Nightly Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition
When I examine my conscience, I look over my behavior – especially my most recent behavior, especially my habitual behavior – and, asking the help of the Holy Spirit, I judge where I have sinned. I look at myself through the lens of God’s Law – this means mainly the Ten Commandments – to determine, by the Light of the Holy Spirit, where I have offended God. My sins may have been committed either against God Himself directly – as in superstition, sacrilege, blasphemy, presumption, despair, a few examples of sins against the Christian virtues of faith and hope; or they may have been committed against God indirectly, through wrongs committed against myself or others – as in gossip, lying, masturbation, grudge-holding, showing impatience. Some of my sins – an act of adultery, an act of fornication, deliberately missing Mass on Sunday without a good reason (three common examples) – are serious enough to destroy my friendship with God. The guilt of serious sin, also called grave sin or mortal sin (mortal because it kills God’s Life – Sanctifying Grace – in my soul), can only be taken away by the words of absolution spoken by Christ’s priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also called Penance, also called Confession).
Most of my sins, most of the time, are venial sins. Venial sins, while they don’t utterly destroy my friendship with God, do damage it. Though a thousand venial sins do not add up to one mortal sin, they are the preparation for mortal sin; they set me up for that serious fall. I have a tendency to make peace with my oldest and most habitual venial sins, to tell myself, usually unconsciously, It’s no big deal, don’t make a fuss. This is dangerous. I need to look at it this way: Calling a lie of convenience a little white lie, referring to a bit of gossip as just talking about somebody, dismissing the fixing of my gaze (whether of my eyes or of my imagination) on something erotically arousing with, Hey, it doesn’t hurt to just look – all such rationalizations are tantamount to my saying, had I been there 2,000 years ago, Well, at least I didn’t drive a nail through His Hand; I only spit in His Face. Jesus takes my sins, even the smallest venial sin, very Personally. So must I.
There are five steps to making a good Confession :
Step 2 – Be sorry for my sins.
Step 3 – Confess my sins to the priest.
Step 4 – Make a firm resolution never to sin again.
Step 5 – Do the penance the priest assigns me.
Step 1 is: Examine my conscience. Too many of us begin examining our consciences, if we do it at all, while we’re in line outside the Confessional. A Christian who really loves Jesus, who really means to get all sin out of his life, examines his conscience a few times a day. A beginner (and in the spiritual life how many of us are more than beginners?) should, at the very least, do a nightly examination. For the day that is ending, I look over my bad habits, my little vices, and my big ones, if I have any. I review the motions of my passions and of my sick and weak and damaged will during the foregoing day. Have I sinned against God, my neighbor, or myself in thought, word, or deed? Have I sinned by commission or omission (See CCC 1852ff.)? Remember this: If you consider how we’re going to be judged (See Mt 25:31-46), you’ll be a lot less likely to omit tallying up your sins of omission. (For help in this exercise, visit the Fathers of Mercy website, www.fathersofmercy.com, and order a free copy of our examination pamphlet.)
We must know ourselves if we want to change ourselves; and that knowledge, to be helpful, must be accurate. It must be balanced between scrupulosity (being too hard on ourselves, a fault a few of us have) and laxity (being too easy on ourselves, a far more common fault). Self-knowledge is the foundation of our work of cooperating with Grace to become the saints Our Lord means us to be. That’s the purpose of the examination of conscience – self-knowledge. And it works best when it is a daily exercise. Also, I make it a habit always to conclude my examination of conscience by praying an act of contrition from the heart.
Saint Augustine advises: Don’t be your sin’s defender – be your sin’s accuser. When I admit my sins, when I own my bad behavior (as King David did; see Psalm 51), and humbly and contritely ask His pardon, the Good God, Whose Heart is an Ocean of Mercy, rushes in, forgives me, washes me clean, and gives me everything I need to become each day more pleasing to Him in every way.