Self examination helps the sinner to overcome weaknesses

Father John A. Kiley

Pastors — and maybe even parishioners — who get perturbed when crying babies and unruly children interrupt the Sunday sermon are often reminded of Jesus’ attitude toward children when the apostles tried to shush them as they crowded around Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem.

Jesus characteristically welcomed children. He saw them especially as symbols of the kingdom of God. Jesus took delight in small children being totally dependent upon others, particularly dependent on their parents. Jesus saw this dependency, this reliance on someone other than themselves, this need for guidance and direction, as integral to an authentic Christian life. Self-sufficiency, so vital in daily life, could prove disastrous in the spiritual life. A man’s need of God is a basic pillar of Christianity.

St. Luke cleverly places Jesus’ tender attitude toward hapless children between two biblical figures that even to this day continue to represent the smug and complacent believer who admits no need for God in his life. In one instance a boastful Pharisee approaches the temple in a spirit of self-sufficiency. He is proud that he is not an adulterer, a cheat or even an average person. He has a number of worthy achievements, and has no reason to be modest. Next in line is a young official who inquires about what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus challenges him to keep the commandments and then, when the man insists he is observing all these, Jesus invites him to forego all material comforts, sell his goods, and follow the Master. The man’s face falls and he goes away sad since he has many possessions. Like the Pharisee, the official feels more securely supported by his earthly resources, his personal wealth, and his native talents then he does by God. Both men are self-satisfied; neither sees any need for humility. They cannot admit any imperfection. Their conceit obscures their need of God. Their pride precludes all openness to God.

A time tested personal inventory that will allow the believer to assess his true condition before God is the venerable examination of conscience. Under the gentle threat of dying during the night, older Catholics were trained to examine their conscience each evening as they went to bed. A sincere Act of Contrition usually followed. The Ten Commandments were the perennial diagnostic by which a believer could examine his relationship with God and neighbor. A conscience examined regularly would gradually reveal patterns of sinful behavior that needed attention. The believer would soon be aware that nobody commits “every sin in the book,” as many penitents still often remark. Most people commit the same few sins over and over again. In fact, most persons have a single fatal flaw from which most of their other sins originate. A faithful examination of conscience will reveal to one man that anger is his consuming passion. Another will learn that greed dominates most of his decisions. Still another might discover that lust or envy most often lead him astray. This repeated review of one’s innate tendencies and character flaws reveals one’s personal “red flags.” Awareness of one’s personal sins can forewarn the Christian to avoid specific occasions of sins. As patterns of sinful behavior become evident, the need for God’s grace should become equally evident. “Know thyself,” advised the ancients. The examination of conscience can be a good tool in this pursuit.

Another practice of the spiritual life of which Catholics might avail themselves is a device of St. Ignatius Loyola called the “particular examen.” St. Ignatius taught that once a penitent’s repeated sins became evident that individual should select a certain sin – maybe anger, avarice, or sloth – and concentrate on it for a period of time. Everyday at midday the penitent would ask himself carefully and honestly how he is dealing with that particular sin. “How has anger evidenced itself today? How has greed shown up? How have desires of the flesh been manifested?” Every day just one question about one sin should be asked and answered. As the penitent makes progress with one particular sin, other sins should begin to fall in line. Sincere efforts in one area of life should begin to bear fruit in all other areas. The dedication and commitment needed to overcome one type of sin is bound to strengthen one’s repugnance toward other sins. Awareness of one’s own moral deficiencies and spiritual needs, made clear through self-examination, is an indispensable step toward personal union with God.