How to Complete an Excellent Examination of Conscience
I remember a telling moment from second grade. My hands were sweating and my mind racing. I hadn’t been this nervous in all my life. I was about to go and tell all my sins to another human being—to the priest. I stared down at the piece of paper my teacher had given me that had what seemed like a million questions asking me what I'd done wrong. I was so nervous I went into the confessional and read every single question word for word and just said yes at the end, admitting to every sin listed—including murder, adultery, and coveting, even though the second grade me didn’t know what some of those things were. Thankfully, the priest was very kind and helped ease my mind to the point where I could confess some things that I had actually done and be forgiven; but I've never forgotten that first time I tried to do an examination of conscience on my own. Nowadays I do them more often than simply before I go to confession. I try to do an examination of conscience every night as the final thing before I go to sleep while I lie in my bed.
And over the years of doing this, I have developed a system that helps me approach this devotional and I’d like to share it with you here. Maybe you already do a daily examination of conscience, maybe not, but feel free to take what I do and do it, or modify it, or incorporate some of it into your prayer life.
The practice of doing a daily examination of conscience is one that has been promoted by the saints and great thinkers of our faith. St. Jose Maria Escriva once wrote “The daily examination of conscience is an indispensable help if we are to follow our Lord with sincerity of heart and integrity of life.” I think many people choose not to do one because they think that it will just cause them to focus on their sins, and they’d rather not go to bed with the thoughts of their sins going through their mind. However, Archbishop Fulton Sheen describes well what we are really doing in an examination of conscience: he writes that the “examination of conscience, instead of inducing morbidity, thereby becomes an occasion of joy. There are two ways of knowing how good and loving God is. One is by never losing Him, through the preservation of innocence, and the other is by finding Him after one has lost Him.” We do an examination of conscience to grow closer to God by recognizing that He is the Father that runs out to greet the prodigal son, the Father that never stops offering His mercy, the Father who desires nothing more than to kill the fatted calf in celebration of our coming back to Him.
With that said, here is a quick guide for how I go through my daily examination of conscience. As I said before, feel free to adapt this to a way that works for you.
1. Pray to the Holy Spirit
I begin by saying a prayer to the Holy Spirit in my own words asking for the Spirit’s help in making a good examination. It’s important to recognize that it is only through the Spirit that we can pray at all and thus we should invoke the Spirit before any prayer. If you don’t feel comfortable using your own words here is a general version of what I say before I begin my examination: “Holy Spirit, free gift of the Father and Son, and God Himself, I beg you to enter my heart and assist me in recognizing any obstacle between me and you so that, with your grace, that obstacle may be removed and I may grow in your love. Amen.”
2. Review my goal from yesterday
You’ll see my final step of the examination of conscience is to make a spiritual goal for the upcoming day. Right after my prayer to the Holy Spirit I recall my goal for the day and see if I met it. Knowing that this is between God and myself I make myself be brutally honest and I don’t sugarcoat my answer if I didn’t meet the goal. If my goal was to be charitable in one instance where I didn’t want to be, I make myself recall either the moment I was charitable or think of times when I could have been charitable in the day and wasn’t.
3. Review of day
For this step I simply take a couple of minutes and go through my day in my mind. I try to recall the things I did, the people I met, the actions I took, the words I said, and the thoughts I had. I try to recall both the good and the bad. I try not to focus on any one moment for too long but I want this to truly be a review of my day.
4. Identify my sins
Once I’ve reviewed my day, I mentally confess my sins of the day to God and ask for mercy. This does not mean that I don’t have to confess them when I go to confession, and part of my prayer as I am listing my sins of the day is a prayer for the grace to remember them when I do go to confession. I start by remembering where I sinned in my actions and words and then move onto where I have sinned through my inaction and what I failed to do.
5. Pray the Confiteor
You know this one. We pray it every Sunday at Mass. But it is a prayer that we can say outside of Mass as well. “I confess to God, and to you my brothers and sisters…” If you have difficulty remembering it exactly (it’s often harder to remember when you’re on your own than reciting it as a group) print it out and read it. It has it all. We acknowledge our sins and ask the saints to pray for us.
6. Acknowledge the presence of God in our lives during the day
Here I borrow a little bit from the Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which is a little bit different than the examination of conscience. In this step I recall at least one moment during the day that God was present in my life in some way that I could recognize. It might be through nature, or another person, or a sacrament; but I make sure I recall where God was present in my life that day and say a prayer of thanks for that moment and the grace to always recognize His presence in my life.
7. Make a spiritual goal for the next day
I make a spiritual goal that I want to accomplish tomorrow. I make it specific rather than vague. So rather than saying “I want to grow in holiness tomorrow” (which I do want) I make a goal of something like “I want to spend 30 minutes in prayer tomorrow” or “I want to go to daily Mass tomorrow” or “I want to go out of my way at least once to be charitable to another person”—something that I can review tomorrow night and say either yes or no to when asking if I've accomplished my goal.
8. Prayer of Thanksgiving
The final thing I do is say a prayer of thanksgiving for the great gift of God’s mercy in my life and ask that I may be merciful toward others.
This all doesn’t take very long—maybe 4 or 5 minutes. Longer if I have more things to go over, or shorter if I’m really tired; but I try to do it every day. I’ve found that it has helped me in many things—going to confession, trusting in the mercy of God, being merciful to others, and helping me recognize the gifts God has given me. If you already do a daily examination of conscience, I encourage you to tell others about it; if you don’t, well—tonight is a good night to start!