The Spiritual Role of Conscience – OnePeterFive

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Editor’s note: for other articles on this important topic, see the following:
The Catholic Teaching on Conscience
St. John Henry Newman’s Conscience Against the Pope and the Vaccine

In the last article we learned from Garrigou-Lagrange about the roots of sins and ugly growth in the human soul. Now we turn happily to the steps for spiritual healing as we alluded to in our last article. It is begins, says the Master, with the examination of our conscience:

The enumeration of all these ignoble fruits of inordinate self-love should induce us to make a serious examination of conscience. Moreover, their number shows us that the field of mortification is very wide if we wish to live the true life in a thoroughgoing way. The quietists declared the examination of conscience useless, because, they said, the human heart is inscrutable. They even asserted that such examination was harmful, as all reflection on self would hinder us from thinking of God in naked faith.[1]

Such statements are aberrations easily refuted. Precisely because it is difficult to know the true nature of our interior feelings, we must examine them closely. And this examination, far from turning us away from the thought of God, should keep bringing us back to it. Moreover, we must ask for Divine light to see our soul a little as God Himself sees it, to see our day or the week that has just ended somewhat as it is written in the book of life, somewhat as we shall see it at the last judgment. Thus to see ourselves, we ought every evening to search out with humility and contrition the faults that we have committed in thought, word, deed, and omission.

The Classical Jesuits have a fine tradition of the “examen” prayer which is completed by true Jesuits multiple times a day. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that the examination of conscience is the one prayer that should never be ommitted in any day, no matter what. But our Dominican Master, having refuted the defect of the Quietists, turns now to treat the excess on the other side:

On the other hand, in this examination we should avoid the excess opposed to that of the quietists, that is to say, the minute search for the slightest faults under their purely material aspect, a search which sometimes leads to scruples or to forgetfulness of important things. The examination of conscience aims less at a complete enumeration of venial faults than at seeing and sincerely acknowledging the principle which in our case is generally at their root.

To cure a skin eruption, an effort is made to purify the blood rather than to treat each blemish separately. In short, in the examination of conscience the soul ought not to spend too much time in consideration of self and cease to turn its gaze toward God.

On the contrary, looking fixedly at God, it should ask itself how the Lord Himself will judge its day, or the week just spent. In what has it been entirely His? In what entirely its own? In what has it sought God sincerely? In what has it sought itself? Then, calmly the soul judges itself as it were from on high, in the light of God, somewhat as it will be judged on the last day. From this consideration we can understand the nobility of the Christian conscience and the holy demands it makes; it is far superior to the conscience of a simple philosopher.

Thus we see that the examination of conscience is not a self-absorbed self-obsession as the Quietists falsely claimed, but rather a seeing one’s self in light of God. And then, especially to avoid the excess of scruples, our Master brings in a critical piece of wisdom:

But, as St. Catherine of Siena says in speaking of these holy exactions of conscience, we should not separate the consideration of our faults from that of God’s infinite mercy. We should see, on the contrary, our frailty and wretchedness under the radiation of the helpful, infinite Goodness. The examination made in this way, instead of discouraging us, will increase our confidence in God.

Dom Scupoli writes in Spritual Combat that the axiom of the spiritual life is Distrust of Self and Trust in God. A true examination of consience as described by the Dominican Master, should produce the fruit of this habit in our soul, never falling into the defect of despair nor the excess of presumption, but truly seeing ourself in light of God.


The Spiritual Role of Conscience – OnePeterFive

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