Recently on a segment of The Inner Life, guest host Patrick Conley welcomed Father Eric Nielsen onto the show to discuss the importance of the examination of conscience and how to make an effective one.
Patrick began the conversation by asking Father Eric what exactly a conscience is. The term often conjures up images of angels and demons on shoulders and Jiminy Cricket, but a conscience is so much more. Father Eric said that back in the day, following your conscience used to mean doing the difficult thing, but now it means getting a free ticket to do whatever you want, and nobody can judge you. This modern interpretation is a major perversion of the true meaning.
“The conscience is, at its essence, the voice within every single human being that tells him that he must love what is good and hate what is evil. And everybody has a conscience.” Children below the age of reason and lower animals are the exceptions to this, said Father Eric. A dog and a young child only know what to do and what not to do because they understand punishment and reward systems. A conscience involves moral judgment of right and wrong, not just an understanding of cause and effect.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI used to say that when we were created with a soul, an intellect, and a will – created in “the image and likeness of God” – our intellect has a full and complete vision of God that it instantly forgets as it is united with our body and soul. As we go throughout life, we encounter different things and when we recognize them as “good”, that is our intellect’s recollection of its vision of God. Inversely, when we see something that doesn’t reconnect us with God’s life in us, our conscience tells us that it is wrong. It might be easier or more desirable to choose the bad thing, but it goes against our conscience.
Examinations of conscience are typically done at the end of the day when we can reflect on our actions and judge how well we lived according to God’s plan. However, the first step of our examination takes place long before the end of the day. In fact, it actually takes place at the beginning. When we wake up, we should make a morning offering to Our Lord and make resolutions for how we would like to live, what struggles we would like to address, and what improvements we would like to make. The reason this is a necessary part of our exam is that without some benchmark to measure our actions up against, our results are useless.
When we get to the end of the day, we need to measure our results against our goals. To do this, Father Eric proposed what is called the “3-2-1 rule”. It says that at the end of the day, as we examine our day and the ways we both followed and violated our consciences, we try to find three things we did well, two things we didn’t do well, and make one resolution for the following day. Those three things are three opportunities to express our gratitude to God for guiding us through our successes. Those two mistakes should be lessons for us and while we fell in the moment, say an act of contrition and make a note of the next time we come to that crossroad. And finally, in making a resolution, we should pick the thing that we struggled with most and try to conquer it tomorrow.
Father Eric also said that at the end of his examinations, he picks one concrete sin that he committed that day and writes it down. By the time he goes to confession next, he’s got a list of things he struggled with that he can tell his confessor.
The examination of conscience is not an excuse to think about yourself all day, become anxious or scrupulous, or overthink everything. We are all sinners, yes, but the Lord has not come to call the righteous, but the sinners. As we recognize that we are faulted, broken beings, we must also recognize the necessity for repentance and reconciliation. The examination of conscience provides us with a daily reminder, in the form of a self-reflective habit, that we are imperfect, but we are loved, we are God’s children, and we can always find our way back to God.
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