Examen of Conscience
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
The examination of conscience
is an essential part of the spiritual life. All intelligent people make
a periodic self-assessment. Our purpose here is to speak of the daily
examen of conscience which is recommended by all the writers of the
For most people, the examination
of conscience is part of their preparation for their reception of the
Sacrament of Penance. However, our focus here is rather on what we technically
call the examen of conscience. This is a daily prayerful reflection
on our service of God. There are two basic examens of conscience. One
is called the general examen and the other the particular
The general examen, as the
name implies, is a general overview of my moral behavior during the
past day. We must assume that our conduct has been both praiseworthy
and blameworthy. We should also look forward to the next day and prepare
ourselves beforehand on how we should do God's will in the immediate
future that awaits us. Consequently, it is wise to distinguish three
areas of prayerful reflection for the daily general examen of conscience.
In the presence of God, I should
reflect on what blessings the Lord has given me during the past day
for which I gratefully thank Him. These blessings may not all have been
pleasant. As a matter of fact, some may have been painful. No matter.
God manifests His will to us, urging us to do what we enjoy. Those we
may call pleasant graces.
But God will also ask us to do what we may dislike, or refrain from doing something we may like. That is immaterial. The only question is, do I do as God wants me to do or give up something He wants me to give up? Once I know what God wants of me in my life, I decide to do it with my mind and choose to do it with my will.
The first part of the general
examen of conscience, therefore, is to thank our Lord for the graces
He has given me, whether pleasant or painful, with which I have faithfully
cooperated. For this, I thank Him.
Next, again in God's presence,
I should ask myself where I have failed to cooperate with the grace
that God has given me during the day. Most of us have a pattern in our
moral behavior. I may have failed in the practice of humility, or prudence,
or charity, or patience, and so on down the list of our human weaknesses.
Simply assume that you have failed in some way or another in responding
to the will of God in your life. Be concrete and specific.
Briefly recall the circumstances
which occasioned your moral failure. And then do the obvious thing of
asking our Lord to forgive you and give you the strength not only to
avoid this sin in the future but enable you to be more generous in His
service as an expiation for your past failure.
Finally, plan for the future.
Sacred Scripture could not be plainer. The just man anticipates what
he will do and is not caught unaware of what God expects of him. This
part of the general examen is indispensable in the spiritual life.
It means that I look forward
to what I am to do, and avoid doing, in the next day. It further means
that I ask myself, in God's presence, how I should do what my conscience
tells me is God's will. It even means that I anticipate how much time
I will spend, say in conversation with someone, or on a particular task
that lies ahead of me. Clearly this calls for both prudence and prayer.
I must foresee what God expects
of me and plan on how I am to fulfill this expectation. But it also,
and especially, means that I pray for the light to know what I am to
do and how to do it, and for the strength of will which only God can
provide to do His will effectively.
A standard dictionary definition
of agenda is "a list, outline, or plan of things to be considered
or done." For the believing Christian, agenda are the things that
God wants me to do. Our natural tendency is to do first the things that
we like, and then the things that are useful, and finally the things
that are necessary. We need Divine help to reverse this natural process.
That is why the third purpose of the general examen of conscience is
absolutely crucial if we wish to grow in holiness. I must daily anticipate
God's will for my next day and ask Him for the grace I will need to
do His will instead of following my own.
One brief suggestion. It is
a good idea to jot down, however briefly, what I foresee the Lord expects
me to do in the next day.
The particular examen of conscience
follows logically on the general examen. All of us have certain tendencies
across the whole spectrum of moral misbehavior. Yet no two of us are
identical in which of these tendencies is predominant.
Some are more prone to pride
than to lust. Some are more prone to anger than to greed. Some are more
prone to envy than to sloth. In fact, each one of us changes from time
to time in what failure of our moral conduct is dominant, depending
on the circumstances and persons who enter our lives.
The particular examen concentrates on coping with the predominant moral weakness of our own personality.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola is
so commonly associated with the particular examen that some have mistakenly
supposed he invented the practice. He did not. He reduced it to a methodical
form, and made it essential to the Spiritual Exercises. The retreat
movement so spread throughout the world that the particular examen became
the stock-in-trade of modern asceticism.
Already in ancient times the
Greek philosopher Pythagoras obliged his disciples twice daily, morning
and evening, to answer three questions: What have I done? How have I
done it? What have I failed to do? Among the Christian Fathers, Saint
Basil promised the early monks, "You will certainly grow in virtue
if you make a daily account of your actions and compare them with the
The wisdom of the particular
examen lies deeper than the old maxim, "Divide et impera"
... "Divide and Conquer." Evidently we have a better chance
to master our tendencies if we take them one at a time and concentrate
our efforts on the one weakness that now predominates in our lives.
Centuries of moral wisdom has shown it is better to do this than scatter
our energy of will over the whole field of our passions.
Saint Francis de Sales as a
young man was given to melancholy, which sometimes bordered on despair.
He specialized in overcoming despondency to the point where he became
the modern apostle of joyous confidence in God.
It is impossible to exaggerate
the value of the examen of conscience in the spiritual life. It is the
foundation of a life of prayer. It is the prayer of humility, in which
we admit our ignorance and weakness. We beg our Lord to supply for the
needs that we have in this life in order to reach Him in that everlasting
life for which we were made.
Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.