The Spiritual Role of Conscience

Editor’s note: for other articles on this important topic, see the following:
The Catholic Teaching on Conscience
St. John Henry Newman’s Conscience Against the Pope and the Vaccine


In the last article we learned from Garrigou-Lagrange about the roots of sins and ugly growth in the human soul. Now we turn happily to the steps for spiritual healing as we alluded to in our last article. It is begins, says the Master, with the examination of our conscience:

The enumeration of all these ignoble fruits of inordinate self-love should induce us to make a serious examination of conscience. Moreover, their number shows us that the field of mortification is very wide if we wish to live the true life in a thoroughgoing way. The quietists declared the examination of conscience useless, because, they said, the human heart is inscrutable. They even asserted that such examination was harmful, as all reflection on self would hinder us from thinking of God in naked faith.[1]

Such statements are aberrations easily refuted. Precisely because it is difficult to know the true nature of our interior feelings, we must examine them closely. And this examination, far from turning us away from the thought of God, should keep bringing us back to it. Moreover, we must ask for Divine light to see our soul a little as God Himself sees it, to see our day or the week that has just ended somewhat as it is written in the book of life, somewhat as we shall see it at the last judgment. Thus to see ourselves, we ought every evening to search out with humility and contrition the faults that we have committed in thought, word, deed, and omission.

The Classical Jesuits have a fine tradition of the “examen” prayer which is completed by true Jesuits multiple times a day. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that the examination of conscience is the one prayer that should never be ommitted in any day, no matter what. But our Dominican Master, having refuted the defect of the Quietists, turns now to treat the excess on the other side:

On the other hand, in this examination we should avoid the excess opposed to that of the quietists, that is to say, the minute search for the slightest faults under their purely material aspect, a search which sometimes leads to scruples or to forgetfulness of important things. The examination of conscience aims less at a complete enumeration of venial faults than at seeing and sincerely acknowledging the principle which in our case is generally at their root.

To cure a skin eruption, an effort is made to purify the blood rather than to treat each blemish separately. In short, in the examination of conscience the soul ought not to spend too much time in consideration of self and cease to turn its gaze toward God.

On the contrary, looking fixedly at God, it should ask itself how the Lord Himself will judge its day, or the week just spent. In what has it been entirely His? In what entirely its own? In what has it sought God sincerely? In what has it sought itself? Then, calmly the soul judges itself as it were from on high, in the light of God, somewhat as it will be judged on the last day. From this consideration we can understand the nobility of the Christian conscience and the holy demands it makes; it is far superior to the conscience of a simple philosopher.

Thus we see that the examination of conscience is not a self-absorbed self-obsession as the Quietists falsely claimed, but rather a seeing one’s self in light of God. And then, especially to avoid the excess of scruples, our Master brings in a critical piece of wisdom:

But, as St. Catherine of Siena says in speaking of these holy exactions of conscience, we should not separate the consideration of our faults from that of God’s infinite mercy. We should see, on the contrary, our frailty and wretchedness under the radiation of the helpful, infinite Goodness. The examination made in this way, instead of discouraging us, will increase our confidence in God.

Dom Scupoli writes in Spritual Combat that the axiom of the spiritual life is Distrust of Self and Trust in God. A true examination of consience as described by the Dominican Master, should produce the fruit of this habit in our soul, never falling into the defect of despair nor the excess of presumption, but truly seeing ourself in light of God.

Holy Hatred

The sight of our faults shows us also by contrast the value of virtue. It has been said with great truth that the value of justice is brought home to us especially by the grief which injustice causes us. The sight of the injustice we have committed and our regret for having committed it, should make us “hunger and thirst after justice.” The ugliness of sensuality should reveal to us by contrast all the value of purity; the disorder of anger and envy should make us feel the great value of true meekness and true charity; the sight of the disastrous effects of spiritual sloth should reanimate in us the desire for generosity and spiritual joy. The aberration of pride should make us experience to some extent all the wisdom and grandeur of true humility.

For all these reasons, one of the best ways to make an examination of conscience is to do so in the light of the Savior’s words: “Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

Let us ask the Lord to inspire us with the holy hatred of sin, which separates us from the infinite goodness of God, from Whom we have received the greatest benefits and Who promises us still more precious gifts if we are faithful. In some respects, the holy hatred of sin is nothing more than the reverse of the love of God. To love truth strongly without detesting error, is impossible; it is likewise impossible to have a strong love for the good and the sovereign Good, Which is God, without hating what turns us away from God. In the hearts of the humblest and meekest Saints, there is a holy hatred of evil, a hatred that is as strong as their love of God.

The Marian Element

In the Immaculate Heart of Mary there is, by reason of her ardent charity, a burning hatred of evil, and this hatred renders her terrible to the devil.

According to [St.] Grignion de Montfort, the devil suffers more from being conquered by the humility and love of Mary than from being directly crushed by the Divine Omnipotence. We should ask the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the sacred heart of our Savior, burning furnace of charity, for this holy hatred of evil, this holy hatred of pride, spiritual sloth, envy, unjust anger, malevolence, and sensuality, in order that true charity, the love of God and of souls in God, may truly grow ever stronger in us.

The Examples of the Saints

This type of mortification is absolutely indispensable. To advance seriously toward perfection and sanctity, we should think of the mortifications of the Saints, or, even without going as far as the examples of the Saints, think of those given us by servants of God such as Father Lacordaire who, fearing that he might fall into pride by reason of his successes, had recourse to great mortifications. On certain days while preaching at Notre Dame (Paris), he used to feel that a strong current of grace was passing through his soul to convert his hearers, and that, if he yielded to the sin of pride, this current of grace might be completely stopped and his preaching become absolutely fruitless. We should meditate on the fact that we also have our souls to save, that we must do good to those around us, good which will endure eternally. Let us also remember that we must work as much as possible for the salvation of other souls, and that for this purpose we ought to employ the means that Christ has pointed out to us: progressive death to sin through progress in the virtues and especially in the love of God.

The examination of conscience, with the example of the Saints, should provide us with courage and confidence in God, in order to restore our zeal for holiness. If at this point in Lent you have been wearied by failure, it is not too late to pick yourself up, make the sign of the cross, and run the race to win the prize of eternal life.


[1] Cf. Denzinger, nos. 1230 f.

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