Tuesday, February 9, 2010
From "First Lessons in the Science of the Saints," by R. Meyer, S.J.
WHAT is the subject-matter of the Particular Examination? According to St. Ignatius, it is "the particular sin or defect," that is, imperfection of any kind, "of which one wishes to correct himself." The same idea is conveyed by the words which the priest says at the Offertory of the Mass, when he prays: "Accept, O holy Father, almighty and everlasting God, this immaculate victim which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer Thee for my innumerable sins, and offences, and negligences."
Sins, in this connection, are faults properly so called in thought, word, deed, and omission and into which we frequently and deliberately fall. Offences are faults less properly so called, which we are wont to commit through human frailty and inadvertence, just as a traveler walking upon slippery ground is apt to fall, when he is ever so little off his guard. Negligences are shortcomings which can not properly be classed with sins of omission, and which do not wholly vitiate our actions, but which dim their luster and mar their perfection. Such, for example, are all those shortcomings, which result from a lack of fervor, of a pure intention, of full correspondence with the lights and graces vouchsafed us, and of other qualities which ought to shine forth in our actions and in our whole lives. The Particular Examination, therefore, should be directed: first, towards avoiding all deliberate sins; secondly, towards diminishing the number of our lesser offences, and, as far as possible, avoiding them; thirdly, towards diminishing the number of our negligences, and, as far as possible, avoiding them. In all these cases, there is question of amending some fault, whether it be a sin strictly so called, or a want of perfect fidelity and correspondence on our part. Hence St. Ignatius very properly mentions only sins and defects, as the subject matter of the Particular Examination of Conscience, yet it is obvious, that we can not avoid those shortcomings called negligences, except by the practice of the missing virtue or perfection. For instance, if the negligence consists in the lack of a pure intention in our actions, the only way to correct it is to be careful in future to have such an intention, and this implies positive acts of virtue. In general, sins or evil habits may be overcome, either directly by repressing them, or indirectly by practicing the contrary virtues. The former is called the negative, and the latter the positive method. Both methods are indicated by the. author of the Imitation, when he writes: "Two things particularly conduce to a great amendment; these are, forcibly to with draw one’s self from that to which nature is viciously inclined, and earnestly to labor for the good which one wants the most."
But, whether we pursue the negative or the positive method, it is essential to full success that the subject-matter be sharply denned. Not only must we aim at the correction of our vice, or the acquisition of one virtue at a time, but often we must subdivide the matter into several parts, corresponding to the different ways in which either the vice or the virtue shows itself. For example, if we wish to apply our Particular Examination to rooting out pride and implanting humility in our hearts, it is not sufficient to propose to ourselves in general, not to take pride in anything and to humble ourselves in everything. Thus proposed, the subject- matter is altogether too comprehensive. For pride may betray itself in ambitious thoughts, in boastful words, in haughty deeds; humility, on the other hand, may manifest itself in lowliness of spirit, in meekness of speech, in modesty of demeanor. And each one of these subdivisions furnishes ample matter for the Particular Examination of Conscience.
So much being presupposed, we may ask: What should we take as the subject of our Particular Examination? To this question no general answer can be given. It is a matter which the advice of a prudent confessor or director, aided by the self-knowledge derived from prayer and especially from the General Examination, must determine for each one of us, according to circumstances. However, as a guide for the confessor or director, as well as for the penitent, spiritual writers lay down the following rules:
1 . Strive to subdue your vice before you apply your self to the acquisition of virtue. "The husbandman frees his field from briars, nettles, and noxious weeds, before he scatters the good seed over it. In like manner, he that tills the soil of his heart, should begin by rooting up his vices, and then devote himself to cultivating the virtues which will bear fruits of holiness, while at the same time they will check the undergrowth of vice." The first subject, therefore, of the Particular Examination should be deliberate sins. Until they have been cleared away, we look in vain for a healthy growth of virtues.
2. Correct your external faults before others which are purely internal. The latter easily escape the scrutiny of one who has little experience in the spiritual life. They may not be voluntary, because not all our internal actions are under the control of the will; and so it often happens, that the beginner is unable to tell how far, if at all, he is to blame. Begin, therefore, with external actions, which are more easily governed, and more readily recognized as culpable, when they deviate from the laws of God and of right reason. By thus regulating your external actions, you will gradually weaken the vices in which they have their origin. For instance, if the high opinion which you have of yourself, shows itself in haughty or boastful words, the effort to check them will make itself felt in your heart, and will deaden the sentiment of egotism which finds expression in them.
3. If you are subject to a, variety of external faults, try to free yourself first from such as are more likely to give scandal or to detract from the esteem which a life of virtue ought to inspire ii\ others. For example, if you are accustomed to speak hastily, thoughtlessly, sharply, and thereby perhaps wound the feelings or in jure the reputation of your neighbor, reason and charity requite you to correct these defects before others which, in themselves, may be far more serious.
4. Again, amend your deeds before your words; because, as St. Ignatius teaches in the General Examination of Conscience, sins of deed are more serious than others, for a threefold reason: namely, "on account of the greater length of time, the greater intensity of the act, and the greater number scandalized or injured."
5. Beware, however, of being so intent on the correction of external faults, as to pass your whole life therein. After all, it is not external propriety, but internal purity, that we must propose to ourselves as our ultimate aim. We are engaged in a conflict with vice, and vice is rooted in the heart.
Find out, therefore, by means of the General Examination, what is the vice that has the upper hand in you; in other words, find out what is the chief disorder introduced into the soul by your predominant passion. There is your danger, there is the spot which your enemy will attack, there is the traitor, ready to take sides with him and to deliver you into his hands, there is the Goliath, whose head you must cut off in order to free yourself from the hands of the Philistines.
If several vices or disorderly passions of different kinds hold sway in your soul, see of what nature they are. Some vices may be spiritual, because they seem, as it were, to spring up from the soul itself. Such a vice is pride, with all its varieties of vainglory, ambition, haughtiness, disdain, and the like. Other vices, on the contrary, are wholly carnal, because they proceed more directly from the sinful appetites of the body. Such a vice is sensuality under all its forms of impurity, gluttony, sloth, and so forth. These carnal vices, if not restrained, are a source of great and imminent danger; and, therefore, a person who is molested by them should subdue them before he undertakes the combat against spiritual vices, which may indeed inflict many slight wounds upon the soul, but which do not easily kill it.
6. In case you are not troubled by any vice in particular, or have so far subdued them that your faults are few and light, it is well for you to change from the negative method to the positive, and to take, as the subject of your Particular Examination, the virtue which you desire especially to acquire. For though, as already stated, the immediate object of the Particular Examination is the correction of your faults, it is not well to spend your whole time in this alone. He that is engaged in weeding a garden, is well employed; but it does not follow therefrom that he must never do anything else. On the contrary, the object he should have in view in pulling up the weeds, is to plant flowers in their place. In like manner, when you spend your Particular Examination in rooting up the vicious inclinations of your soul, you should propose to yourself to plant the sweet-scented flowers of virtue in their stead.
What should move you, above all, to adopt the positive method, when your passions rarely rise in open or violent revolt against reason, is that otherwise you will derive little or no profit from your Particular Examination. In fact, the occasions of combat being rare, you are apt to forget the subject altogether and to imagine that your enemies have surrendered when they have only withdrawn into their stronghold. You fancy, for sooth, that you have subdued the passion of anger, because nothing has occurred to ruffle your temper. But you are greatly deceived. It is not astonishing that the sea is smooth when there is not a breath of air to disturb the calm. Neither is it astonishing that you are quiet, when chere is not a living soul to arouse your wrath. Your passions seem to be dead; but, in reality, they are only asleep. Unless you strengthen and arm yourself then, while they leave you a little respite, they "will assault you all the more violently, when they awake.
Instead, therefore, of laboring to correct a defect which you seldom commit, aim at acquiring the opposite perfection. Do you wish to guard against ever treating others with haughtiness or contempt? Learn to look upon yourself as the least of all; and take, as the subject of your Particular Examination, the practice of humiliation. Do you wish to make sure of not repining when adversity will come to try you? Endeavor to see the hand of God in all the occurrences of life; and take, as the subject of your Particular Examination, the practice of perfect conformity to the divine will. Whatever virtue you select, let it be genuine, solid, supernatural, capable of bearing the stress of trying circumstances and of being carried to the highest degree of perfection. Let it be the virtue which is most opposed to your pre dominant passion, the virtue which you need most in your present state and condition of life, or the virtue which will unite you most closely to God, the source and centre of all holiness and perfection.
Having thus determined the subject-matter, we perform the Particular Examination, together with the General Examination, as an adjunct and auxiliary to it. That we may do so with the best possible results, St. Ignatius, who was the first to reduce the Particular Examination to a systematic form and to promote its practice throughout the world, gives us some valuable directions. "The daily Particular Examination," he writes, "embraces three times and two sittings. The first time is straightway in the morning on rising, when a person resolves to guard diligently against the particular sin or defect, which he desires to correct. The second time is in the middle of the day, when, after begging light to know how often he has offended Almighty God, he begins the scrutiny of his conscience, as explained in the General Examination, by first demanding an account of his soul concerning the particular fault in question... from the hour at which he rose down to the present.
Then he marks in a book prepared for the purpose, how many times he has fallen; and, when he makes the act of contrition and purpose of amendment for his sins, he includes, in an especial manner, the particular fault in question.
"The third time is in the evening, when he makes a second sifting in like manner ; and, after marking in his book, how many times he has fallen, he again says an act of contrition and resolves to be more on his guard in future, especially against the particular fault in question."
These practices, and especially that of marking the number of one s falls, will perhaps be looked upon by some as childish minutiae, calculated only to hamper the spirit. But they are not so regarded by those who are experienced in the spiritual life. As a proof, it may be allowed to refer, in passing, to two eminent ecclesiastics, now departed, who were well known to some readers of these lines, and who were highly esteemed by all that knew them for their sound, practical judgment, no less than for their manly virtue. One of these spoke of the little book of the Particular Examination, as the pass-book, in which we daily note our current account with heaven, and which, if faithfully kept to the last, we may present with confidence at the judgment-seat of God. The other, a much-beloved prelate, who had resigned the dignity of office for the lowliness of a religious life, on perceiving that the hour for the usual examination of conscience had come, took leave of the friends with whom he was conversing, and, drawing forth from his pocket the booklet of his Particular Examination, shook it playfully in their faces, with the remark: "For me this is very necessary." These words, said with an air and tone of earnest conviction, are quite as applicable to all of us as to the speaker. Not that the success of the Particular Examination depends essentially upon recording, even to the last unit, the exact number of our daily failings; but that neglect in marking with becoming diligence the result of the Examination, gradually leads to forgetfulness, if not to complete disuse, of this important exercise in a fervent Christian s life.
The object of this marking of our faults is to fix the attention, and to prevent us from relaxing our efforts during the course of the day. The same is true also of other practices recommended by St. Ignatius, under the head of "Four useful additions, for the easier and quicker extirpation of any particular sin or defect." "The first is, that each time a person falls into that particular sin or defect, he lay his hand on his breast, and grieve for his fault. This he can do even in the presence of others, without their perceiving it."
"The second is, that at night, after making the second scrutiny of his conscience, he compare it with the first, "and observe if any amendment has taken place."
"The third is that he compares the examination of the first and second day, and sees if there has been any improvement."
"The fourth is, that he compare one week with another, and note if, in the present week, he has improved on the preceding." Made in accordance with these directions, the Particular Examination can not fail to produce the happiest results. "It owes its great efficacy," writes an experienced director of souls, " to these three things: first, it divides our enemies, and brings all our forces to bear upon one of them at a time; secondly, it attacks our disorders and sinful habits at the root; thirdly, it keeps us at work all day and calls for the exercise of every power of the soul." And thus it becomes the specific for inveterate and radical defects, which resist all other means of self-reform.
Deep-seated and chronic evils, it is true, are not cured speedily, nor by the ordinary remedies; but it is also true, that no spiritual evils, however obstinate, can resist the persevering efforts of a resolute will aided by the grace of God. "Let no one then despair," says St. Basil, "because of his sinful inclination; rather, let him bear in mind that, as skilful culture can change the qualities of trees and shrubs, so zeal and industry in the pursuit of virtue can check and correct all the vicious affections of the soul."
In a similar manner, one of the ancient fathers of the desert counseled and encouraged an anchoret, who had grown so remiss in the discharge of all his spiritual duties, that lukewarmness seemed to have become his normal condition; so much so that though moved to lead a life more worthy of his calling, he thought his case too desperate to begin the work of self-reform. The venerable patriarch, desiring to give additional force to his advice, put it in the form of a parable, somewhat as follows: "A certain man, having a field all overrun with thorns, briars, and tares, told his son to stub and clear it. The youth, therefore, set out one day to do the work assigned him; but immediately upon beholding it, he lost heart, threw himself upon the ground, and spent his time in sleep. The next day he went out again, and did likewise. Questioned at night how he was progressing, he frankly confessed that he had not the courage to undertake what appeared to him a hopeless task. Whereupon his good father reproved him, saying: You do wrong, my son, to look upon your work in the gross, as if you had to do it all at once. Mark out for yourself, in the morning, as much as you can easily do in a day, and address yourself with a will to your appointed task. Before long you will find that it is not so hopeless as you now fancy to yourself. The son followed his father’s advice, and full soon the whole field was cleared."
Let us all apply this parable to ourselves, and mark out, every morning, a definite amount of work to do in the field which our heavenly Father has given us to cultivate. Let us daily clear away some of the thorns, briars, and tares which overrun it and hinder the growth of the good grain. In other words, let us make strenuous and persevering efforts to free our souls from the sins, offences, and negligences into which we are wont to fall, and which we recognize as the greatest impediment in the way of a Christian life.
With this object in view, let us diligently perform the Particular Examination of Conscience. It is a most efficacious means of self-amendment and spiritual progress. For it is a combat carried on against our faults, until the vices from which they spring have been subdued and replaced by the opposite virtues; and, as the pious author of the Imitation assures us, "if every year we rooted out one vice, we should soon be perfect men."