"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, March 03, 2007

What are we examining when we examine our conscience?

Lent anticipates the Easter Triduum liturgically for good reason: if followed, the discipline of Lent helps us to live more fully the Paschal Mystery to be celebrated at the Triduum. We thus prepare ourselves for authentic celebration of our salvation by allowing more room for the Holy Spirit to recapitulate in us the Son's accomplishment of our salvation while on earth. That is why self-denial—both the kinds life requires and the kinds we impose on ourselves—is so important a part of Lenten discipline. But for acts of self-denial to be effective instruments of divine grace, we must strive consistently to be honest about the self we are denying. That means looking at ourselves from as much of the God's-eye point of view as we are given to share. Which brings me to conscience.

A good forum for the needed honesty is the sacrament of reconciliation, which is sometimes named by its most challenging feature: confession. Some say that a good psychotherapist helps too, and that can be true. But I have found psychotherapy useful only with a therapist who believes in God, is not committed to professional fashion or theological heresy, and who combines empathy with objectivity—which last is another way of saying that s/he knows how to love. Such are most of the qualities I also look for in a good confessor. Yet, and as is often said, confession is not the same as therapy. While it can have therapeutic effects, its most obvious focus is on how we have sinned—whether or not we also have mental-health issues related to our sins. And that is where the focus must be when the issue is our salvation: i.e., whether and how we will persevere in that transformation-in-Christ which has been wrought in us by baptism. In order to understand how we have sinned, we must conduct what the neo-scholastics came to call "examination of conscience."

One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why relatively few Catholics go to confession these days is that they cannot conduct a meaningful examination of conscience. I have no time to go into all the reasons for that, which have been amply discussed elsewhere. (I would welcome links from those who have any to offer.) In my experience, the minority who take the notion seriously seem to think of the process as no more than going through a checklist of no-nos to see how many points one is down with God. It ought to go without saying that thinking of examination of conscience in just that way is both aversive and childish. While a checklist is necessary, it is hardly sufficient, and exclusive focus on it can actually be harmful. Accounts of what the spiritual journey is, why one lives it willy-nilly, and where one is on it are also important. But even more basic, one must know what conscience is and why it is so important. Most Catholics, even those who do not hesitate to proclaim the primacy of conscience, seem clueless about that too.

For those non-professionals interested in exploring the topic, I offer two online articles:

I'm sure that other, still better pieces can be found out there, both online and in more traditional hard-copy form. I solicit suggestions.

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