If there is one part of the spiritual life that St. Ignatius of Loyola 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 Ignatius’ treatment of what he calls the Particular Examination of Conscience. At the same time, he is careful to provide Some Notes on Scruples as a caution for those who are inclined to take their examinations to the extreme.
It is very important for us to form a clear and correct conscience. This means that we cultivate a sensitive judgement which is alert to the least offense against the Divine Will and, at the same time, protect ourselves against the wiles of the evil or bad spirit. St. Ignatius tells us: “The enemy considers carefully whether one has a lax or delicate conscience. If one has a delicate conscience, the evil one seeks to make it excessively sensitive in order to disturb and upset it even more easily. Thus if he sees that one will not consent to mortal sin or venial sin, or even 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.”
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 a prudent sensitivity of conscience, without becoming victim of the enemy, as Ignatius calls him. For those who are sincerely striving to do the will of God, we may set down these as general principles:
- It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon a soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy and to banish sadness and disturbances which come from the enemy.
- It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasoning, subtleties and continual deceptions.
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 might 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, then, on which we should daily examine ourselves is peace of soul. We should ask ourselves, “Have I given into 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 dejected over something.
Preparation for the Examination of Conscience
Before applying the particular examen to our own spiritual life, it is well to first ask, “What are the virtues that I know from experience I 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 kinds of sins. Nor are we personally always tempted in the same direction. There is wisdom in first enough about myself, to be able to get the root of own moral weakness. Otherwise, we may be ignoring what really needs attention in our spiritual life and concentrating on what is not so necessary for us at this time in our service to God.
Moreover, it would be mistake to suppose that by attending to our moral failings, we are being ‘negative’ in our 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 by either 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 makes at least a short Act of Faith everyday? Do I pray for an increase of faith?
- Do I ever tempt God by relying on my own strength to cope with trials of life?
- Do I unnecessarily listen to those who oppose what I know are the truths of my Faith?
- What have done externally to profess my Faith? Have I allowed human respect to keep me from expressing my Catholic Faith?
- Do I make a serious effort to resolve difficulties that may arise about my Faith?
- Do I defend my Faith prudently and charitably when someone says something contrary to what I know is be believed? Have I helped someone overcome difficulties with Faith?
- Do I immediately say a short prayer when I find myself getting discouraged? Do I make an Act of Hope everyday?
- Do I dwell on my worries instead of dismissing them from my mind? Do I fail in the virtue of hope due to my attachment to things of this world?
- Do I try to see God’s providence in everything that happens to me? Do I see things 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, or will to love Him, with my whole heart?
- Do I take occasion to tell God I love Him whenever I am experiencing something I naturally dislike? Have I capitalized on the difficulties of today to tell God that I love Him just because He sent me a particular 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 I’ve met today?
- Have I failed in charity by speaking unkindly to or about someone? Have I been sarcastic or condescending today?
- Have I dwelt on someone’s unkindness toward me today? Is there someone I consciously avoid due to my dislike of that 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? Have I assumed my will is best in situations which only involve opinions or preferences?
- How thoughtful have I been doing a small favor for someone today? Have I written any letters or gone out of my way to help or contact someone today?
- Am I given to dwelling on the faults and weaknesses of others? Do I control uncharitable thoughts when they arise in my mind? Have I controlled my emotions when someone irritated me today?
- Have I been cheerful in dealing with others today, especially those with whom I live?
- Did I pray for others today? Have I performed any sacrifice for someone else today?