NE OF MY FAVORITE spiritual books is Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate.
In company with countless writers, Chautard strongly recommends the “particular and general examinations of conscience,” but seems to assume that the reader simply knows what this is all about. One doubts that many laypeople, especially after the Second Vatican Council, would have a clue about how to carry out this double examination. And one hesitates to google about it, for fear of finding random and superficial material.
When I first came across this passage, I consulted a venerable priest whose opinion has never failed me, and he explained it as follows.
The distinction between general and particular examinations of conscience is made by Saint Ignatius in the first week of his Spiritual Exercises. Put simply, the general examination surveys all the morally significant actions of the day, so far as we can recall them, while in the particular examination we focus our attention on one particular fault against which we are struggling and the corresponding virtue we are trying to cultivate (because the positive cultivation of a virtue is the most effective way of fighting against the vice that is opposed to it). Saint Ignatius tells us that we should make the particular examination three times a day—morning, after lunch, and after dinner; the general examination, in contrast, is best done just before we go to bed.
This is a simple and lucid template for self-awareness and continual conversion of life. We are all in danger of forgetting or even being totally ignorant of the areas of our lives in which we stand in need of conversion; we are all, in the best of circumstances, notoriously lacking in self-knowledge; we can all use more humility and even humiliation to get the point across that we are far from perfect and yet capable of improvement, with God’s help. The particular and general examinations provide a kind of spiritual scaffolding around the day that can help us pay attention to our defects and make progress in correcting them. There does not need to be anything fussy or time-consuming about it: a few concentrated moments of reflection may suffice. But what an opportunity we are missing when we do not pay any attention to how the day has gone and what we might have done differently or better!
Is it fanciful to see, in Pope Francis’s numerous recent course corrections, the outward signs of a Jesuit who, in the best tradition of his founder, is serenely accustomed to making these examinations and has discovered in himself certain faults or at least areas of improvement? We will never have a sinless or a perfect pope, but we can have a holy one who sets us a good example of continual conversion.
Further recommended reading:
Fr. John Hardon, S.J., “Examination of Conscience”
URL for course corrections:
Even the Pope Critiques Himself. And Corrects Three Errors.