Examination of Conscience
(these eleven short chapters exerpted from "Christian Perfection" published by
London: Burns & Oates, Ltd. pages 256-286 of Book One. Date of publication between 1896-1901)
The great importance of the Examination of Conscience.
ONE of the chief and most efficacious means we have for our spiritual advancement is, the examen of conscience; and for this reason the Saints recommend so earnestly the practice of it. St. Chrysostom says that we should make this examen before we go to bed; and gives two good reasons for it. First, that the day following we may be the better disposed to preserve ourselves from the faults we have committed; for if we examine ourselves well over night, and conceive a great sorrow for our defects, and propose firmly to correct them, it is certain that this will serve as a curb to hinder us from falling into them again the day following. Secondly, the prospect of examining ourselves at night will be an occasion of greater recollection all the day long; for remembering that we have, on the very same day, to render an account of what we have done, will make us stand more upon our guard, and pay greater attention to what we do. As a nobleman, says St. Chrysostom, who preserves order in his family, lets no day pass without calling his steward to an account, to prevent him from being careless and confused in it; even so it is good that we also daily make up our accounts, lest our negligence and forgetfulness should cause disorder in them. St. Ephrem and St. John Climachus add, that as merchants set down their gains and losses every day, and when they find they have suffered any loss, presently endeavor to repair it, so we must daily examine the gains and losses which happen to us in the great affair of our salvation, that, by presently repairing our losses, we may prevent them from bringing on our total ruin. St. Dorotheus notices another very considerable advantage we derive from this examen : viz. that by accustoming ourselves to make it well every day, and by daily repenting of our faults, we hinder them from taking deeper root in our heart, and prevent our bad habits from growing stronger.
It is not so with those who are not careful to examine themselves, and whose conscience are compared by the Saints to the field and vineyard mentioned by the Wise Man, when he says -- "I passed by the field of the slothful man, and by the vineyard of the foolish man, and behold it was all filled with nettles, and thorns had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall was broken down." (Prov. xxiv. 30.) The conscience of those who do not examine themselves is like a neglected vineyard, which, because it is not cultivated, is presently overgrown with thorns and brambles. For our corrupt nature is so bad a soil, that of itself it produces nothing but weeds; and therefore we must always have our pruning-hook in our hand, and employ ourselves in cutting or rooting them out. Now this is done by means of our examen; it is this that cuts up vice effectually, that plucks up our bad inclinations as soon as they begin to appear, and hinders bad habits from taking root.
But the importance and efficacy of this means have been made known, not only to the Saints, but also to many pagan philosophers, who were illuminated by the light of nature only. St. Jerome and St. Thomas relate, that one of the chief instructions Pythagoras was wont to give his disciples was, that they should daily, morning and evening, employ some time in examining themselves upon these three questions: What have I done ? How have I done it? What have I omitted to do? He further bade them rejoice at what they found they had done well; and repent, and feel sorry for what they had done amiss. Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, and many others recommend the same thing.
All this ought to give us a great esteem of this exercise, and make us look upon it as the most efficacious means for our advancement in perfection; and should move us to be very exact in making our examens. Nothing should divert us from so holy an exercise; or if any indispensable occupation hinders us from making it at the time appointed, we must endeavour to fulfil the obligation as soon as possible. And sickness itself, which dispenses with our ordinary prayer, dispenses not with our examens. The sick person, moreover, has daily sufficient matter for his particular examen, either by conforming himself in pains and sickness, which God sends him, to His Divine will; and also to the remedies he is obliged to take; or else by supporting with patience the want of several things he imagines he stands in need of; or, in fine, by resigning himself entirely into the hands of God, to live or to die, as it shall please His Divine providence to ordain.
Upon what the particular Examen ought to be made.
The examen is twofold, particular and general. I shall speak first of the particular examen, and afterwards briefly touch on the latter; because almost the same method we are to practise in the particular, must also be practised in the general examen; so that what I say of the one, will, in like manner, serve for the other. There are two things to be considered in the particular examen; the one, upon what subject it is to be made; the other, how it ought to be made. As to the first, we must imprint in our minds an advice which St. Ignatius gives us in his "Spiritual Exercises," and which he himself extracted from the works of St. Bonaventure. He says, that the devil deals with us as a general of an army deals with a town he designs to take. The general first endeavours to know the weakest part, in order to raise his batteries against it, and bring all his troops to bear on it; because he knows that, as soon as he has gained that post, he will presently become master of the town. The devil, in like manner, takes all care imaginable to know the feeblest part of our souls, to make his attack afterwards in that part, that thereby he may more easily reduce us to his subjection. Let us, then, keep ourselves upon our guard, and take precaution against our enemies. Let us attentively seek and find out which is the weakest part of our soul, and the most devoid of virtue; let us see where our natural inclinations renders an attack more easy, and what part is most of all decayed and ruined by evil habits; and let us labour to repair and fortify it by strong ramparts. See here what the masters of a spiritual life would chiefly have us do; that we should endeavour to tame our irregular inclinations, and root out our bad habits; and since this is what is most of all necessary, to this also must we chiefly apply our particular examen.
We see by experience that, ordinarily speaking, each one has a particular vice, or predominant passion, which masters him, and causes him to commit those things which otherwise he would not. Hence it is a common saying amongst people: It I had not this or that bad inclination, I think there is nothing could hinder, trouble, or give me any pain. Behold here is the very thing we must first of all set upon and fight against; see here what we must make choice of for our particular examen.
In the war which the king of Assyria waged against the king of Israel, he commanded all his captains, "not to fight against any one, little or great, but only against the king of Israel;" promising himself that the death of the king would give him an easy victory over the whole army; as, indeed, it happened. For Achab being killed by an arrow shot at random, they all retreated, and the war was presently ended. Let us follow this example, let us overcome that vice which in us is king of the rest, and we shall easily tame and vanquish all the others. Let us cut off the head of Goliath, and all the other Philistines will soon be defeated. We cannot prescribe a better rule for that which every one ought to make his examen than this. It may also be added, that it is very good that every one confer with his spiritual director, after having first given him an exact account of the present state of his conscience, of his inclinations, propensities, and bad habits; acquainting him with everything, without exception; for the necessity of each one being thus perfectly known, it will be very easy for the director afterwards to determine upon what matter or subject the penitent ought to make his particular examen. One of the things we ought chiefly to observe when we render an account of conscience is, to declare upon what subject we make our particular examen, and in what manner we profit by it. For it is of serious consequence that this examen be effectually made upon that subject which each one finds of greatest importance. For as a physician has made no small advance in his cure when he has found out the true cause of the disease, because he then applies proper remedies, which fail not of their effect; so we may look upon ourselves to have gained a very considerable point, if we succeed in finding out the true source of all our spiritual infirmities; because then we shall have discovered the true means of curing them, i. e. applying the salutary remedy of the particular examen. The reason, in some degree, why many persons derive but little advantage from what they do is, because they apply not to what they ought. If you cut away the root, the tree withers, grows dry, and dies presently; but if you only lop the branches, it will soon shoot out new ones, and become larger than ever.
On making choice of a proper subject for the particular Examen.
To treat this matter more particularly, there are two things chiefly to be observed, of which the first is, that when we have any exterior defects that offend and scandalise our neighbour, we must begin to retrench these by means of our particular examen, though we should have interior defects far more considerable. For example, if one speaks too much, or too hastily, or too sharply to his brethren, or lets himself be carried so far as to say things that affect their reputation, and, in short, if he is subject to other failings that may hurt his neighbour, reason and charity oblige us, first to correct ourselves in what may give pain or trouble to our brethren, that we may endeavour to live with them in such manner as to give no occasion of complaint or scandal.
The second advice is, that we take care not to be so intent on making our examen on exterior things of this sort, as to pass our whole life therein; for it is far easier to overcome ourselves in these exterior than in our interior defects. I command my hand, says St. Austin, and the hand obeys; I command my foot, and it obeys; but I command my appetite, and it obeys not. The reason is, because neither hand nor foot have in themselves any inclination contrary to the will; but the appetite has its own inclination, which is often opposite to the will; and therefore it is necessary that we endeavour to free ourselves from exterior things as soon as possible, that we may be more at leisure to attend to those which are of greater importance. To obtain, for example, a profound humility of heart, which reaches not only to a contempt of ourselves, but also to be glad that others despise us; to gain so much upon ourselves as to do all things purely for the love of God, and always to have before our eyes that it is God and not man we serve; to attain entire conformity to the Divine will; or to gain, in short, any other virtue or interior perfection. For, though the particular examen was chiefly established for retrenching our defects and imperfections, and this would be a sufficient employment during our whole life, because we can never be quite free and exempt from venial sins; nevertheless it were very unfit that all our time should be employed in this alone. He who is engaged in weeding a garden is well employed, but yet must he never do any thing else but this? The object in plucking up the weeds is, that flowers and fruit may grow in their place. The time, therefore, of the particular examen is, in like manner, well employed when we exercise ourselves in rooting out of our souls vicious and bad inclinations; but all this must be done, in order to plant the odoriferous flowers of virtue in their place: "I have set thee," says our Lord to Jeremias, "to root up and to pull down, and to waste and to destroy, and to build and to plant again." (Jerem. i. 10) We must first demolish and pluck up; afterwards we must build and plant again.
But what should oblige us still more to observe this method is, that even for the correcting those exterior faults to which we are subject, oftentimes the sweetest, shortest, and most efficacious means is, to take for our particular examen the perfection most opposite to these defects. Do you speak passionately and authoritatively to your brethren? During your examen, employ yourself in looking upon them as being superior to you in all things, and look upon yourself as the least and most unworthy of them all; and by this you will soon learn both how to speak to them and how to answer them; and if you acquire but true humility, you may assure yourself you will never say any thing to them rude or mortifying. Do you feel a repugnance to do anything? Do you feel pain in submitting to what happens to you? Let your examen be on receiving all things, as coming from the hand of God, as emanating from a particular disposition of His Divine providence, and as being sent you for your good; and thus you will be able easily to submit to whatsoever shall happen.
That the particular Examen must be made only on one thing at a time.
The particular examen must be made upon one subject at a time; and the reason is, that hereby it is far more efficacious than if we should take several subjects at once. For it is certain, --and the very light of nature teaches us this truth, --that we are better able to resist one vice alone than many vices together. It is a common saying, "That he who grasps at too much, holds fast but little." By attacking them one by one, we easily overcome those enemies, whom we could not vanquish in an entire body. Cassian says, that this way, of overcoming our enemies, that is to say, our vices and passions, was taught us by the Holy Ghost, when he instructed the children of Israel how they were to act in order to overcome the seven nations, their enemies, in the land of promise. "The Lord thy God will consume these nations in thy sight by little and little; thou wilt not be able to destroy them together." (Deut. vii. 22.)
Cassian remarks further, that we must not be afraid that, by being employed against one vice alone, and by using our whole endeavours to overcome it, we shall receive any prejudice from the rest. First, because, in overcoming one particular vice, we excite in the soul a general horror of all the rest, by reason of that evil which is common to them all; and, therefore, when we shall be well armed and fortified against one vice, we shall also be fortified against all others, and be in a condition to make a vigorous resistance to them all. Secondly, because the care we take in our particular examen to root out of our hearts any evil habit, roots out by degrees all the rest; and by the roots is signified nothing else than the too great facility with which we suffer ourselves to embrace whatever we feel an inclination for. So that to endeavour in our examen to overcome one vice, is to overcome all; because the means we make use of to secure ourselves from that, will secure us from all the others. To these add another reason, which is, that we daily make a general examen, comprehending all vices; and therefore there is no reason to fear that our endeavours to correct one vice in ourselves will occasion the rest to strengthen themselves against us.
It is, moreover, of such importance to make our particular examen upon one vice alone, that very often, when we would examine ourselves, either upon a vice or upon a virtue, it is very profitable to divide the matter into several parts or degrees, and to make our particular examen, first upon one part and then upon another, that we may be the better able to attain what we aim at. If we would, for example, apply our particular examen to the rooting of pride out of our souls, and the gaining humility, it is not sufficient to propose to ourselves, in general, not to take pride in any thing, and to be humble in all things, but we must divide our matter into particulars; and our enemies, being thus divided and separately attacked by us, one after another, it will be more easy to overcome them and attain our object.
But, that this may be the better put in practice, I shall here, by way of example, divide some of the chief matters upon which we make our particular examen into different points; and though I have observed the same method where I have treated of some virtues in particular, yet that all the things relating to this exercise may be collected and connected together, I shall make an abridgment, which may serve us for a glass or model to see how far we are advanced in virtue, and what is still wanting to our perfection.
How we ought to divide the Examen.
I.-- Of Humility.
- Never to speak a word that may tend to our own praise.
- Not to take pleasure in being praised, or spoken well of but, on the contrary, to embrace every opportunity of humbling ourselves, and covering ourselves with shame and confusion, to see how far we are from being such as we are thought, or such as we should be. To this we may add – to rejoice on hearing others well spoken of; and if we find ourselves displeased at this, or feel any secret envy within ourselves, to note it as a fault, as well as when we feel pleasure in the good things that are said of us.
- To do nothing through human respect, nor to attract the eyes or esteem of men, but to do all things purely to please God.
- Never to excuse our faults, much less to cast them upon others.
- To drive away all thoughts of vainglory and pride, occasioned by whatever brings reputation and esteem along with it.
- To prefer others to ourselves, not only in opinion, but in practice; behaving to all our brethren with the same humility and respect, as if they were our superiors.
- To receive as from the hand of God all the occasions which offer of humbling ourselves, and to advance daily therein, mounting as it were by three steps; of which the first is to bear crosses with patience; the second, to accept them promptly and readily; and the third, to embrace them with joy. We must not stop till we come to rejoice in suffering affronts and contempts, the better to resemble Jesus Christ, who, for love of us, vouchsafed to become "the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people." (Ps. xxi. 7.)
- Lastly, we must apply ourselves to produce interior and exterior acts of humility, or of any other virtue we have made choice of, for the subject of our particular examen; exercising ourselves therein a certain number of times, and daily augmenting this number till we have obtained a perfect habit of the virtue.
II.-- Of Fraternal Charity.
- Never to detract our neighbour or to speak ill of him – not to discover his defects, though ever so small or apparent. Never to do him any prejudice, or let the least contempt of him appear, either in his presence or in his absence.
- Never to tell any one what has been said of him, when the thing may give him the least offence, because this is to sow discord amongst brethren.
- Never to break out into passionate words, nor say anything mortifying to our neighbour -- not to be obstinate in our own opinion, nor dispute or contest with heat, nor reprehend anyone, over whom we have no authority.
- To behave sweetly and charitably to everyone -- doing everything in our power, to serve others and to make them happy; and if by our office we are in a more special manner bound to serve our neighbour, and to take care of him, we must apply ourselves to it still more particularly, and endeavour, by sweetness of manners, of words and answers, to supply whatever is not in our power to do for him.
- To harbour no aversion against our neighbour -- not to shew the least sign thereof, either by contemptuously abstaining from speaking to him, or by neglecting to succour him in his necessities.
- Never to judge our neighbour, but to endeavour to excuse the faults he commits against others, and against ourselves and in general to have a good opinion of every one.
III.-- Of Mortification.
- To mortify ourselves in such occasions as present themselves, whether they come immediately from God or in any other way whatsoever; and to endeavour both to receive them well, and to profit by them.
- To mortify and overcome ourselves in all things that hinder us from observing our rules; or from performing as we ought the ordinary actions of the day, as well spiritual and interior, as exterior; for all the faults committed in them proceed from our not being so much masters over ourselves, as either to suffer some pain, or to deprive ourselves of some pleasure.
- To mortify ourselves by obliging ourselves to observe in all things the modesty which a Christian ought to observe, and chiefly by guarding our eyes and tongue, especially when we find that we are subject to fail in this point.
- To mortify ourselves in such things as are permitted, as not to see anything that is curious or extraordinary; not to hearken to what does not belong to us to know; nor to say what we have a desire to say, and to curb ourselves, in the same manner, in other things of the like nature. It will be good in what concerns this matter to determine in our examen to mortify ourselves thus a certain number of times daily; beginning with what will be easiest to us, and continuing to increase the number; for the practice of those voluntary mortifications, though they be only in little things, is always very profitable.
- To mortify ourselves even in things of necessity and duty -- thus in going to eat, sleep, or to exercise any other function that is pleasing to us, we must mortify our senses, and our will also; saying, from the bottom of our heart, It is not, 0 Lord, for my own satisfaction I do this; but I do it because thou willest it.
IV.-- Of Abstinence and Sobriety.
- Never to exceed the rules of temperance, either in eating or drinking.
- Not to eat greedily or too fast, but with all moderation and decency; not yielding too much to our appetite.
- Never to speak about eating, much less complain of our diet.
- To banish from us all thoughts of gluttony.
V.-- Of Patience.
- Never to let any mark of impatience appear; but, on the contrary, in all our words, in all our actions, and in our countenance, to show signs of great tranquillity and peace of mind, and to suppress all such motions as are opposite thereto.
- To let nothing enter into our hearts that may any ways trouble its peace, or cause any sadness, or indignation; and not to permit any desire of revenge to steal into it, though it should be ever so small a thing we desire to do to the person that has injured us.
- To receive trials of every kind as so many presents from the hand of God; and this in whatsoever manner, or by whatsoever means, they come to us.
- To exercise ourselves in making acts according to these three degrees: first, bearing all crosses with patience; secondly, accepting of sufferings with promptitude and ease; thirdly, embracing them with joy, because it is the will of God.
VI.-- Of Obedience.
- To be punctual in exterior obedience. As soon as we know the will of those whom God has placed over as, never to wait for his express command.
- To hear the voice of our superior as the voice of God: and to obey him, and those that command under him, as Jesus Christ Himself.
- To make acts of our will by accustoming ourselves to think that, when we obey, it is the will of God we perform, and that, therefore, we should place all our joy and satisfaction in obedience.
VII.-- Of Chastity.
- To place a strict guard on our eyes never to direct our looks to what may cause the flesh to rebel against the spirit.
- Neither to speak nor hearken to any words, or to read any books that may excite in us any thoughts or motions against purity.
- Not to entertain any impure thoughts, but promptly to reject all those that present themselves.
- To observe all possible decency towards ourselves; and as to those persons who may give us occasions of falling, to avoid their company and conversation by a prudent flight which ordinarily is the only remedy on such occasions.
VIII.-- To perform our ordinary Actions well.
- Never to let a day pass without performing all our duties; to spend faithfully therein the whole time allotted for them; and when we shall be unavoidably prevented from doing so, to supply it afterwards as soon as we can.
- To make our mental prayer carefully; to perform our general and particular examen ; and to dwell less on examining exactly the number of our defects, than on exciting a lively sorrow and extreme confusion for them, and making a firm resolution to correct them.
- To observe carefully all our other spiritual exercises; as hearing Mass, vocal prayer, spiritual reading, the performance of our penances, etc.; and to derive from them all the advantages each was destined to confer, doing nothing through customs, human respect, or merely by way of task.
- To perform with exactness what belongs to our office and employment, and to use all possible care and application in it, as doing all things for God, and in His presence.
- Not to commit deliberately any fault, however small.
- To set great value on even the least things.
- And since our whole spiritual advancement depends upon the due performance of our ordinary actions, we must, from time to time, as soon as we perceive we begin to relax in any one, take care to make it the subject of our particular examen; and so to renew by this means our fervour and attention.
IX.-- To do all things purely for God.
- To perform all our actions purely for God, and to accustom ourselves to refer them all to Him alone; first, in the morning, as soon as we awake; secondly, in the beginning of every action; and lastly, whilst we perform the action itself, by often elevating our hearts to God, and saying to Him, ‘Lord, it is for Thee that I do this, it is for Thy glory, it is because Thou wouldest have me do it.'
- To accustom ourselves to make a certain number of these acts every day, beginning at first with a small number, and afterwards augmenting it, till we have got a habit of frequently elevating our hearts to God in all our actions, and regarding only in them God Himself.
X-- Of Conformity to the will of God.
That we ought not readily change the matter of our particular Examen and how long it is to be continued on the same subject.
It is well to observe here, that we ought not easily or lightly to change the matter of our examen, sometimes taking one, sometimes another subject, for this would be to go round and round, without advancing; but we must pursue our object to the very goal, and afterwards prepare to pursue another, and then another, with equal perseverance. The reason why some reap so little fruit from their examen is that they make it by starts; so that having pursued an object for ten or fifteen days, or for a month at most, they grow weary; and without having succeeded, they break off and pursue another. This pursuit, too, they give up, and commence a third, in which they are as unsuccessful as in the two former. If a man that had undertaken to carry a stone to the top of a high mountain, having carried it a considerable way up, should let it fall down again, and should often do the same, it is certain that what pains soever he might take, he would never carry the stone to the top. So it is with those who embrace one matter for their examen, and before they have finished it, leave it and take up another, and then another. They never attain the end they propose; they fatigue themselves, yet do nothing: "They are always learning," as the Apostle says, "and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth." (2 Tim. iii. 7.) The affair of perfection is not one that is gained by sudden starts; it requires long perseverance and hearty endeavours; we must fully resolve to reach it, whatever it costs us.
It is a thought of St. Chrysostom, that as those who dig for a treasure, or a mine of gold or silver, continue to work and to remove every obstacle, till they find the object sought for; so must we who seek after true spiritual riches persevere in our search, till we have overcome those difficulties that oppose us, and have found what we seek after. "I will pursue after my enemies," says the royal prophet, "and overtake them; and I will not turn again till they are consumed." (Ps. xvii. 38.) It is by this strong and constant resolution, and not by short sallies or weak endeavours, that vice is overcome, and virtue obtained. Let us, then, for a moment inspect the account. How long is it since you commenced your examen? How many objects has it comprised? Had you succeeded in them all, you would have been long since perfect; and if there be any one point in which you have not succeeded, why did you leave it off? You will perhaps tell me it is because you found you failed in it, but do you know why you failed? It is because you did not persevere long enough in order to crown your efforts with success. Moreover, if even, while you directed your examen and your attention to one object only, you did not attain it, is it not plain that without this examen and this attention you would be much further from attaining the object in question? For if he who makes good resolutions is, as we have said elsewhere, liable to fall, how will he be who either makes none, or, at least, makes them too late? At all events, to resolve against your usual failings three times a day must be a curb on you; and though, after some time, you think you are not more advanced than you were in the beginning, yet lose not courage, nor leave off what you have undertaken; but humble yourself in your examen, and make new resolutions to correct and amend yourself. God permits our failings; He always suffered a Jebusite in the land of promise; He permits some defect or vice to remain in us, that we may resist and fight against it that, being thereby fully convinced that of ourselves we can do nothing, and that it is from God alone we must expect strength and succour, we should always have recourse to Him. And it often happens that, from the difficulty we feel in perfectly overcoming our passions, we take greater care, and become more fervent in our spiritual advancement, than if God had presently granted us the victory we begged of Him.
But you will ask me, How long, then, must I continue in my examen upon the same matter? St. Bernard and Hugo of St. Victor ask almost the same question, that is, how long we ought to fight any vice? And they answer, that we must fight it till we find we have got so much ground and advantage over our enemy, that, as soon as he dares shew himself, we are presently able to overcome him, and subject him to reason. So that we must not stay till the passion is quite extinguished, and till we feel no repugnance at all, for this we must never expect in this life; this is rather what is bestowed upon angels than men. It is sufficient that the passion we propose to ourselves to overcome gives us not much trouble, and that it is of so little hindrance to us, that, as soon as it rises, we are able easily to overcome it; and then we may attack other enemies, and take another subject for our examen. Seneca himself teaches us, how we are to behave ourselves in this matter. "We fight," says he, "against vices, not that we may entirely overcome them, but that we may not be overcome by them." It is not necessary therefore that we should wait till the vice is so dead in us that we feel nothing at all of it: it is sufficient that we have so weakened and disarmed it, that it is no hindrance to us in the performance of what conduces to our salvation.
The surest means, notwithstanding, not to deceive ourselves in this is, to confer with our spiritual director; it being, in truth, one of the chief things in which we stand in need of counsel. There are some things on which it is sufficient to examine ourselves only for a short time, and there are others in which an examen of many years would be well employed; "for we should soon become perfect men, if every year we extirpated some one vice or imperfection." And there are other virtues also, in the gaining of which our whole lives would be well spent; since the gaining one of these alone is sufficient to render us perfect. We have the example of some persons who, having taken one thing only to heart, and made it their whole life the matter and subject of their examen, have very much signalised themselves one in patience, another in humility, and others in a perfect conformity to the will of God, and in performing all things purely for His sake. We must, therefore, after the same manner, endeavour to excel in some one virtue, persevering in our undertaking, till we have completely attained our object. But this hinders us not from interrupting sometimes the examen we have purposed to make every day upon this matter, but, on the contrary, it will be very profitable sometimes to discontinue it for ten or fifteen days, taking, for that time, some other subject of examen. But after this interruption we must return to our first and chief affair, and continue so to apply ourselves to it, that at length we may accomplish our object.
How we ought to make our particular Examen.
The second thing of importance is, the manner we ought to observe in our particular examen. In the morning when we awake, we have only to make a firm purpose to abstain during the day from whatever vice or imperfection we aim at correcting. At noon, we are to make our first examen, which may be reduced to three points. The first is, to beg grace of God to know how often we have fallen into the vice or defect we have taken for the subject of our examen; the second is, to bring ourselves to an exact account, by revolving in our mind what has happened to us from the moment of our awaking and making the last resolution to the present moment, to see how many times we have offended -- marking down upon a paper or table-book so many points as we find we have committed faults. The last is, to conceive a deep sorrow and regret for the faults we have fallen into, to beg pardon of God, and to make a firm resolution, by the assistance of His Divine grace, not to fall any more into them during that day. At night, we must renew the examen we made at noon, keeping the same order, and running over the time from that examen to this, and noting upon a different line from the former so many points, as we find ourselves to have failed in since that time. But, to root out still more readily any vice or defect which we wish to free ourselves from, St. Ignatius gives us these instructions: that every time we fall into the defect or vice, we presently make an act of repentance, laying our hand upon our breast; for, though we should be in company, this may easily be done without anyone taking notice of it. Secondly, that after the examen of night, we compare the points we have noted with those noted in the morning. Thirdly, that, in like manner, we compare, for the same end, the points of each day with those of the day before, and those of each week with those of the week before.
This whole doctrine is taken from the writings and practice of the Saints. Ecclesiastical history states, that St. Anthony counselled his religious in their examen, to note down in writing those faults they found themselves guilty of, that on reading them afterwards, they might conceive greater confusion, and endeavour to correct them with more fervour. St. John Climachus would have us imitate a good merchant who, as soon as he has bought or sold any thing, presently notes it down in his day-book, that he may forget nothing, and be better able to make up his accounts at night; even so, he says, as soon as we have committed any fault, we should presently note it down, to be able to make our examen at night with greater facility. St. Basil and St. Bernard expressly counsel us to compare one day with another, that we may the better see how far we advance or go back in virtue, and that we may be more zealous, in our efforts to live better every day, and so be more like unto the angels.
The method prescribed by St. Ignatius for the correcting any fault, which is, that we should undertake this amendment by degrees, at different times, and for some hours only at a time, is one that St. Chrysostom, St. Ephrem, and St. Bernard approve of as being very efficacious. Even Plutarch recommends the same as very profitable, and relates an example of a man who, being naturally of a very choleric temper, and finding it difficult to overcome his passion, imposed the task upon himself to remain a whole day without flying out into anger, and he succeeded; when, seeing he was able so long to refrain, he resolved the day following to keep the same guard over himself, and this enterprise succeeded as well as the former; wherefore, doing the same for several days, he, by this means, so entirely overcame himself, that he became at length of a very sweet temper. This is the very method that St. Ignatius would have us observe in our particular examen, that we may render the combat and victory the more easy. When a sick person is disgusted with all sorts of meat, and yet needs something for his nourishment, we set not before him the whole of what we would have him to eat, because the sight of so much would give him a still greater repugnance, but we give it by little and little, and thus induce him to take as much as is necessary for his sustenance. St. Ignatius acts in the same manner. In the business of our particular examen he treats us as patients; he wishes that we should propose to ourselves only one thing at a time, and that for a short space,-- for some few hours only. For if we should undertake many things, or one thing for a long time together, the bare idea thereof would perhaps dispirit us, and induce us to believe that it is impossible to overcome ourselves so far as to subject ourselves to such reserve and such restraint; and perhaps we should conclude that such a life would be too melancholy and too painful. But when we think that it is but for a morning, we look upon it as a small matter; and there is no one who is not able to overcome himself so far, for example, as to keep guard on his eyes and tongue for so short a space. In the afternoon we make the same purpose till night; for God will take care and provide for the next day; and how do we know whether we shall live to see it? But suppose we do, it will be but another day; and, on rising, we shall feel no regret at having spent the preceding day in so Christian a manner, nor shall we feel that which we imposed on ourselves to be a constraints but, on the contrary, we shall experience a greater facility, and perceive ourselves better disposed to continue it. When I reflect upon this, I think that many would do well to fix their resolution at half a day only; for that would conduce much to the efficacy of their resolutions.
That in our Examens we must chiefly dwell upon making acts of sorrow for our faults, and resolutions of amendment.
Since all the virtue and efficacy of our examen consist in compunction and true repentance for our faults, and in a firm resolution not to relapse into them, it is to this that we ought particularly to apply ourselves. One of the chief reasons why many profit so little by their examens is, that they only apply themselves to find out how often they have failed in their duty; and they have hardly done this, when, the time of the examen being almost at an end, they pass over very superficially all the rest; they have no time left to repent of their defects, to ask God pardon for them, to make a purpose of correcting them either in the afternoon or in the morning, or to beg grace and strength for this end. Hence it happens, that the next day they fall into as many defects as they did the day before; because, having done nothing else but called to mind the number of them, they sought not the means of amending them, which is to raise a lively sorrow in their hearts for them, firmly to purpose not to fall again into them, and to beg grace of God to fulfil this purpose. Without this we can never hope to correct ourselves; for amendment for the future so much depends upon sorrow for the past, that the one is regulated by the other; it being certain, that the care we take to avoid any thing will be in proportion to the horror we have of it.
When repentance is true, it is not only a remedy for what is past, but also a preservative against what is to come. For whosoever has a horror of sin is far from falling into it. The efficacy of this remedy was not unknown to that ancient philosopher who, when a bad woman asked a great deal of money to abandon herself to his desires: "I buy not repentance," said he, "at so dear a rate." And if we take notice of this answer, we shall find it to be worthy not only of a philosopher, but of a Christian also. I sometimes think of the strange folly, or rather madness, of those who resolve to commit sin saying, I will afterwards repent and God will pardon me. Is there common sense in imagining that, for the satisfying an irregular appetite, and for a moments pleasure, you should resolve to purchase trouble and regret all your life long, and a continual repentance? For I grant, as you say, that God afterwards pardons your sins; but if you do wish Him to pardon it, you must have true repentance, you must have a real and entire sorrow for having committed it. This seems to me a most powerful reason, which ought to move us, though that of the love of God, which should be our chief motive, does not. "I will not do that which I know I shall be extremely sorry for. The pleasure of gratifying myself will pass away in a moment, but the sorrow for not having been able to overcome myself will last during my whole life. I cannot, then, feel any satisfaction in committing sin; ‘I will not purchase repentance at so dear a rate:' I cannot suffer that pleasure so transient should cost me sorrow so lasting." This idea is still better expressed by St. Paul in these words: "What fruit had you then in these things of which you are now ashamed?" (Rom. vi. 21) What proportion is there between so short a satisfaction, and so long a sorrow, which we must afterwards undergo? All that I have said ought maturely to be considered beforehand; and when, after this, we are attacked by any temptation, let us say to ourselves: "I will not do that which will give me shame and regret all my life long." When you would dissuade any one from any undertaking, you say: "Take care of what you are about to do; you will hereafter heartily repent it," and if he still chooses to persist in his design, he makes answer that he shall not repent it. For there is no one would be guilty of so great a folly, as to do what he knew would afterwards cause him sorrow and confusion.
I have enlarged somewhat upon this matter, to show that a real compunction and true repentance for our faults is a powerful remedy to hinder us from relapsing, and also that we may know of how great importance it is to dwell some time upon this in our examens. It is true, that though we may have conceived a lively sorrow for our sins, and a firm resolution of amendment, yet, notwithstanding, we may be subject to a relapse; because, when all is done, we are but weak men, formed of clay, and consequently of a matter which may be easily broken and dissolved, as well as mended and made whole again. Still, when a man, as soon as he goes from confession, permits himself to be overcome by the same passions and sins he but just came from confessing, we ordinarily say, he had not a true sorrow for them, and had not made a firm purpose of amendment; seeing he returns so soon to his former manner of living. You would be ashamed to own before your brethren, or to bear yourself reproached in their presence with a fault which you had three or four times accused yourself of before them. How far greater confusion, therefore, ought you to have, to be reproached with it in God’s presence, if you had before heartily accused yourself of it unto Him; if you had truly, and from the bottom of your heart, repented it, had asked Him pardon, and promised amendment; and that not only three or four times, but even thirty or forty times? There is no doubt but we should soon grow better, and should advance in perfection in a very different manner, if we truly repented, and made a firm purpose and resolution of amendment.
That it is very profitable to add some penance to our Examen.
St. Ignatius is not satisfied that we should only have a lively sorrow in our hearts for our faults, and that we should make a firm purpose not to relapse, but to ensure our thorough amendment, he desires that we add some corporal penance to our particular examen, and that we afterwards inflict it upon ourselves as often as we fall into the imperfection we wish to amend. The fear of chastisement will thus make us stand more upon our guard.
Let a horse be ever so lazy, the spur will make him go forward; and if he knows we have one, it is enough to make him go, though we never spur him with it. If every time we commit a fault we were obliged to fast, or do some other penance, we should certainly be far more careful in our conduct than we are.
Besides this advantage, and the merit that penance has, and that it serves for satisfaction and expiation of our faults, it still contains another advantage, which is, that God is wont to hear the prayers and desires of those who mortify themselves and afflict their bodies. And this is one of the effects that the saints attribute to exterior penance and mortification, which St. Ignatius takes particular notice of in his book of spiritual exercises. "From the first day," said the Angel to Daniel, "that thou didst set thy heart to understand, to afflict thyself in the sight of thy God, thy words have been heard." (Dan. x. 12.) So that Daniel added fastings and other austerities to his prayer, by which he obtained the liberty of his people, and merited that God should reveal to him several great mysteries, and bestow many signal graces and favours upon him. We see also that it is a means, always very much practised by the Church, for imploring God's assistance in public calamities, and in all the wants and necessities of the faithful. When an infant expresses not its desires of the breast by pressing and earnest signs, the nurse oftentimes refuses it, or makes it wait for awhile. But when by cries and sobs it asks it she cannot refuse it any longer. God treats us after the same manner, when we ask the virtue of humility, patience, chastity, or a victory over some particular temptation; and when we only offer up our desires and prayers to Him, He often does not grant us what we ask; or at least He defers it for a time. But when we join penance to prayer, when we mortify our flesh and afflict ourselves before Him, then we more easily and certainly obtain what we desire. If the Scripture says that Joseph, seeing the tears and affliction of his brethren, could not refrain any longer from discovering himself to them, what will God do to those whom He loves far more tenderly than Joseph loved His brethren? what will Jesus Christ our brother do, when He sees our mortification, and the sorrow we suffer?
All this agrees with what Cassian says, when he describes the manner in which we ought to behave ourselves in the spiritual war we make against ourselves in our particular examen. The chief thing we aim at is the obtaining what we stand most in need of, and what is most necessary for us. For our examen is made in order to extirpate that passion and bad inclination which chiefly domineers over us, which draws us after it with greatest violence, which exposes us to the greatest dangers, and causes us to fall into the most grievous sins; and because hereby also, we endeavour to overcome that vice, the defeat of which gives us an assurance of a victory over all the rest; and to gain that virtue, the possession of which will help us to gain all others. But it is not only in our particular examen that we are seriously to apply ourselves to this; we must do the same in our prayer; and not only in the ordinary time prescribed for prayer, but also very often throughout the whole day, by elevating our hearts to God, saying with sighs and groans: "Lord, give me humility; Lord, give me chastity; Lord, give me patience." We must also, for this end, often visit the Blessed Sacrament, begging with fervour of Jesus Christ the grace we stand most in need of, and have recourse also to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, and of the Saints, in order to obtain it. All our fasts, our austerities, and the particular devotions we practise, must tend to nothing else but to the attainment of this. And lastly, it being a business of so great importance to us, we must continually have it in our mind and in our thoughts. In this way we shall soon perceive the great profit we get by our examens; because God, beholding our afflictions, will hear our prayers, and grant the accomplishment of our desires. And this, moreover, deserves to be so much the more taken notice of, because we may hereby help ourselves upon all occasions and in all temptations. St. Bonaventure relates that the Blessed Virgin appearing once to St. Elizabeth of Hungary, told her that God did not ordinarily grant any particular grace or favour to a soul but by means of prayer and bodily penances.
Of the general Examen of Conscience.
There are five points in the general examen of conscience. The first is, to give thanks to God for the benefits we have received; and this is put in the first that by afterwards comparing His benefits with our sins, we may be moved to greater sorrow and confusion. Thus, when Nathan would make David conceive a great horror and regret for his crime, he first laid before him the many benefits God's liberal hand had heaped upon him. The second point is, to beg grace to obtain a perfect knowledge of all the sins we have committed. The third, to call ourselves to account how often we have sinned since the last resolution and good purpose we made. The fourth is, to beg pardon of God for all those sins into which we find we have fallen, and to repent and conceive a great sorrow for them. The fifth is, to purpose a firm amendment, and afterwards end with reciting a Pater noster.
This general examen ought always to be joined to the particular; and to this end, the first thing we ought to do every morning when we get up is, to offer to God all the actions of the day. For though, in speaking of the particular examen, I have said that, as soon as we awake, we should purpose to abstain from that vice we have undertaken to correct, and that in this we should employ the beginning of our examen, yet this ought not to be done till after we have offered up to God all our thoughts, words, and actions; referring them all beforehand to His greater glory, and having made a firm purpose and resolution not to offend Him, and having begged His grace for this end.
But the most important advice is that already mentioned, namely, that all the force and efficacy of the examen consists in these two points: in a lively sorrow for the faults we have committed, and a firm purpose and resolution to correct them. Father Avila, treating of this general examen, says: "You ought to imagine that you have a young prince committed to your charge, whom you are to be careful to teach good breeding, and to break off those bad habits and propensities you perceive he has got, or find him inclined to; and whom you are obliged to give every day an account of his behaviour." It is certain that in such a case as this is, you would not build the chief hopes you have of his improvement upon the exact account he himself should give of how often be has failed to observe your directions, but upon the knowledge you have, that you use your utmost endeavours to make him sensible of his faults by reprehending him for them; and that you take all care to teach him his duty by your constant counsels and admonitions, and that you perceive he takes to heart both your reproofs and advice, by the care you see him take to amend his faults, and to put in practice your counsels. You ought to act in the same manner with your own soul, of which God has given you the charge; and, therefore, it is not the calling to mind the number of your sins, to which, in your examen, you are chiefly to apply yourself; nor does your amendment consist in this, but it consists in a great confusion for having committed them, in repenting of them from the bottom of your heart, in reprehending yourself for them in the same manner you would reprehend another whose education was entrusted to you, and in making a firm purpose and resolution never more to relapse into them.
Another thing which ought more particularly to excite us to put what I have said in practice is, that the general examen is a most profitable disposition for confession, as may be inferred from the title St. Ignatius gives it in the book of spiritual exercises, where he calls it "a general examen of conscience, very proper for the curing of souls and for the confession of our sins." The reason of this is clear. For two things are chiefly required for confession, the examen of our sins, and sorrow for having committed them; both which are included in the examen of conscience; so that if we make this examen well, we may be assured that we shall also make our confession well. Moreover, according to the Council of Trent, we must take notice that the repentance necessarily required to make it well, contains two things, a sorrow for our past offences, and a resolution not to commit them any more; so that, wanting one of these two, the disposition for confession is not sufficient. Some may think that their confessions are only then invalid, when, through a sinful bashfulness, they omit to accuse themselves of some sin. But I hold those confessions far more invalid and sacrilegious which are made without true repentance of the sins we have committed, and without a firm resolution of not falling into them any more. By this we may see how necessary the preparation we speak of is for confession, and how much it imports us to accustom ourselves in our examen to practise and dwell particularly upon those two points.
That the Examen of Conscience is a means to assist us in practising all other helps that regard our spiritual progress.
You will not remain long in your bad habits, says Father Avila, if you are diligent in making your examen after this manner, in exacting an account of your behaviour, in reprehending yourself for your faults; but if you always persevere in them, and at the end of many days, yea, at the end of many years, you find yourself very little, or not at all, mortified, but your passions as lively, strong, and violent as ever they were; it is because you have not made use of those remedies given for this end. For if you had undertaken to correct any evil habit, or to acquire any particular virtue, and for this end had endeavoured every day to renew the purpose and resolution of amendment, and compared the faults of the night with those of the day, and those of each week with those of the week before; and made as many acts of confusion and sorrow, as you found yourself faulty, and, lastly, implored assistance of God and the saints in helping you to correct your faults, it would be impossible you should not, after so long a time, have gained a victory over yourself. But if we make our examens negligently and out of custom, without having any true sorrow for our faults, or making any firm purpose to amend them; this is no true examen, but only a piece of formality, and a mere empty ceremony that signifies nothing. Hence it happens oftentimes, that, after many years, we retain the same defects, the same vicious inclinations we had before: if we were subject to pride and vanity, we are so still; if we were impatient and choleric, we are still the same; if we were easily provoked to give sharp and mortifying language, we give the same still; and, in fine, we are as much addicted as ever to our own will, and as much attached to our own ease and convenience. And God grant that many, instead of correcting themselves, and making progress in virtue, have not grown worse, and even increased their vicious habits; and that, instead of being more humble than others, they are not become more arrogant and presumptuous.
We may also easily perceive what has been said, how little those persons are to be excused who cast the fault of their irregular life upon their natural temper and constitution, or inclination; for, on the contrary, they deserve a more severe check than others, because knowing to what sins their nature inclines them, and being obliged to fortify themselves against this weakness which they find in their nature, by which the devil gets more free and easy entrance into their souls; yet neglecting this, after many years they are as irregular, and as little masters of themselves as they were before.
Let all, therefore, who seriously resolve to serve God, reflect upon themselves, and let them begin again seriously to apply themselves anew, and to endeavour, for the time to come, to make their examen of conscience so well, that the fruit they reap from it may be visible to all. We are men, and consequently have our defects, and shall have them as long as we live; but notwithstanding we must endeavour to gain three things by the help of our examen. The first is, that if hitherto we have had a great many faults, we should henceforward have fewer. The second, if hitherto they were great, they must in future be less. The third, that we do not relapse daily into the same faults, which is a mark of great negligence and want of attention.
It is thus we ought to do; and it was by this means that St. Ignatius raised himself to such a high degree of perfection. We read in his life a very remarkable passage, which is, that comparing one day with another, and the present state of his soul with the past, he found that he had daily made a greater progress in virtue, and in the gaining of heaven, insomuch that he said in his old age, that the state in which his soul was in at Manresa (for the time of his studies he ordinarily styled his primitive church), was, as it were, his noviceship, and that God, by the lively colours of His grace, beautified and perfected the picture in his soul, of which he had at Manresa only made a rough draught, or sketched the outlines. Let us, therefore, make good use of so profitable a means, which God has vouchsafed to bestow upon us; let us have a firm confidence, that hereby He will lead us to that height of perfection, to which, by the assistance of His grace, we aspire.