The goal of the three examinations of conscience found in Part Three of this book will provide you with the wonderful opportunity of interior cleansing. This process may be a bit spiritually “painful” as you realize your sins. But a “painful realization” of your sins is good. In fact, it’s very good. It may not feel pleasant at first, but it will feel pleasant after you go through this painful realization and, ultimately, become cleansed. The pain is not caused by the examination of conscience, it’s caused by the sin. So plan on experiencing a “painful realization” of your sins, and you’ll be better prepared.
Though Saint Ignatius did not present us with a detailed examination, he did point us to the Seven Capital Sins and the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the first two examinations of conscience offered in Part Three of this book use a traditional approach of examination also based on the Seven Capital Sins and the Ten Commandments.
As you go through these examinations carefully and honestly, don’t rush. When one of the sins jumps out at you, sit with it for a while. Don’t despair; rather, try to remind yourself that you are seeing the truth. Be relieved by that realization. Guilt can be helpful, but only guilt that is immediately grounded in the mercy of God is useful. Feeling guilt for guilt’s sake will lead to unhealthy sorrow, scrupulous thinking, denial, confusion and the like. But healthy guilt that is immediately aware of the mercy of God and His desire to purge you of all sin is the goal. If you feel overwhelmed, then just stop and return to other forms of prayer. But don’t stop returning to these examinations until you have been able to carefully, honestly and thoroughly go through them with a sense of joy and freedom, being grateful to our merciful God that He is helping you to see these things that keep you from experiencing His love on a deeper level.
The third examination of conscience in Part Three focuses on the imperfections of the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Don’t go through that examination until you have been able to use the previous ones in a complete way. The examination of conscience on faith, hope and charity will not focus on serious sin; rather, it will focus on the imperfections you have.
Sin can be categorized into three general levels: 1) mortal sin, 2) venial sins of commission, and 3) spiritual imperfections (or venial sins of omission). Recall the Scripture, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, RSV-CE). If you want true holiness of life, you must strive for perfection. That includes identifying and overcoming any and every lack of perfect virtue.
Don’t get discouraged. Discouragement is easy to fall into when facing one’s sins. It’s another lie from the evil one, telling you that you are no good, will never overcome sin, should just give up, etc. That’s all a lie. The truth is that seeking perfection is radical and requires great sacrifice, honesty and surrender to God. But it’s doable and it’s worth it. The opposite of discouragement is hope. Have hope and confidence that if you do this carefully, intentionally, willfully and wholeheartedly then, believe it or not, you can become a living saint. You just need to decide that this is what you want to do, and you need to rely completely on the grace of God (especially in confession) to start down that path.
After you have carefully completed at least the first two examinations of conscience (on the Seven Capital Sins and the Ten Commandments), you are ready to prepare for your general confession. Saint Ignatius recommends such a confession at the conclusion of Week One. A general confession may take a substantial amount of time and is best done by scheduling an appointment with a priest. The goal is not to seek counsel for all past sins; rather, the goal is to simply confess them, to dump any unconfessed sins and to verbalize, once again, any and every serious sin of your past.
Practically speaking, it may be useful to make a list, a long list. The simple goal is to thoroughly review all the sins of your entire life and mention them within the context of one confession. Though it is impossible to remember and mention every sin, it will be your goal to call to mind and mention all the serious sins of your past and all the lesser sins you are currently struggling with. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just do your best with the intention of inviting the grace and mercy of God into all the sins of your life.
Contact a priest, tell him you want to make a general confession and ask him if he is open to this. If so, make time and follow through with it as soon as possible. Upon the completion of that confession, allow yourself to feel relieved and free.
Practice of Ongoing Examination of Conscience
Upon the completion of your general confession, the only reason to recall the sins of your past is to make an act of gratitude to God for His mercy. However, also be aware that such a major undertaking of spiritual cleansing will require “ongoing maintenance,” so to speak. Therefore, it will be necessary to regularly return to the examination of conscience (on the Seven Capital Sins or the Ten Commandments), ideally at least once a week. Additionally, it will be important to daily examine your conscience in a general way so that you can immediately address any lesser sins as soon as they are committed. The longer a lesser sin goes unaddressed, the longer it has to take hold of you and mislead you. Therefore, a daily examination of the sins of that day is essential and is therefore incorporated into the evening prayer recommended in Part Three.