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Brookline Carmel Bulletin                                 

February 19, 1961


Cogitatio Sancta

(Holy Meditation)


The Examination of Conscience



Ask any armchair general:  He’ll tell you that an army without an Intelligence Department and a Reconnaissance Corps invites disaster whenever it ventures out to meet the enemy.  In the words of Our Divine Savior (Luke 14, 31):  “…what king setting out to engage in battle with another king does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to meet him who with twenty thousand men is coming against him?”  The commander-in-chief of an army has to know many things about the enemy, the terrain, and his own resources.  Without this knowledge the value of other factors – dedication and morale of the fighting men, their skill and strength, the most up-to-date weapons – is rendered negligible.


The life of man upon earth is a warfare (Job 7, 1).  What is true of warfare in general is true also of the struggle to acquire spiritual perfection.  If we want to be saints we have to engage in intelligence and reconnaissance activities, too, Knowledge of self and of the enemy, knowledge of the circumstances in which the battle is to be fought are essential.  It behooves us to be able to say with St. Paul (1 Co. 9, 16):  I so fight, not as one beating the air…” The exercise of the spiritual life by which we keep ourselves properly informed on all these matters is the Examination of Conscience.  It would be rash for us to ignore the consensus of the foremost spiritual authorities on this point:  faithful and fruitful use of this practice leads one in a relatively short space of time to high perfection.  We employ it, therefore, not merely in preparation for confession, i.e., so as to deplore our sins and do penance for them, but in order to help us destroy all those things, which are inimical to the pursuit of holiness.


From his Department of Intelligence a general learns as much as he can about the enemy:  his numerical strength, the diversity of his fighting units, the experience and prowess of his troops, their morale, the quantity and quality of his reserves, his access to supplies, etc.  From his Reconnaissance Corps he requires a detailed account of the field of battle:  the nature of the terrain, the relative positions of the opposing forces, points at which a concerted effort is most likely to succeed, avenues of strategic retreat, etc.  And, it goes without saying; he must know the mettle of his own men.  In a word, the commander wants to be sure he has at least a 50-50 chance of emerging the winner before committing his forces to battle.  Prudence dictates that we be in an analogous position before coming to grips with the enemies of our sanctification.


Because a thoroughgoing knowledge of our spiritual status is needed, there are three principle kinds of examination of Conscience:  the General, the Particular, and the Special.  By means of the General Examen we do our spiritual reconnoitering.  In overall fashion we survey the entire day, thinking of it as a day of battle, as composed of a series of skirmishes.  With critical eye we mark our losses – sins and deliberate failings – and our victories – temptations overcome and acts of virtue performed.  In addition, we try to discover the level of our morale, the seriousness of our desire to improve, the firmness of our determination to be saints.  For future reference we take note, also, of which of our spiritual enemies and their tactics have been successful, and which of our own.  Obviously, this kind of examination is to be made daily, preferably in the evening.  Two means of making it should be employed:  considering briefly the events of the day in chronological order, and considering, again briefly, the manner in which we have discharged our duties to God, society, our neighbor and ourselves.


This Particular Examen is also to be made daily, preferably around the middle of the day.  By it we investigate our efforts to uproot a major fault or acquire a needed virtue.  To be fruitful we have to have a fairly good knowledge of the tactics that will root out the fault and a sufficient understanding of the virtue we are trying to cultivate.


The Special examen is best made on the monthly day of recollection and during the annual retreat.  Its purpose is to get at the causes – be they moral or psychological – of our sins and defects.  Special effort must be made to discover our characteristic moral ‘fiber’; our most pronounced good qualities and natural virtues.  Similarly we try to trace the genesis of our acquired tendencies, both good and bad, with a view to preparing the strategy that will enhance the one and oppose the other.


The examination of Conscience can be made easier if, in our spare time, we write out and occasionally consult a list of pertinent questions to ask ourselves, one for each type.  Another help is to make the examen a kind of interview with Our Lord, asking Him if He is satisfied with us.  Being close to Him sheds light upon our moral conduct.  According to the Psalmist (Ps. 35, 10):  In lumine tuo videbimus lumen:  In Thy light we shall see the light.

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