What if you changed the way you examine your conscience?

We often reduce this spiritual practice to a list of questions about sin, but there’s another way that can help us grow spiritually.

Examining our consciences can be like going through customs: “What do you have to declare? Tick the right box!” What if instead we “reviewed our lives”? 

No matter how good it is, no list of questions could be anything more than a way to help us examine our conscience. It would never replace a personal prayer, an honest interrogation that makes us face ourselves or our sins. Yes, it could lead to a conversation with the Lord, but examining our conscience can’t be reduced to examining a piece of paper. We must admit that even the very expression “to examine our conscience” is not a very good one. It highlights something true – that our faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the Lord are a matter of conscience, of a struggle deep inside us. However, there’s a risk of becoming too focused on ourself, identifying sins and various scruples, reducing conversion to a relentless scrutiny for the sake of personal growth. All of this has more to do with psychology than with spirituality, with morality than with the message of the Gospels. Shouldn’t we instead be talking about “reviewing our lives”? 

How to look for one’s own sins

The term “reviewing our lives” entails a specific instruction, the famous trilogy: to see, to judge, to act. It helps us to animate our life with the Gospels and vice versa. It’s in our lives that we have to hear God’s call and respond to it. So, it’s also where we should be looking for our sin. More concretely, it is enough to go through the places and the moments that structure our days, and place them under the eyes of the Lord. 

For a certain number of Christians, this could provide a precious opportunity for true spiritual progress. However, the risk of becoming trapped in a moralizing perspective can’t be completely excluded. We pass from a well-meaning personal correctness to a more social and even more political one, remaining stuck in its bounds.

Deep down, if we are disciples of Christ, it is revelation that truly sheds light on our sins, as it does on everything else. Psalm 36 says “In thy light we shall see light.” The scrutiny of our lives or of our sins will never dispense us from scrutinizing the Word of God. It is in the light of the Gospels that we can clearly see deep inside us and review our past. This kind of spiritual exercise is called “discernment” and it is at these moments that the disciple allows himself to be instructed, the sinner allows himself to be converted, and the saint allows himself to grow.  Evaluations, formulas, and various kinds of meditation could be helpful. We can use them as a personal technique and as a way of celebrating together, but nothing is as precious as what leads one to be profoundly and directly attentive to the Lord.   

The indispensable tools one should consult

From this point of view, there are some essential texts to which we can constantly refer — the second half of the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides us with complete commentary, the Beatitudes, the Our Father, and above all, the new commandment Jesus gave us to love one another.

We could also simply meditate on the readings from the Bible: from that day, from Sunday, or from the one that has captured our attention at the moment. Amos talks to us of the poor, Solomon talks to us of wisdom, St. Paul talks to us of unity, St. John talks to us of fraternal love, St. Peter talks to us of faith, and each time the Holy Spirit talks to us, questions us, calls us to convert and renew ourselves. Heeding each of their messages compels us to face our conscience and our lives, but most importantly it makes us face God. 

Father Alain Bandelier

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