The Examination of Conscience
Fr. John Baptist Scaramelli, S.J.
(these five chapters exerpted from The Directorium Asceticum,
Seventh edition, 1917. R. & T. Washbourne, Ltd., London. pp. 334-364, footnotes omitted)
Eighth means of attaining to Christian Perfection. – Daily Examination of Conscience.
THAT DAILY EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE IS A MOST IMPORTANT MEANS OF CHRISTIAN PERFECTION, IS SHOWN FROM THE AUTHORITY OF THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH.
THERE are two kinds of Confession whereby a devout person may cancel the sins which sully his conscience: the first is Sacramental, and is made at the feet of a Confessor; the other is wholly secret, and takes place between God and the soul, to the exclusion of every other person; and this is called the Daily Examination of Conscience, because it is generally practised every day by such as aim at purity of heart and progress in perfection. In both these kinds of Confession, search after sin, and humble sorrow, with an efficacious purpose of amendment, are required. In both, we have to accuse ourselves of our sins: in the first, to the ears of the Priest, in the second, in the presence of God. If our repentance in this solitary accusation of ourselves reach to perfect contrition, both one and the other kind of confession avail to obtain pardon and to restore to the soul its former purity. There is, however, this difference, that when any one is guilty of grievous sin, he is under a grave obligation to make it known in Sacramental Confession, else he would fall back again under God's displeasure by his neglect of a most weighty divine commandment. But when any one is conscious of slighter faults only, it is still a matter of counsel to disclose them in sacramental confession, and, even necessary, as we have seen above, if the person would aspire to perfection, in order that he may be able to gain that purity of conscience which, more than any other thing, disposes us to the perfect love of God. This notwithstanding, the confession we make to God alone has certain advantages which sacramental confession does not possess: for we can make it in any place, at any hour, at any moment; in fact, whenever we choose: which is not the case with sacramental confession, where a Priest is needed as the minister, and a fixed place and time must be chosen. Having then in the foregoing Article spoken of sacramental confession, which we make to the ministers of holy Church, it will not be out of place to treat now of this other kind of confession, which, without the intervention of any minister, is made before God, and is none other than the daily examination of conscience. And we shall treat of this subject the more willingly, as it, too, is a most important means of acquiring purity of heart, and consequently of attaining to perfection. This will be shown in the present Chapter, from the authority of the holy Fathers, and in the following one, by intrinsic proofs.
St. Basil says: "At the close of each day, when all our labours, both of body and mind, are brought to an end, each one, before retiring to rest, should set himself to an attentive examination of his conscience, in order to discover the faults which he has committed during the past day." St. Ephrem, a writer of great authority in the early Church, explains this by the parity of a merchant who, morning and night, balances his accounts, and, because he is anxious that his business should flourish, examines diligently what are his gains and what his losses. And thus should we also, says the Saint, if we desire to advance in Christian perfection, both morning and evening look into the state of our accounts, and examine into the spiritual traffic which we are carrying on with God. Then coming down to particulars he writes: "At night-time, withdrawing into the closet of thy heart, thou shouldst question thyself, saying, 'Have I this day, offended my God in any one point? Have I spoken idle words? Have I through neglect or contempt omitted to do any good action? Have I wounded in any particular my neighbour's feelings? Has my tongue given way to any kind of detraction?' &c. And when morning comes, examine again how thy business and thy spiritual merchandise have proceeded during the past night. ‘Have I had any bad thoughts, have I been negligent in dwelling upon them?’" &c. He finishes by saying, that if we discover any sin or failing, it must be blotted out by repentance, and washed away with tears of contrition.
Have you ever observed with what exactness and diligence the master of a house regulates his domestic concerns? Every day he calls in his steward, takes account of his expenditure, insisting upon an accurate statement of all; he examines diligently, to see whether the said expenditure has been superfluous or extravagant, or whether, on the contrary, it has been too limited and insufficient. And this he does in order that he may neither go beyond, nor yet fall below, what is necessary and suitable for the proper support of his family. In like manner should we act in regulating our own selves. In the little world which we all have within us, reason is the mistress that commands, the faculties of the soul and the senses of our body are the servants from whom it has to claim obedience and submission. Let then the reason summon the powers of the soul to give account daily of what they have been doing. Let it call on the understanding for an account of its thoughts, and examine whether these have been vain, proud, resentful, unchaste, contrary to brotherly love, and if they have wilfully or even carelessly dwelt on such objects. Let it summon the will to give account of its affections, whether they have been sinful or imperfect, and whether or not it has in a manner consented thereunto. Let it strictly cross-question all the senses of the body. The eyes must be examined whether they have been over-inquisitive, immodest, or too free and wanton. The tongue must be questioned as to its words; have they been offensive, unchaste, angry, idle, contrary to charity? The ears, the touch, the taste, the hands, must be called to give an exact account of all they have done. Next, by a lively repentance we must correct whatever we shall discover to have been inordinate and sinful, and everything must be set in order anew by a firm and resolute purpose of amendment. By this daily search into our every action, the reason will be enabled to regulate all with justice and exactitude and we shall make easy, rapid, and safe progress towards the perfection to which we are called. This comparison is borrowed entirely from St. John Chrysostom, who employs it in order to show the importance of this daily self-examination, and who exhorts us to the practice thereof.
St. Gregory the Great says, that whoever fails to examine daily into all that he has done, said, and thought, is not at home with, and present to, himself, but lives an outside and chance life, and is consequently losing sight altogether of his perfection. St. Bernard assures us that if we will but examine ourselves morning and night, and prescribe to ourselves, early and late, the rule of our life, we shall never fall into any serious fault. And not to weary our kind reader by multiplied and lengthy texts which might easily be accumulated, I will only add that St. Dorotheus, though one of the early Fathers, while recommending examination of conscience as a most sure means of keeping the soul pure and unblemished, says, that this lesson had been handed down at his time from his forefathers and their predecessors. It is therefore unquestionable that from the very first ages of the Church, the saints looked upon daily examination of conscience as a most powerful means of speedily attaining to purity of heart, and through this to Christian perfection.
Nor have the saints recommended this Examination of Conscience by their teachings only, they have further encouraged us to the assiduous practice of the same by their example; for, indeed, it would be difficult to point out a single holy Confessor who has not made use of it as of a ladder by which to climb to the summit of perfection. St. Ignatius of Loyola, not content with examining his conscience twice a day, conformably with the instructions of the ancient Fathers, never let a single hour pass by without recollecting himself, and searching minutely into all his thoughts, words, and actions, during that brief space of time; repenting of every slight imperfection which the pure eye of his mind could discover, and renewing the spirit within him by a freshly-formed purpose of spending the coming hour in a more faultless manner. He was unable even to understand how any one could aspire to sanctity and not keep constant watch over his heart by examining all its movements. Hence, one who had been a close observer of the course of his whole life, was able to say that the life of St. Ignatius was one uninterrupted examination of conscience. It will not be foreign to the present subject if I relate an expression of wonder on the part of the Saint which renders him worthy of greater wonder on our part; for having one day chanced to meet one of the Fathers of the Society, he asked him familiarly how often he had entered into himself for the purpose of self-examination up to that hour. "Seven times," replied the latter. "Ah, me! so seldom!" answered the Saint, quite astonished. And it was not yet evening when this happened; but some hours of the day were still to come. St. Francis Borgia was also in the habit of taking account of himself at least once in every hour: indeed, St. Dorotheus recommends the practice to all devout persons as most advantageous to the soul. "We may hence infer, that as the saints have so earnestly inculcated, and so diligently practised, this daily Examination of Conscience, it must needs be a most necessary means for the attainment of perfection.
REASONS WHICH MADE THE SAINTS LOOK UPON DAILY EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE AS MOST NECESSARY.
The principal reason why the saints so earnestly exhort us to watch over our every action by means of daily self-examination, is based on the corruption of our nature, proceeding from the sin of our first parent, on account of which the same failings ever tend to shoot forth anew within us, the same sins to reappear, and the same passions to rage within our hearts. Hence it is necessary to observe, at least once a day, what poisonous weeds have sprung up within our hearts in order that we may prune them with the knife of a true contrition. How unwise would not that gardener be, who, having once cleared the ground of weeds, were never to do so more! seeing that the soil will always begin again and again to put forth useless and noxious plants which stifle the growth of such as have value. A vine-dresser would surely be thought to have lost his senses, and very justly too, if, after having once removed from the trees and vines all superfluous branches and tendrils, he were never again to perform the like operation; for vines and trees are ever putting forth a fresh and undue luxuriance of branches, shoots, and leaves. No less folly would it be in a Christian, if having by some one good Confession uprooted in his heart the poisonous growth of his faults, and pruned the wasteful luxuriance of his feelings, he were to neglect to do the same thing day by day, through a diligent Examination of Conscience: being fully aware, as he must be, that some evil weed or other springs up every day; that some branch of sin puts forth its shoots; that some one passion awakens; and that without constant pruning the beauteous garden of the soul would soon become a hideous tangle of sin. But let us hear St. Bernard on this point: "Who is there," he says, "in this world, who has so perfectly cut away from within himself all vain and superfluous attachments, as to have no need to cut or prune away anything more? Believe me, the evils that have been cut down will put forth new shoots; after having been driven forth, they will surely come back; when quenched they will once more burst into flame; and though now they are lying dormant, soon will they wake anew. Hence, it avails little to have used the pruning-knife once; we must use it often, and, inasmuch as may be possible, never let it out of our hands; because, unless we want to hoodwink and blind ourselves, we shall always be finding something in ourselves that needs cutting away." The same Saint then adds: "As long as you dwell in this mortal body, whatever may be your strivings after progress in spiritual life, you deceive yourself if you fancy that your lusts and vices are dead, and not rather forcibly kept under for the time." Never therefore must we let ourselves be lulled into a false security, but we must keep a daily watch and ward over our vicious tendencies by frequently examining our conscience, and must strike them down, when they make their appearance, by repeated blows of contrition.
If a King were to learn for certain that within the limits of his realm his foes were lurking, hidden among the woods and thickets, he certainly would not fail to pursue them vigorously. And when he had found them, think you that he would let them remain there at large? Undoubtedly not. After having tracked them out with the greatest diligence, he would put them all to the sword, and make a wholesale slaughter of them, as soon as they were fully discovered. "Now, remember," St. Bernard continues, "that you have within you an enemy whom you may overcome and subdue, but whom you cannot exterminate; whether you will it or not, this enemy will ever be living within you, and will ever carry on an implacable war against you. Who, then, is this great, undying enemy, or rather, who are these many enemies who can only die when you die yourself? I answer: your own passions, your own vices, and the weaknesses which your passions and vices beget." Seek them out, then, every day by the Examination of Conscience; and having, through a diligent search, discovered them, slay them with the sword of a true sorrow; hew them down by the earnestness of your resolve; so that they may be left on the field, not indeed dead, as that cannot be, but so wounded and disabled that they may no longer be able to hinder your progress in the way of perfection.
Tell me, pray, have you ever heard of a shipwright who succeeded in framing a ship so strongly that neither the beating of the waves nor the violence of the winds could ever spring the slightest leak? You answer, that this would be impossible, because a ship is made up of so many beams, so many planks, so many joints, all fastened together, that hourly beaten as it is by the buffeting of wind and water, it must sooner or later loosen some of them. What then can be done to hinder the poor vessel which is constantly taking in water, drop by drop though it may be, from eventually sinking, and being swamped in the midst of the ocean? There is but one remedy: it is to work the pumps regularly, in order to prevent the water accumulating in the hold. Now man, in the ocean of misery in which we are constrained to sail, is very like a tempest-tost ship, being made up, so to speak, of enfeebled powers, of weak senses, of passions always ready to betray; nor is it to be expected that, amid the shock of so many temptations, having to encounter so many occasions and dangers of evil, he will not leave some small opening by which venial sins, at least, and trivial faults will find their way into the soul, and by their accumulation bring about in course of time that shipwreck which we call mortal sin; or, if not this, at all events hinder him from reaching in safety the port which he is desirous of making, --I mean, from attaining perfection. What then is to be done to hinder this dreadful misfortune from coming upon us by slow degrees? What, but daily to empty the conscience of the faults we have committed, by a serious examination of ourselves? to cast them out by contrition, to close up the rifts through which they find an entrance, by our firm purposes and constantly-renewed resolutions to amend? This simile I have borrowed from St. Augustine. "The troubled waters of venial offences," says the holy Doctor, "rise daily in the hold of our hearts; whoever, then, wishes not to perish, let him empty it out every day, as sailors do the hold of a ship, by a careful and contrite examination of conscience."
From this argument another may be deduced which proves to demonstration that it is idle to dream of attaining Christian perfection without examining our conscience; for, if what we have heretofore proved be true; if, that is, without a daily scrutiny of our hearts we cannot rid ourselves of the vices, sins, and failings to which we are so prone, it is equally demonstrable that without this examination, virtue can have no growth whatever within us; still less can the divine flower of charity blossom forth in our hearts. In order that the grain may grow in the field, the ground must first of all be cleared of briars and brambles: we must first cart away the stones which encumber the soil, otherwise, as we read in the Gospel parable, the thorns will choke the seed, and the stones will deprive it of the moisture necessary. So too, the chosen seed of virtue cannot spring up and flourish in the soil of our hearts, unless they be first cleared of the roots of vices and of bad passions; unless they be previously cleansed of those daily faults, which, little by little, harden it and make it as impervious as a rock All this is admirably expressed in the sweet language of St. Bernard. "Virtue," he writes, "cannot grow in the company of vice. If the one is to flourish, the other must perish. Clear away, then, what is superfluous and vicious, and that which is wholesome and virtuous will at once spring up. Whatever you withhold from your lusts will turn to the profit and advantage of your spiritual life." "Therefore," concludes the holy Doctor, "let us take heed to cut down by a diligent self-examination the noxious growth of faults, vices, and defects, if we wish to see the flowers of every virtue bloom forth in the garden of our souls."
St. Augustine, treating especially of charity, which, as we have so frequently said, is the very sap of our perfection, states positively, that it will increase in the measure of our efforts to keep down the lusts of our disorderly passions, and that charity will be perfect in him who has entirely mortified and extinguished his selfish lusts. As a vessel full of water will gradually become full of air when the liquid is being drawn off, and, when all the water is emptied out, will contain nothing else but air; so, and much more, says St. Augustine, will our hearts fill with divine love in proportion as they are emptied of selfish desires, and then only will they be full of love when they are perfectly emptied of every disorderly inclination. St. Paul accounts for this in these words: "The end of all the commandments" --and by strict consequence, the crowning of the edifice of our perfection—"is charity." But this flower of paradise blooms only in pure hearts, in consciences cleansed from all evil lusts. Now, to bring the heart to this stainless purity, no means can be more effectual than the frequent use of self-examination; than an exact care to cleanse it of its defilements by sorrow for our faults, to provide against future stains by good purposes, and never to let a day pass without thus cultivating the soul He, then, who desires to see the red rose of charity, the white lilies of purity, the purple violet of humility and penance, indeed the flowers of every virtue, blossoming in his heart, must apply himself frequently to this holy exercise, and thus his soul will become perfect, lovely, and beautiful to behold, and the King of Heaven will come down to take His pleasure in it as in a Paradise of delights.
It will appear to no one an extraordinary matter to set apart a few minutes daily for examining and purifying our heart, if he calls to mind that the sages of old, pagan though they were, thought that this daily self-examination was necessary for the bettering of their life, and made use of it for that purpose. Pythagoras prescribes it to his disciples, many of whom were in the habit of searching into themselves regularly every evening. Cicero tells us of himself, that always at the close of each day he called himself to account for everything that he had spoken, heard, and done during the whole course of that day. Seneca tells us that every night he sat thus in judgment over his own actions. "Each night," he writes, "when the lamp is put out in my chamber, and my wife, aware of my custom, keeps silence, I examine into the whole course of the past day. I think over all I have said and done, concealing nothing from myself, passing over nothing. If I discover anything amiss, I say to myself, ‘I forgive thee this time, but do so no more.’" Now, if heathens, out of the desire they had for wisdom, made daily use of this self-examination, how much rather should it not be practised by Christians out of a desire of becoming pleasing to God by cleanness of heart, of attaining supernatural perfection, and of arriving at the possession of those surpassing good things which are in store for the perfect beyond the stars.
I may allege a further reason, which, as it escaped the sages of old, should be better known to us who are gifted with the light of faith. It is this: that by frequently and searchingly looking into ourselves, not in a superficial manner, but with inward compunction of spirit, we escape the severe and rigorous judgment that otherwise awaits us before the tribunal of God; for, as St. Paul says, If we judge ourselves we shall not be judged. Cornelius a Lapide applies these words to our subject in this very sense, and in the following terms: --"If we examine and search into our conscience, submitting it to a rigorous trial, and if, when we discover any sins, we wash them away with tears of contrition, we shall not be judged by God; in other words, we shall escape punishment at His awful judgement."
Such being the case, the reader will do well to reflect on the terrors of God's judgment-day, on the searching examination which will then be made into his faults; to think how inexorable the judge will show Himself; how severe the punishment which will then be awarded by an irrevocable sentence: he may then be quite sure that he will feel glad to examine his conscience, not, only once, but several times a day, in order to escape so awful a judgment. A Religious of godly life appeared after his death, clad in sable garb, with a downcast and melancholy countenance, one of his brethren, a former friend of his. His friend asked him why he appeared in such a mournful aspect. The dead man answered, "It is beyond belief ! it is beyond belief!" "But what," replied the friend, "what is it that is beyond belief?" "It is," rejoined the dead man, "the rigour of God’s judgment and the severity of His chastisements." At these words he vanished, leaving his friend more dead than alive from very terror.
It pleased God to give a specimen of the rigour of the divine judgment to St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi during her life time, in order that her example might inspire us with a wholesome dread. Having one evening knelt down to her usual Examination of Conscience, she was suddenly rapt in ecstasy and borne up to God's presence. Then our Lord, with a beam of His most pure light, penetrated her with such a sense of the malice of each of her faults, that those who heard her make her Examination aloud, while the ecstasy lasted, were struck with horror no less than herself. The first fault she mentioned was having omitted, on awaking in the morning, to direct her earliest thoughts to God, being busy with the care of calling up the sisters, in order that they might get ready to praise God, as she was fearful lest she might be late. This omission, which many of us would doubtless account an act of holy zeal, appeared so heinous to the Saint, that she implored God's mercy, declaring meanwhile that she was unworthy of it, and deserving of a thousand hells. Next she accused herself that, while standing in Choir, instead of being wholly absorbed in God's praise, she had felt some annoyance at seeing the prescribed inclinations of the head and other ceremonies omitted. Here again she craved mercy for what we should consider zeal for God's honour. She then accused herself, as she had already done in Confession that very day, of having rebuked one of her novices with an expression not quite gentle and sweet. She besought God to pardon her, and in order to obtain forgiveness, pleaded the merits of His most bitter Passion. That same day, while conversing at the grille with an aunt of hers, she had been rapt in ecstasy, and carried forcibly from herself by the power of God. Feeling the inward motion of God's spirit, she had signalled to the nuns to take her away, lest she should be seen in this condition by a secular person. The nuns, however, did not understand what she wished to convey by these signals, so that she fell into ecstasy in public, without being able to help it. Now, for this, in which none of us could discover even the shadow of a fault, she blamed herself bitterly, calling it great hypocrisy, since she had appeared better than she was, --craving God's pardon, and protesting that if He cast her into hell, she deserved to be under the feet of Judas. She continued to accuse herself of such slight defects as these, with the like expressions of contrition, and at length concluded in words which would befit a repentant adulterer or murderer, whom the enormity of his crimes had well-nigh driven to despair of God’s mercy, saying, "O God, as I have so often offended Thee to-day, I will not add to my other sins the crowning offence of despairing of Thy mercy. Full well I know, O Lord, that I am unworthy of pardon, but the blood that Thou hast shed for me emboldens me to look for forgiveness." On another occasion God showed the Saint, while she was in an ecstasy, all the sins she had committed in her past life. On beholding them, she sobbed bitterly, and exclaimed, "Willingly would I go to hell, if only by so doing I could bring about that I had never offended Thee." Yet it is well known how blamelessly this Saint had lived, even from her tenderest years. So much does the weight of our faults increase when God takes upon Himself the examination of them, and shows them to the soul as they really are in themselves. What then will be our state at God's judgement-seat, on beholding our crimes in a light much clearer and far more penetrating than that in which this holy virgin saw her slight failings? Truly, disembodied souls see things in a far different light from that in which we behold the same while yet in the bonds of the flesh! What dread, what horror will one day be ours! I am sure that if the sight of our faults could cause death in the next world, we should die a thousand times from sheer fright. But what remedy is there for this? None other than reliance on the counsel of the Apostle: to sit in judgment now upon ourselves. If we judge ourselves we shall not be judged. None other than to call our consciences to account at least once in the day; to search into various movements; to examine them all with a critical and observant eye; and on discovering anything amiss, to blot it out by acts of lively contrition and firm purposes of amendment; bearing in mind that, as St. Augustine says, "God loves to pardon those who confess their faults to Him with lowly repentance, and forbears from judging those severely who, with a contrite heart, do judgment upon themselves."
THE MANNER OF MAKING THE DAILY EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE EXPLAINED.
According to the plan laid down by St. Ignatius in the book of his Spiritual Exercises, this devout practice should consist of five parts. In the first place, we put ourselves in the presence of God by an act of faith and profound adoration, and give Him thanks for all the favours we have received from the divine bounty, but especially on that particular day. St. Bernard warns us to be very much indeed on our guard not to be backward in giving God the thanks so due for the benefits which He imparts to us: since gratitude dictates that we should duly render thanks to the "giver of all good gifts," for every favour, whether ordinary, or great, or small. Now, the time of Examination of Conscience is most suitable for this purpose, as then it is that the soul strikes a balance between what it has received from God, and the return it has made to Him. So much the more, too, as gratitude for favours received disposes the soul to that sorrow which will have to follow upon the thought of the ingratitude we have shown by our sins.
In the second place, we must ask God to give us light to know our sins and negligences. This prayer is most necessary, for, as St. Gregory the Great says, "Self-love deludes us and blinds the eye of our mind so that we fail to perceive our faults, or they appear much less grievous than they really are, and thus we make less account of them than we ought." Hence it is of the utmost importance for us to ask God to dispel the darkness which self-love sheds over our minds, that, the eye of our soul being cleared and purified, we may be able to discover all our sins, penetrate their malice, and estimate it at its proper weight. The more so because, failing this self-knowledge, we cannot have a true repentance for our sins; since as the same holy Pope remarks, "God does not bestow the grace of compunction until He have previously made us conscious of the enormity of our faults."
In the third place, we must make a diligent search into all the sins or imperfections into which we have fallen during the past day or during the preceding night. "Set up a tribunal within thyself," says St. Augustine, "and judge the cause of the life thou hast this day led. Let thy thoughts go in search of thy sins, and let them accuse thee before God. Let thy conscience stand as witness against thee. Let the fear and love of God be the holy executioners to slay thy sins with the sword of repentance." Very different from the judgments of earthly tribunals --which usually end with the condemnation of the accused,--this inward judgment will secure thy acquittal and the pardon of thy sins. "But to attain this end," says St. John Chrysostom, "thou must proceed against thyself with rigour and exactness. Thou must carefully examine all the thoughts that have passed through thy mind, all the words that have issued from thy mouth, and all the actions that thou hast done; nor will any time he better suited for doing this than at eventide, when thou art about to lay thee down upon thy bed." "But remember," continues the Saint, "that this examination is not to be made upon thy life in the gross, passing over slight faults as of little moment; for thou shouldst take strict account even of these, as doing this thou wilt guard thyself from more grievous faults."(30) This latter caution should be borne in mind especially by such as are somewhat advanced in the way of perfection, and who may be looked upon as already being among the proficients, or the perfect; for in such persons every fault increases in magnitude; and, as St. Isidore observes, that which might be termed a slight fault and of small moment in a mere beginner, can no longer be called a small sin in one who has advanced on the way to perfection; in such a one every fault should be accounted as serious. If a boy at school be guilty of a barbarism in language, he is to be pitied; but if his teacher be guilty of the same, he deserves no compassion: because he is bound to be perfect, or nearly perfect, in his own profession. The same holds good of spiritual persons. Hence, they should proceed in their self-examination with attentive and all-observing eye, taking account of every defect; and, as St. Isidore says, considering that nothing can be of slight importance in the state to which they have attained.
In the fourth place, the Examination must be followed by an act of sorrow and contrition for the sins we have committed. "If thou find," says St. John Chrysostom, "that in the course of the day thou hast done some good action, give loving thanks to God; for by His gift hast thou been able to do it. But if thou discover faults and sins, blot them out with penitential tears." This sorrow must, as far as possible, be heartfelt, and full of inward confusion and humility, as we have seen above while treating of Confession. The offender, under the sense of his faults and of his infidelity to God, must present himself in the sight of the Almighty as a perverse and ungrateful son would present himself before an affectionate father, and with heartfelt confusion should say in the words of St. Bernard, "How can I be so bold as to raise my eyes to the countenance of so kind a Father, being, as I am, so undutiful a son? I blush for having done things unworthy of my station, for having proved myself the degenerate son of so good a Father. Let rivers of tears flow down from mine eyes; let my face be covered with confusion, my countenance redden with shame, and my soul be overshadowed with deep humiliation." The reader may be sure that the more this sorrow is humble and sincere, the more will it avail to purge the soul of all defilement.
The saints further counsel a devout person who discovers, on examination some notable defect, to impose some penance upon himself in reparation of the fault he has committed, and as a precaution against future relapses. St. John Chrysostom says, "Let thy mind and thy thoughts sit in judgment over thy soul. Look into thy doings, cast out thy faults, and to each of them assign a fitting chastisement and a proportionate penance." In connection with this subject, Theodoret relates, that a certain monk, Eusebius by name, happened during the reading of the Holy Gospel, to allow his eyes and mind to wander and dwell upon some peasants who were at work in the neighbouring fields. On recalling this negligence in his Examination of Conscience, he imposed on himself, for the fault he had committed the penance, not only of never looking at the field that had been the guilty occasion of his distraction, but of never again raising his eyes to heaven. But having marked out for himself a straight path, just broad enough to admit of passage, he always went by it to the chapel, and returned by it to his cell, without ever setting foot outside that narrow alley. And fearing lest, by raising his head, he might accidentally glance at the objects which he had forbidden his eyes to look upon, what did he do, but fix an iron girdle around his loins, and an iron collar round his neck, and having fastened both together with a short chain, he was thus forced to remain always with his head bent down towards the ground, so as to be quite unable to see either the fields or the sky. Theodoret ends his narrative by observing, that in punishment of this curiosity and distraction, the monk persevered in his great mortification during the forty years that he survived.
I have not mentioned this fact because I hold the opinion that such extraordinary penances are to be imitated, but only to show that it was ever the custom of God's saints to impose upon themselves some mortification in punishment for the faults into which they happen to fall. Of course, in the use of such penances, each one has to consult his bodily and spiritual strength, and to choose, by the counsel of his Director, such as may, without unduly tasking his powers, help to restrain and deter him from falling anew. St. John Chrysostom suggests many such discreet penances; as, for instance, for the faults of the tongue, to recite some prayers; for unguarded looks, to give some alms, or observe some fast; for foolish expenditure, the compensation of a greater parsimony. And elsewhere, he advises the use of stripes in chastisement of our faults, assuring us that far from dying under this infliction, we shall be helped to escape death. Such was the practice of St. Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi, who, after bewailing her faults in the ecstasy we have so lately mentioned, withdrew into a cell apart, and there tore her body with a frightful discipline. Should it happen, however, that any one find himself unable to inflict stripes upon himself on each occasion, on account of the frequency of his falls, he may, at least, in his usual disciplines, add some few additional strokes, in proportion to the faults which he may have committed. If unable to fast, he may deny himself somewhat at his accustomed meals in punishment of his transgressions: he may mortify his unbridled tongue by making with it the sign of the cross so many times upon the floor: he may accompany his prayers with the mortification of reciting them with his hands under his knees, or with his arms out-stretched in the form of a cross; and such other penances according as the devotion and compunction of each one may suggest.
In the fifth place, we must make a firm purpose not to offend God any more. This purpose, as St. John Chrysostom- frequently quoted by us-observes, should be so efficacious as to instill into the soul a holy fear of ever again relapsing into sin; so that, like a guilty person who has been severely rebuked, we may not venture to lift up our heads for shame, but ever bear in mind the reproach administered. In order to be of any real use this purpose of amendment must descend to particulars. That passion or disordered affection which has led you astray, is to be put to the torture; that is the one to be racked with contrition; that is precisely the one you must strike down by good resolves, so that it may no more venture to assail you, or may, at least, attack you with diminished strength. For it is, by particular, and not by general, resolutions, that our vices are usually overcome, as, by taking in hand sometimes this and sometimes that one of our faults, we strengthen the will in a generous and constant resistance, first to one and then to another of our failings, and thus, at length, by slow degrees, we get rid of each and all of them.
And furthermore we must look into the origin of our faults; we must go down to the depths of our soul, to find out the root of these evil weeds, so as to be able to pull them up out of our hearts. What use is there in shaking off the leaves, or clipping the branches of a tree that never bears fruit, and does nothing but cast a hurtful shade upon the ground? Unless the root be destroyed, all avails nothing; the tree will soon be covered with foliage in greater luxuriance than ever. Thus too, our resolutions will be to little purpose so long as we cut not off the occasions and origin of our faults - and our defects will continually return to defile our souls, however much we may resolve not to be guilty of them in future. Lastly, the Examination of Conscience should end with an Our Father and Hail Mary, and a fervent prayer to God for grace never to offend Him more, and to carry out in practice all that we have promised to do -- remembering that we can do nothing without the help of God.
ON THE PARTICULAR EXAMINATION. ITS ADVANTAGES FOR THE ATTAINING OF PERFECTION. THE METHOD OF MAKING IT.
It is impossible to overcome all at once the passions which domineer over us: to uproot by one effort all the vice that is implanted in our souls; and at one and the same time to bring about a complete amendment of our conduct. Hence Cassian, with all the other masters of the spiritual life, teaches that in correcting our evil habits, we must proceed methodically. We must specially keep in view our predominant passion or vice, and be determined to fight against it with all the might of our soul. Against this vice or passion, continues Cassian, as against our chief enemy, we must use all our weapons; that is, all our meditations, our good resolutions, our prayers, our fasts, our tears: all our efforts, in short, in order to conquer it, to beat it down, and take it by storm. Now, what is all this but to make the Particular Examination of which we are now speaking; since this consists in nothing else than discovering what is our predominant passion, and what the faults to which we are most liable, and then setting to work to uproot them, by particular examinations and special pious devices, as we are now going to show.
As soon as we shall have succeeded in overcoming some one passion, or in correcting ourselves of some particular fault, we should take another, and then another, in hand; thus, little by little, this spiritual industry will help us to ascend to the height of perfection. The top of a high tower is not reached by means of windows, but by means of steps. When any one wishes to ascend to the top, he takes the first step of the staircase, beginning to leave the ground below him and to approach the summit. He then takes the second, the third, the fourth step, and so on; and the more he increases his distance from the level ground, the more he nears the lofty summit; and the higher he mounts-- the further continually he leaves behind him the base of the tower--the more does he approach the top of the building. Thus too, may we, by means of the Particular Examination, rid ourselves this month of one sin, in the next subdue some passion, and, after six months' striving, uproot altogether some vicious habit; proceeding further and further from the low and grovelling state of the imperfect, and approaching nearer and nearer to the summit of perfection. This comparison is borrowed from St. John Chrysostom, who perceives a figure of this gradual advance in perfection (by means of the correction of some fault and the acquirement of some virtue) in the well-known ladder of Jacob's dream, which reached from earth to heaven; for we too, by the steps of progressive improvement mount up towards.
And, what is truly admirable, even the pagan philosophers--whether for our instruction or confusion I hardly know-- have adopted practices similar to those which I am now explaining, with a view to their own amendment. Listen to what Plutarch relates of himself: "Being a lover of meekness no less than of wisdom, I determined within myself to spend some days without yielding to anger; just as I might have bound myself to abstain from drunkenness and wine, as is the custom in certain feasts, where the use of this drink is forbidden. I next continued to exert special efforts for one or two months, and made short trials of my strength. Thus, in course of time, I came to bear with greater troubles and annoyances, being able to maintain my mastery over myself, so as to remain calm, gentle, and devoid of all anger. By these means I kept myself unstained by evil words, debasing actions, and the shameless lusts which, for a passing gratification, leave the soul pierced through and through with deep remorse and poignant regrets." Now, these contrivances, if we reflect upon them a little, are precisely what is implied in the Particular Examination of which we are now discoursing, the object of which is to curb our passions, uproot our vices, and implant within the soul Christian perfection; as will be more plainly set forth in the following paragraph. And if a philosopher, by the sole light of his natural reason, was able to discover the efficacy of this means in order to the amendment of his life, and practised it with such constancy, how much more willingly should it not be embraced by a Christian who has the light of faith, and the example of so many saints and spiritual persons that walked by this road, and by it attained perfection; by a Christian, I say, who is more strictly bound than the heathens to aim at procuring the amendment of his life.
We come now to the practical part of this most useful exercise. It comprises, as we may learn from that golden book, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, five distinct acts. First : On rising in the morning, we are to make a firm, strong purpose to avoid the fault of which we intend to correct ourselves by means of the Particular Examination; and this purpose must be earnestly renewed in time of meditation; for, as Thomas a Kempis says, "Our spiritual progress is proportioned to our good purposes." Secondly: If we happen to fall during the day, we must lay our hands on our hearts, and make an act of sorrow, with a determination to be more careful for the future. It was the custom of the monks of olden times to note down their faults as soon as they had committed them. St. John Climacus relates, that having visited a monastery of most strict and austere observance, he saw that the monk who was in charge of the refectory, had a small book hanging at his girdle, and on asking him to what use the book was put, the monk answered that it served for him to note down the thoughts that pasted through his mind; and, adds the Saint, from what I witnessed among the rest of the brotherhood, I perceived that this was the custom of the greater number. He concludes with these remarkable words: "He is a good spiritual banker who, every night, strikes the balance of each day's losses and gains. But that this may be done with accuracy, it is required that we should take note, hour by hour, of the profit and loss which is the result of our daily spiritual traffic." Some, in order to be able to keep this account more easily and regularly, carry about with them, but concealed from sight, a string of beads, on which they register their faults as soon as ever they happen to fall into them. By which means they are enabled to keep an exact account of their failings without attracting the least notice of others, or having to draw upon their own memory. Thirdly: At night, when we are making the general examination of the whole day, we should take special notice of the fault we have set ourselves to uproot by means of the Particular Examination; making special acts of contrition for our failings under this head, and renewing our good purposes with greater earnestness: we should then mark them down on a small piece of paper, or in a little book. St. Ignatius gives a model of these entries. He tells us to draw on a sheet of paper certain lines of unequal length, each rather longer than the following: on the longer ones we are to note down the faults committed on the earlier days of the week: the lines which correspond to the following gradually shorten; because it may be supposed that we are improving, and consequently diminishing daily the number of our faults.
Fourthly: After a few weeks have passed, we should examine our paper or book, to see the number of times we have fallen in each day, comparing day with day, week with week, and carefully taking account of our progress or determination: as St. John Chrysostom teaches. If we find that there has been improvement, we must give thanks to God, and take heart to strive more earnestly after our full and complete amendment. Should we, however, discover that no amendment has been made, and that we have perhaps even gone back, we must determine to employ additional means; such as, for instance, to be more watchful over ourselves, to have more frequent recourse to God in prayer, to make use of some bodily penance; so that we may move the heart of God to grant such more powerful and efficacious assistance as may help us to overcome our weakness: and other things of this description.
Fifthly: We should further impose some mortification on ourselves, in the measure of the frequency of our failings. It has been already observed, that this remedy should be applied to every notable transgression; and it may now be added, that it is especially suitable to use such penance for the uprooting of the faults upon which the Particular Examination is made, as the correction of this should be our main object. We may allege, by way of conclusion, the example of St. Ignatius, that great master of the spiritual life. Failing in health, on account of advancing years, having been, long enriched by God with so many supernatural gifts, and being, as it were, consummate in all perfection, he still always made his Particular Examination, and kept by him a little book in which be noted down his failings; nor did he, even to his latest breath, omit this holy and useful practice; for, after his death, this book was found under his pillow, left there as if it were his dying recommendation to all devout persons never to neglect a practice of such great efficacy for the amendment of their lives, and for the attainment of perfection.
PRACTICAL HINTS TO DIRECTORS ON THE SUBJECT OF THE PRESENT ARTICLE.
First suggestion. Concerning the use of daily examination of conscience, two reflections will occur to every Director: First, that this exercise may be taken up by any one, even by those who are incapacitated by want of education from the use of other religious practices, such as meditating, and reading spiritual books. Every one is able to go to Confession, and therefore able also to examine his conscience every day, and grieve over his faults. Secondly, that no single person should ever dispense himself from making this examination. I am not speaking merely of such as aspire to perfection, but even of those who neither profess it, nor trouble themselves about it; because this is an important means not merely for securing the perfection, but the very salvation of our souls. Nor will the Director be slow to believe this truth, if he will only reflect that it is the natural tendency of all human things to deteriorate and eventually to perish and come to nothing unless they be repaired. A building is ever getting out of order in some one of its parts; and if it be not frequently put in repair, it will at length tumble down and be reduced to a heap of bricks. A farm is ever tending to deteriorate, and, if the soil be not generously enriched, all will finally become an uncultivated waste. A garment is injured a little every day by wearing, and, unless it be mended, will soon be a collection of rags. Now, these are but so many types of our souls. Such is the violence with which our passions incline us to evil ; so powerful are the incitements of the devil urging us to what is wrong; so numerous are the dangerous occasions which allure us to sin; that it is- impossible for our souls---exposed as they are to so many assaults--not to fall at times, not to yield occasionally to so many fascinations, and not to descend gradually on the downward path, to the great ruin of our souls. If such losses are not daily made good by the Examination of Conscience, by repentance and renewal of good purposes, it cannot be but that we shall become disorganised to such an extent as at length to perish miserably, as is indeed the case every day with those careless Christians who do not avail themselves of these means. The Director will, therefore, strive with a holy effort to inculcate this so advantageous a practice on all his penitents of whatever class they may be composed.
St. Gregory the Great explains, by a comparison drawn from our bodily life, the decay which daily takes place in our souls, and the need there is of making it good by self examination, repentance and tears. "Our bodies," he writes, "develop and decay insensibly, without our perceiving it. Who has ever watched the gradual lengthening and growth of the body of a young child? Who has ever seen the limbs of a decrepit old man contract and become shrunken? Who was ever conscious of the growth or decay of his own body? By slow and imperceptible degrees the hair grows white, the flesh gathers into wrinkles, the limbs wither, the body becomes bent, and the frame, without our perceiving it, slowly wastes away." "Thus, too," goes on the holy Doctor, "does the spirit within us grow and decay without our being conscious of it; and even as devout persons, when diligent, advance in virtue unawares, so do the souls of the negligent and slothful, who will not take daily account of their improvement or deterioration, continue to sink downwards and to get more and more out of order, without their perceiving it." "Hence," the same holy Pontiff concludes, "we must frequently look into ourselves; often search our own consciences, and by repentance strive to renew ourselves and regain our former state." I repeat, then, if a Director have any zeal for the salvation of the souls of persons who have placed themselves under his care, he will not fail to inculcate the use of daily examination of conscience.
Second suggestion. The teaching of the saints, as was pointed out in the preceding Chapters, is that this examination of conscience should be made twice daily, morning and evening. In proof whereof we alleged St. Ephrem, St. Dorotheus, St. Bernard; nor are there wanting founders of Religious Orders who, following the teachings of the saints, have imposed it as a rule binding on all their subjects. But, as the Director may be unable to obtain this double examination of conscience from every one, he must at least take care that none of his penitents omit it before lying down to rest, as the end of the day is the most suitable time for taking account of our conscience and of all that we have done; because the darkness itself and the quiet of night time are favourable both to attention and recollection, and consequently to repentance for our faults. Should, however, the penitent be so tepid as not to afford hope of a careful and diligent examination, we must strive to obtain from him that he will at least cast his eyes over the past day, see what are those more grievous failings which present themselves at once to the mind, and, afterwards blot them out by an act of contrition. This will serve not only to cleanse once more his conscience of its stains, but to render him more guarded on the day following. He thus will avoid a fate which is but too common to many of the faithful, who having once started on the wrong path, throw the reins--so to speak--on the neck of their passions, and go deeper and deeper into sin, without restraint as without remorse. If the penitent refuse to do even this trifle, he must acknowledge that he cares very little indeed for his eternal salvation. Just as a tradesman, who can never bring himself to strike the balance of his receipts and expenses, gives a clear sign that he is indifferent whether he be making money or losing it.
Third suggestion. The Particular Examination may be proposed to such persons as, being freed from the bonds of grievous sin, begin to aspire to perfection; this being a most effectual help to its attainment. To ensure this result, however, the Director must assign the subject matter about which the Examination should be made. Let him also observe, in the account of conscience received from penitents, what is the predominant passion of each, what the most frequent fault, and what the greatest hindrance in the way of his progress in spirit; and let him direct each to make his Particular Examination upon that point, first instructing every one as to the proper manner of making it according to the method we have detailed above. However, let him bear in mind, that among the several defects he may notice, it is better to begin with the correction of such as are outward, both because these are commonly occasions of scandal, or at least of disedification, to our neighbour, and because they are more easily corrected than inward defects, which are rooted in our souls, and are, as it were, a part of our nature. Common prudence dictates that it is better to begin with more easy tasks, and to make these a stepping-stone to more difficult and arduous undertakings.
Fourth suggestion. The Director should engage his penitents to give an account of the progress made in the matter of their Particular Examination. He should himself impose the mortifications and penances to be performed in expiation of the faults which each one may commit, and should suggest the means to be employed in order to secure a more generous victory. But if he discover any notable deterioration or carelessness, he may, at times, in punishment of the negligence, deprive the penitent of Holy Communion; that is, of course, if the person have sufficient virtue to bear the privation with calmness and humility. Dranelius relates, that among certain Indian nations, the masters of those youths who were applying themselves to the acquisition of wisdom, used at night, before the pupils sat down to their meal, to exact an accurate account of their good actions during the day, and when they found that they had been careless about making progress, they sent them to bed fasting, in order that the next day they might be more diligent in the pursuit of virtue. A similar, but spiritual, fast, may at times be imposed on our penitents when we perceive that they are careless about making progress, and especially about amending that fault to which the Particular Examination would help them with ease to attend.
The Director must further take heed lest, instead of being to his penitents a means of improvement, the Particular Examination become for them a very injurious source of disquiet, as frequently happens in the case of women, who are by nature timid, and more especially when to this natural timidity are added the suggestions of the devil. For, seeing that, in spite of their so frequent examinations they advance but little (at least in comparison of what they would desire), and that they are always falling again into the same faults, they lose heart and begin to think that perfection for them is out of the question. The Director will drive these vain alarms from their minds. He will teach them to humble themselves in peace, not to lose courage at the sight of their frailty, but to put all their trust in God. He, will remind them that God allows these relapses, and permits the same passions to prevail over them, in order that they may know and feel how great is their own misery, may acknowledge it in all humility, be self-diffident, look to God for their deliverance, and implore it of Him with fullest trust. He will give them to understand that though we have to do our part in all earnestness towards uprooting our defects and overcoming our passions, yet the victory is the gift of God, and must be bestowed by His bountiful arms: that He will withhold it from such as lose heart and get discouraged, and grant it to such only as distrust themselves and place all their trust in Him alone.