by Rev. Fr. Dominic Radecki, CMRI
Knowledge of Self
Many people are fond of looking at themselves in a mirror to check their physical appearance. Few, however, are willing to look at themselves in the mirror of their conscience to check their spiritual condition. They fear to see themselves as they really are and are equally fearful of making the necessary changes.
Nevertheless, the saints have taught that self-examination, or examination of conscience, is one of the chief means of spiritual advancement. Examination of conscience helps us to get to the core of our spiritual problems and forces us to come face to face with the true state of our soul. “By daily repenting of our sins, we hinder them from taking deeper root in the soul, and prevent our bad habits from growing stronger.” 1
Necessity of Examination of Conscience
Knowledge of self is the foundation of the spiritual life. It is the science of sciences; it is wisdom in a nutshell. The Imitation of Christ expresses this clearly:
“The humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than the deepest search after science … Better, certainly, is the humble husbandman [i.e., farmer] who serves God, than the proud philosopher who, neglecting himself, considers the course of the heavens… the profoundest science and the most profound lesson is truly to know and despise oneself.”2
A correct knowledge of self is necessary for spiritual life, for it is directly related to a correct knowledge of God:
“The more we grow in the knowledge of God, the deeper our knowledge of self, and if we would attain to any knowledge of God there must be some knowledge of self … To know God is to know self. To have no knowledge of God is to walk in darkness; to have no absolute standard by which to gauge and measure on self. Those who shut God altogether out of their lives are able to live in stupid if not blissful ignorance of what a failure their lives are.”3
Genuine self-knowledge pleases God because He is Truth Itself. As we examine our consciences we strive to see ourselves as God sees us, as we really are and not as we would like to be. Even though we will never see our unworthiness as clearly as God does, nevertheless, we must strive to recognize it as best we can.
Bishop Fulton Sheen explains the practical need for a daily self-examination as follows:
“Just as a businessman at the end of a day takes out of his cash register the record of debits and cred its, so, too, at the end of every day, every soul should examine his conscience, not using himself as his standard, but seeing it as it appears in the light of God, his Creator and his Judge.”4
Without self-knowledge, it is impossible to make any notable progress in the spiritual life, and in order to have a correct self-knowledge, we must therefore examine our conscience. This knowledge of our interior, so to speak, will make us aware of our excessive self-love, bad habits, perverse inclinations, and various weaknesses. It will help us conquer our predominant sin.
The Trap of Self-Deceit
We are often not only ignorant of our sins and character faults, but also imagine ourselves to be quite different than we are. We are not saints, yet we would like to be thought as such, perhaps even by ourselves. We are often so lacking in self-knowledge that we refuse to believe what others say about us, even though it is often undoubtedly true. Maturin describes the self-deceit that easily befalls us:
“One may have a very deep knowledge of human character in general, and yet be profoundly ignorant of one’s own character. We look with the same eyes, yet the eyes that pierce so easily through the artifices and deceptions of others become clouded and the vision disturbed when they turn inwards and examine oneself. Self-knowledge has nothing to do with mere cleverness or intellectual insight, but is largely if not entirely moral.”5
Method of Examining One’s Conscience
It is in moments of silent prayer that we come face to face with our selfish tendencies and bad habits. Discovering the spiritual parasites of the soul, as it were, we discern better the root causes of our sins and temptations. We are like the owner who catches a thief in his house, a discovery which explains many losses he could not understand before.
The basis of this examination of conscience lies simply in the sincere account that a person renders to himself of his actions and activities. It includes a review of the thoughts, words and deeds of the day, as well as an examination of the duties in our state of life. As Sheen explains:
“The examination of conscience brings to the surface the hidden faults of the day; it seeks to discover the weeds that are choking the growth of God’s grace and destroying peace of soul. It is concerned with thoughts, words, and deeds, with sins of omission and sins of commission. By omission we mean the good that is left undone – a failure to aid a needy neighbor, a refusal to offer a word of consolation to those who are burdened with sorrow. Sins of commission involve malicious remarks, lies, acts of dishonesty, and those seven sins which are the pallbearers of the soul: self-love, inordinate love of money, illicit sex, hate, overindulgence, jealousy, and laziness. In addition to all this, there is the examination for what spiritual writers call our ‘predominant fault.’ Every person in the world has one sin which he commits more than others. Spiritual directors say that if we blotted out one great sin a year in a short time we should be perfect.”6
Instead of burying the memory of sin, we analyze the will and recognize its guilt. Instead of justifying ourselves, we accuse ourselves and take responsibility. Instead of carrying the burden of sin around with us, we resolve to amend and confess our sins.
Self-knowledge not only looks backwards to our past failings; it also looks forward to the future, making practical resolutions in the pursuit of virtue. Concentrating on God’s love, mercy and goodness, we develop a greater distaste for everything that is displeasing to God. More and more, God, and not self, becomes our source of hope.
Examination of conscience is admittedly a most difficult spiritual exercise. Nevertheless, it is important that we set aside a specific time each evening to examine our conscience. If something unforeseen prevents us making it at the appointed time, we should try to do so as soon as possible. We must be consistent and faithful, knowing that the devil will endeavor to dissuade us. If we spend the time profitably and avoid unnecessary distractions, we will, in the long run, conquer our sins and grow in virtue.
Many people derive little advantage from their examination because they do so carelessly. If we merely recount our sins, we will not amend our lives. One of the sayings of St. Dorotheus was that we must seek out not only the sins we have committed, but also their roots. Examining the cause or the occasion of sin will help keep us from falling again into the sin itself. Superficial self-knowledge, on the other hand, will not have any lasting results. Only if the roots are cut out will the tree die; if only the branches are cut off, the tree will soon grow new ones, and perhaps become larger than ever.
Pitfalls to Avoid
A proper knowledge of self does not exaggerate one’s sins. It simply acknowledges that our frail, fallen nature is strongly inclined to evil and that our own personal sins have contributed to this weakness. The saints did not become saints by having a false image of themselves or by false humility. Rather, they simply recognized themselves for what they really were.
We cannot make an honest examination of conscience by comparing ourselves to worldly-minded people. God expects us to pattern our lives on the life of Christ. Only in this way can we rightly know ourselves. We must compare ourselves with Jesus Christ, Who came to teach us the way to heaven by His example. If we compare ourselves to public sinners, we might well think of ourselves as saints; but if we compare ourselves to the true Standard, Jesus Christ, we will very quickly acknowledge that we are sinners.
Shortcuts to Self-Knowledge
Sometimes we come to a degree of self-discovery merely from observing others who are more virtuous than we are. A flash of heavenly light pierces through the dense fog of self-deception: we become aware of what we ought to be, what we could be, and we have failed to be. Such occasions may well lead us to reflect on our forgotten ideals and broken resolutions, smothered and stifled under a rubbish heap of selfishness and worldliness. In seeing what we could have been, we see what we are now.
Fr. Alphonsus Rodriguez, S.J., illustrates the value of persistent effort and strong resolve with this brief story:
“A holy hermit said that he did not remember that the devil had ever made him fall twice into the same fault. Without doubt this man made his examen of conscience very well; he had true repentance, and also firm resolutions of amendment.”7
A person who examines his conscience can never be the same as he was before; he will be better or worse. If, as a result of his self-examination, he strives for amendment of life, he becomes much better. If, as a result of his self-examination he ignores or excuses his sins, he only deceives himself and becomes much worse.
One cannot remain stationary in the spiritual battle. If he does not advance in the spiritual life, he recedes. If the soul claims that it is no worse than it was before, the fact remains that the will gradually weakens and loses the power of resistance to temptation, thus leaving the soul worse off than before. Sinful tendencies, habits, and passions continue to grow in strength, reversing the spiritual progress heretofore made. Only if prayer and personal effort are once more employed can the soul again forge ahead.
Without self-knowledge the soul does not know how bad or good it is, or whether it is deteriorating or improving. The soul cannot make any serious attempt to conquer sin and faults until it knows what they are. Self-knowledge strengthens the will in the struggle to control the passions, to acquire Christian virtue, and to foster a Christ-like disposition. It develops a spirit of reparation for past offenses. This spirit of sacrifice leads to conformity to the Will of God amid the difficulties and sufferings of life. A person who has true self-knowledge lives in peace because he lives according to the rules of justice and truth.
Self-Knowledge a Cure for Guilt and Depression
Present society has replaced the absolute with situational ethics. Many people today claim that each person is the sole determinant of what is right and wrong for him. They strive to escape the pain of self-knowledge by laying responsibility elsewhere. Sheen brilliantly observes:
“Any denial of conscience as the voice of God may be momentarily effective, but a day will come when the abused conscience will turn with fury and will harass its victim, tormenting his waking life and making his dreams a poison, his darkness a nightmare. When night gives our inner vision scope, the guilty conscience lies awake, fearful of being known in all its ugliness. There is nothing that so arouses unhealthy fear as a hidden guilt.”8
Self-knowledge not only cures the soul of self-deception, but also of depression. Several forms of depression are caused, not from having sins, but from the refusal to face them. Thousands of persons today are suffering from fears caused by hidden sins. A guilty conscience is always a fearful conscience. Its greatest worries come from a failure to face reality. The denial of guilt or self-justification will not bring peace of soul. Guilt is removed by acknowledging our sins, confessing them, and doing penance. There is a healing power in retracing false steps.
Self-Knowledge = Humility
True self-knowledge also teaches us charity and patience, humility and prudence. It shows us that we have the potential to commit the most serious sins and therefore, should not consider ourselves better than others. St. Augustine warns us that there is no sin committed by others, which may not be committed by us, unless diffident of self and shunning the occasion of sin, we rely upon the assistance of God’s grace. The author of the Imitation of Christ writes:
“To have no opinion of oneself and always to think well and commendably of others, is great wisdom and high perfection. If thou shouldst see another openly sin or commit a heinous crime, yet thou oughtest not to esteem thyself better, because thou knowest not how long thou mayest remain in a good state. We are all frail: but thou shouldst consider no one more frail than thyself. “9
A person should never consider himself absolutely secure, however holy and spiritual he may be. The angels themselves were not safe, for many of them rebelled against God, even though they were enriched with great power and sanctity. Adam and Eve were not safe in Paradise, even though they were endowed with innocence; Paradise was lost because of their pride and disobedience. “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”10 Our selfishness, pride and strong inclination to sin imperil our eternal salvation. Let us not foolishly presume on our own strength to persevere amid the attacks of the world, the flesh and the devil.
In order for a person to advance spiritually and fight well the spiritual battle throughout his entire life, he must practice true self-examination. It is by this means that he arrives at true knowledge of self, whereby, seeing where the diseases of his soul lie, he can take action to rid himself of them and follow in the path of the saints.
Petitions of St. Augustine
Lord Jesus, let me know myself:
let me know Thee.
and desire nothing else but Thee.
Let me hate myself and love Thee,
and do all things for Thy sake.
Let me humble myself and exalt Thee,
and think of nothing else but Thee.
Let me die to myself and live in Thee,
and take whatever happens as
coming from Thee.
Let me forsake myself and walk after Thee,
and desire ever to follow Thee.
Let me flee from myself and tum to Thee,
that so I may merit to be defended
Let me fear for myself. let me fear Thee,
and be among those that are chosen
Let me distrust myself and trust in Thee,
and ever obey for the love of Thee.
Let me cleave to nothing but Thee,
and ever be poor because of Thee.
Look upon me, that I may love Thee,
Call me, that I may see Thee,
And forever possess Thee
for all eternity. Amen.
In Praise of the Immaculate Conception
O Mary, where shall I find words to praise Thee? Maiden undefiled.
Virgin unstained, exaltation of women, glory of daughters!
In thee the curse of Adam is done away, and the debt of Eve paid.
Thou art the clean offering of Abel, chosen out of the firstlings of the flock,
a pure sacrifice. Thou art the hope of Enoch,
that firm hope that he had in God, and was not ashamed.
Thou art the grace that was in Enoch in this life, and his transit to a better.
Thou art the Ark of Noah, and the bond of reconciliation with God in a new
regeneration. Thou art the exceeding glory of the kingdom
and the priesthood of Melchisedech.
Thou art the unshaken trust in Abraham, and his obedient faith
in the promise of children that were to be.
Thou art the renewed oblation and the reasonable burnt-offering of Isaac.
Thou art the ladder that Jacob saw going up to heaven, and the most noble
of all his children throughout the twelve tribes of Israel.
Thou art the modesty of Joseph, and the overthrow of old Egypt.
O spotless one! Thou art Moses, and his divinely-inspired book
containing the mystery of regeneration.
Thou art Aaron’s blossoming rod. Thou art David’s daughter, all glorious within,
clothed in a vesture of gold, wrought about with diverse colors.
Thou art the mirror of the prophets, and the fulfilling of things foretold by them.
Ezechiel called thee the closed door, through which no man will ever pass,
except the Lord God alone, and He will keep the door closed.
The most eloquent prophet Isaias foretold that thou wert the rod of Jesse,
from which the flower Christ will spring, and having torn up the roots
of all vices, will set the plants of divine knowledge in the field.
Daniel also, the man of desires, proclaimed thee to be the huge mountain,
from which Christ the comer-stone is to be cut, which will scatter in ruin
and destruction the image of the multiform serpent.
I honor thee, spotless lamb. I proclaim thee full of grace, I sing of thee, house of
God, pure and spotless. And indeed, where sin abounded, grace did more abound.
The first parent Eve brought into the world Cain, the prince of envy and iniquity,
thy only-begotten Son will be the first-born of life and resurrection.
O unheard-of prodigy! O wisdom not to be equaled in words!
Hail, thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with thee –
even the Lord that is before thee, and from thee, and with us.
– Homily of St Tharasius, Bishop
Divine Office, 3rd Noctum of Matins. 5th Day Within the Octave of the Immaculate Conception
–Taken from the Reign of Mary Quarterly Magazine, Issue 95