The Examination of Conscience: Keeping Watch over our Spiritual Clocks
There’s a piece of advice in St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life that reminds me of my grandfather’s old Timex with its round face, glow-in-the dark hands and stretchy metal band.
When my brothers and I spent the night in my grandparents’ home, Grandpa would move cots into their bedroom for us.
"After Grandma’s prayers and stories, we were already drifting off to sleep, but in the dark silence of bedtime, I could hear Grandpa removing his watch and winding it – ch-ch-ch – so it would still be keeping time in the morning."
“There is no clock, no matter how good it may be,” de Sales writes in his spiritual classic, “that doesn’t need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.” Similarly, he continues, we who love God must take time morning and evening to “reset and rewind” our hearts.
“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you,” the Scriptures promise (James 4:8). The Church’s many prayers and practices support the resetting and rewinding of our spiritual clocks. Whether it’s the Morning Offering, the Liturgy of the Hours, meditation on the daily readings or the Rosary, most of us have found support in structuring our spiritual life around some form of regular prayer.
"We who love God must take time morning and evening to “reset and rewind” our hearts."
Frances de Sales was only one of many saints, including Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola and Mother Teresa of Kolkata who recommended a daily examination of conscience, but many people find that the various forms of morning prayer are easier to maintain than reviewing the day in God’s presence each evening.
St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 5 Step “examen” is a widely practiced method, and it may be the form easiest for lay people to access. In the examen, we first thank God for the gifts we’ve received that day. Noticing things that gave us joy helps us see the Father’s care for us even on difficult days, so that in the next step, we can confidently ask God for grace to know our sins. Humbly acknowledging our weaknesses prepares us to then review the day, noting times we felt more distant from the Lord. We ask the Father’s forgiveness and plan steps that will help us stay closer to him in the future.
"Humbly acknowledging our weaknesses prepares us to then review the day, noting times we felt more distant from the Lord."
In his book The Examen Prayer, Father Timothy Gallagher assures us that if we find evening a difficult time to make the examen, any time that does work is just fine. The important thing is to begin, and when we fail, to begin again. If we seek to examine our conscience more fruitfully, we can always reach out to a priest or spiritual friend for advice more specific to our needs.
"The important thing is to begin, and when we fail, to begin again."
My grandparents shared many fascinating things with me: boxes of stamps, a tin full of multicolored marbles, a tackle box with wooden fishing lures. They gave me many memories for which I’m still grateful, most of all for the ways they modeled a life of prayer.
But the memory of Grandpa’s Timex is special because it reminds me of an eternal truth: if I want to grow closer to Christ, I need to reset and rewind my spiritual clock.
A daily examination of conscience helps our hearts keep watch.
Peggy Haslar, Parishioner, St. Joseph, Monte Vista
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