The Examination of Conscience
1. Examination of Fidelity to the Gospel
The Constitutions tell us to examine ourselves on our fidelity to the Gospel. For many centuries the examination of conscience has been highly regarded in the spiritual life. The spiritual authors see in this practice a powerful means for attaining greater self-knowledge, a psychological basis for making further ascetical progress. We can distinguish various kinds:
- The examination in a sacramental context: this is the examination prior to sacramental confession; and, also within the sacramental and liturgical context of the Eucharist, there is a brief examination at the beginning of the celebration (accompanied by a period of silence before asking pardon);
- The ascetical examination: This name is given to the various examinations that take place at various times of the day, with a general or particular character; or on various occasions (retreat days, spiritual exercises, etc.).
- The general examination of conscience: This examination does an overview of the person with a view toward moral or spiritual progress;
- The particular examination, which allows one to concentrate for a certain period on a single defect (the dominant passion) in order to combat it, or on a single virtue in order to master it.
The examination of conscience is a means for continuing to make progress on the spiritual journey. It is not an instrument or torture; that is neither its meaning nor its purpose. Rather, it must consist in calling to mind or remembering gratefully what the Lord is doing for others through me. It thus has an eminently positive focus: a review of concrete facts in a climate of prayer, acknowledgment and gratitude.
In addition, the examination of conscience is a way of practicing the art of good discernment, which consists in making a critical analysis of one’s situation, in the context of dialogue with God, ending with a commitment (correction of defects, strengthening one’s good points, etc.). It is a true analysis of one’s fidelity to the Gospel. Thus, the examination, before being a pious act focused on the day, must first be a vitally important attitude.
2. Our Founder’s Practice of, and Teaching on, the Examination
- The general (at the end of the day) at the particular (at noon and at night);
- The examination during meditation;
- And the short examination, at the beginning of each hour.
The particular examination played a prominent role in the teaching and practice of our Founder. He considered it an important means for striving for perfection. He says:
“One of the text means of correcting defects and acquiring virtues is the particular examination of conscience. It may be called ‘particular’ because its object is to correct a particular vice and obtain the virtue opposed to it.”
We know he did the particular examination on humility for 15 years, on meekness and on the love of God for the last 6 years of his life. Even in the final year of his life he resolved to examine his conscience in everything he was doing and at every hour.
- When you get out of bed in the morning, resolve to avoid a defect and practice the opposing virtue.
- At midday, examine that resolution (with thanksgiving and a prayer to continue your resolve until night; or ask for pardon for faults committed and renew your purpose of amendment with a prayer).
- At nightfall, examine yourself again in the same way.
3. Present Day Practice of Examination of Conscience in the Congregation
In our Congregation, examination of conscience today is specified for two basic times, even though it is usually done in private, i.e., not communally:
- towards midday, when it mainly has the character of mental prayer;
- and at night, when it has the character of a general review of the day, and can be joined to the recitation of Compline (Night Prayer).
4. Direction for Examination of Conscience in the Novitiate
It is advisable for the novices to make, besides the examinations that are set up to be done communally, some particular examination, in accord with the directions of the novice-master, in order to combat a particular defect or acquire a particular virtue.
The examination of conscience requires a certain disciplined methodology, some steps:
- put yourself in God’s presence and ask for God’s grace to be able to look at your own life, delving into the day that has passed;
- recall how you have lived the day, positively and negatively (what went on outside yourself and your internal feelings or reactions);
- intuit God’s movement (God’s voice) mixed into the happenings and feelings;
- also discover the tricks or traps of the spirit of evil in yourself;
- immediately, while you are making the examination, ask yourself what are the movements of God, God’s inspirations, God’s calls, perhaps not perceived before now;
- ask youself what message God wants to give you in the things you are recalling;
- and, finally, end with a prayer of thanksgiving and a petition for help.
 The Founder talks about 2 examinations: a particular one, regarding some virtue, which is done at midday and at night, and the other a general one, that covers everything from that day: cf. EE, p. 291; on the examination during meditation cf. EE, p. 103; also OPML II, pp.542-543.