst, cold, weariness, and nakedness.
I. To practice modesty of the eyes, not looking at persons or things that may be an incentive to temptation.
II. Not to utter or listen to words touching on this matter or that may awaken movements or evil thoughts, nor read such like things. (Since this was written in the 1600’s, I’ll add this would include music, television programs and movies, etc.)
III. To give no place to any thought bearing on this matter, though it be very remotely, casting them off with great diligence and promptness from the very beginning.
IV. Not to touch another person on his hands, and much less on his face or head, nor allow myself to be touched.
V. To observe with myself much decency and modesty, not looking at myself, uncovering or touching myself without absolute necessity.
VI. To have no particular friendships, neither giving nor receiving little presents or things to eat. And with persons who appeal to me and with whom I feel this affection and inclination, to go with great reserve, honestly shunning their intimacy and conversation, which is usually the only thing to be done in such cases.
Of Doing Ordinary Actions Well
I. Not to fail any day to do my spiritual duties completely, giving them the full time allotted to them; and when at that time there is some unavoidable occupation to claim me, to make it up at another time.
II. To make my meditation and my general and particular examens well, observing the additions and dwelling in my examens on sorrow and confusion for faults and purpose of amendment, rather than on examining how often I have fallen, for in this is the force and fruit of the examens, and for want of this some usually profit little thereby.
III. To do any other spiritual duties well, as mass, office, spiritual reading, and penances, as well public as private, taking care to gather from them the end and fruit for which they are severally ordained, not doing them out of custom, perfunctorily, and for form’s sake.
IV. To do my office and discharge my ministries well, doing all that I can and all that rests with me that they may go well, as one who does things for God and in presence of God.
V. Not to commit any deliberate fault.
VI. To make great account of little things.
VII. And because my progress and perfection turns on doing well and perfectly these ordinary duties that we do every day, I mean to be very careful from time to time, when I feel myself going slack upon this point, to make my particular examen on the same for some days, to renew myself and rehabilitate myself in doing them well.
Of Doing All Things Purely for God
I. Not to do anything for any human respect or to be seen and esteemed by men or for my own comfort or interest or simply to my own taste or satisfaction.
II. To do all my actions purely for God, accustoming myself to make actual reference of them all to God: first, in the morning when I awake; secondly, at the beginning of each action; thirdly, also during the action itself, often in it raising my heart to God, saying: “For Thee, O Lord, I do this, for Thy glory and because Thou so wiliest it.”
III. To go on applying this particular examen and exciting myself to the same so many times in the morning, so many times in the afternoon, beginning with fewer and then adding more, until I come to gain a habit and custom of very frequently in my work raising my heart to God, and my eyes do not turn therein to regard anything but His Divine Majesty.
IV. I am not to stop in this examen and exercise until I come to do all my actions as one serving God and not men; and until I come to do them in such manner as to be always actually loving God in them, rejoicing that I am there doing His will, and all my joy and satisfaction is in that, so that, when I am at work, I seem to be rather loving than working.
V. This must be the presence of God in which I endeavor to walk, and the continual prayer which I seek to carry on; since it will be very good and very advantageous for my soul and will enable me to do things right down well and in perfection.
Of Conformity to the Will of God
I. To take all things and all occasions that offer, whether great or small, in whatsoever way and manner they come, as coming from the hand of God, Who sends them with the affection of a father for my greater good and profit; conforming myself therein to His most holy and divine will as if I saw Christ Himself saying to me: “Son, I wish that just now thou shouldst do or suffer this.”
II. To contrive to go on growing and mounting in this conformity to the will of God in all things by these three steps: (1) to receive things with patience: (2) with readiness and ease: (3) with joy and gladness, this being the will and good pleasure of God.
III. I must not stop in this examination of conscience and exercise until I find in myself a sensible satisfaction and joy that the
Lord’s will is fulfilled in me, though it be with afflictions, contumelies, and pains, and until all my joy arid satisfaction is the will and satisfaction of God.
IV. Never to omit doing a thing that I take to be the will of God and His greater glory and service, endeavoring therein to imitate Christ our Redeemer, Who said: I ever do that which is most pleasing to my Eternal Father (John viii. 29).
V. To walk in this exercise is a very good way to walk in the presence of God and in continual prayer, and very profitable.
VI. The examen on mortification that we have set down above may be better applied by way of conformity to the will of God, taking all events and occurrences as coming from the hand of God in the manner that has been said; and in this way it will be easier and of a better relish and more profitable, since it will be an exercise of the love of God.
It must be observed that we do not mean hereby to say that the particular examen is to be made in the order in which the virtues are here set down, or by the degrees or parts that are assigned under each virtue. The rule to be observed here is that each one should choose the virtue of which he stands most in need and begin therein by that part or degree which is now necessary for him; and when he has done with that, he should proceed to select out of the rest what is most proper for him until he comes to the perfection of that virtue by the grace of the Lord.
Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929).