Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord,
Do you still remember the bedtime prayers you learned as a child? Many of us still do. Many of us still say them. Perhaps they were taught to you by your mom, your dad or, perhaps, a grandparent? One of those prayers was often an Act of Contrition. This was our infant expression of remorse for offenses against God for which were very sorry or, more often, offenses against our siblings for which our parents told us we should be very sorry. Being the eldest of ten, this could make for a whole lot of bedtime contrition though I was convinced I was merely engaged in playful teasing!
Those childhood prayers were simple, but they weren’t simplistic. In fact, they contain great spiritual wisdom which, if we have allowed it, stands us in good stead for the rest of our lives. That includes the practice of daily examination of conscience followed by repentance by making a good act of contrition. Allow me to explain further in, this, Week 8 of Disciples Together on the Way.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines repentance thus: “Repentance is a reorientation of our whole life, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, and a turning away from evil. At the same time, it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by an, often painful, sadness which the Church Fathers called animi cruciatus or affliction of spirit and also compunctio cordis or repentance of heart.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1431)
This is also what we witness lived out in the Gospels. John the Baptist preached this in the wilderness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Matthew 3:2. Why repent? Because Jesus Christ, God made man, is calling each of us into a relationship of love and any relationship of love is wrecked by an inability to say “sorry”. If you are married, just ask your wife or your husband. But how do we discern what exactly to say sorry for?
That’s where this week’s challenge comes in. Starting Sunday, I am challenging you to make a nightly examination of conscience. How do we do that?
For help, let’s turn to Saint Ignatius of Loyola. He is the 16th century founder of the Jesuits. He is also often regarded as the unofficial patron saint of discernment. One of the few rules Saint Ignatius insisted upon for his fledgling religious order was that all Jesuits would daily examine their conscience – not once but twice! I’m only suggesting we do it once, at the conclusion of each day. The Jesuits call this Examination of Conscience The Examen. The word comes to us from the Latin meaning to “weigh accurately”.
You could describe the Examen as “spiritual stocktaking” at the end of each day. We are to become better aware of our day, understand what we did or did not do, and take action to make some change. Thus, the Examen prayer invites us to reflect on the whole of our spiritual experience of each day, especially to see what was of God and what was of the devil. Through the Examen, we can come to see the areas of our life where we’ve cooperated with God’s promptings and also where we have fallen short or, even, fallen for the temptations of the enemy.
Right, enough theory. Let’s try it out! There are various versions of the Examen prayer in circulation but here’s one with six clear steps. We’ll reproduce all this in print so that you can use it each evening:
Step One: Be Still. Take a moment to acknowledge God’s love for you and presence in this very moment. Rest with him in silence and stillness. Take a few deep breathes.
Step Two: Thankfulness. Invite the Lord to show you what of this day you are most grateful for…small or big things...joyful moments or challenging ones that brought growth. Thank Him.
Step Three: Review your day. Invite the Holy Spirit to lead this time of reflection, helping you see with the eyes of God what took place in your day. Take note where you had joy, life, energy, peace, closeness to God and where you had darkness, dryness, anxiety, heaviness of heart, etc. Ask the Lord for understanding of the meaning of the various spiritual movements you’ve experienced.
Step Four: Repentance. As you look back across you day, see those moments where you sinned or fell short of saying “yes” to God’s promptings in given situation. And then? Ask God for forgiveness. You can use whatever words of sorrow well up from your heart or, if it is a help, you can employ a traditional text such as the following:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.
Step Five: Look forward to tomorrow. Ask God to show you ways you can learn from today’s experiences in order to make better choices tomorrow.
Step Six: A Moment of Gratitude. Give thanks for this time of prayer and the inspirations God brought with our own words or perhaps by praying a Glory Be or a Hail Mary.
I hope this prayer form blesses your journey in growing in deeper communion with our Lord. So, to recap: My challenge for you this week is to make a nightly Examination of Conscience.
And may God bless you throughout this week, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Yours in Christ,
+ Earl Boyea
Bishop of Lansing