5 Ways to Approach an Examination of Conscience

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"Examination of conscience" by Amanda Woodiel (CatholicMom.com)

Image credit: Pixabay.com (2016), CC0 Public Domain

Most of us realize that to grow in virtue we need to do a daily examination of conscience. If you are anything like me, though, you will find myriad reasons for not getting around to it, from exhaustion to forgetfulness to not knowing where one of those really thorough little lists of questions is. Well, here I will share with you five “poor man’s” examinations for when you haven’t one of those written ones handy.

First of all, what is an examination of conscience? An examination of conscience is first and foremost a prayer. It is looking carefully at who we are with the Holy Spirit as our guide. This is actually really important, because for us to know who God is, we must know first who we are. You only realize you need a Savior if you are aware of sin. And you only start to grasp His faithfulness, mercy, and love when you see how often you fall.  And once you know Him better, you will love Him more. So let’s get started!

  1. One is to think through the Ten Commandments and to see which have been broken (and if you aren’t already aware, the Ten Commandments are about much more than not murdering or stealing). For example, “thou shalt not kill” encompasses “killing” someone with your words or even gestures. So, for example, if your needy three-year-old (ahem) received a withering look from you when she asked for another book to be read aloud after you had clearly stated it was the last one, or if your vocabulary when responding to your strident kindergartner was a little too colorful, you I broke one of the commandments.
  2. Another method is to think through the seven deadly sins to see which one was a theme for the day: pride, perhaps, when your neighbor dropped by unexpectedly and the state of your house made you refrain from inviting her inside and thereby sin against charity. Wrath, maybe, depending on how many pee accidents, kid quarrels, and inadvertent pokes to your face happened that day.
  3. Yet another way to sort through the day is to think about yourself in relationship to those around you. We have a Christian duty to our parents, spouse, children, neighbor, parish, community … and, well, to anyone else whom Our Lord sent to us that day. Did you love with an agape love — that is, a love that freely bears inconvenience and discomfort for the benefit of others? At the end of the day, can you truly say that you put your husband before yourself?  Did you remember to honor your parents? (Did you remember them at all today?) Did you sin against your kids? Did you scowl at the door-to-door salesman who rang your doorbell just as your 15-month-old settled down for her nap?
  4. Don’t forget sins of omission. What you didn’t do today can be even more hurtful to the heart of Jesus. Did you ignore someone in need? Did you miss an opportunity to show mercy? Did you take your husband for granted because you felt like you just didn’t have one drop inside of you to give? Did you basically forget God today, rolling over in bed before you had said even a simple prayer of thanksgiving or adoration?
  5. Our Psalm refrain at Mass one weekend was, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” Well, about the third time I was singing this beautiful melody, a thought popped into my head (thanks, Holy Spirit). How would my kids complete the phrase “My mom is …”? I think a perfectly valid examination of conscience would be to fill in the blanks for yourself at the end of the day. “My mom is quick-tempered, for-giv-ing of her own sins, but slow to shoooow mer-cy …” I can hear my five little cherubs sing.

A priest once told me, “Without being specific, there is no contrition.” That’s a powerful statement, so let’s relate it back to family life, which is an icon of the heavenly community found in the Holy Trinity. When a child, say, talks back to his mother, and he is called upon by his father to apologize to her, how much does his apology mean if, when asked why he’s sorry, he stares blankly? Does the mother forgive him? Of course she does.

Do you think that child will grow in virtue, though, without understanding what exactly he did that was wrong? Of course not. Was he contrite? Maybe, in a vague way, upon seeing his mother’s hurt face, but certainly not in any way that will shape his future behavior.

So we too need to resolve to examine our consciences before God and, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, tell Him specifically of what we repent. The Christian life is a constant interior struggle against the effects of original sin, and it’s not a once-and-for-all kind of battle. It is a daily fight to conquer pride, selfishness, sloth, and all of the other remnants of original sin. A daily examination of conscience shows us on which battlefield to send our ranks.

St. Paul alludes to this interior struggle in the book of Romans, chapter 7, where he says “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (verse 19, NRSV). Can you hear the desperation of this cry? I can. I understand it. How do we do then that which we want to do? How do we keep from doing what which we would not? Stay close to the sacraments, ask for grace daily to do what is right, do not enter into near occasions of sin.  And too — make a daily examination of conscience


Copyright 2018 Amanda Woodiel

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About Author

Amanda Woodiel is a Catholic convert, a mother to five children ages 9 to 1, a slipshod housekeeper, an enamored wife, and a “good enough” homeschooler who happens to believe that the circumstances of her life--both good and bad--are pregnant with grace. Read more of her thoughts on faith and motherhood at In a Place of Grace and at Amazing Catechists.

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