Friday, April 19, 2013

Counsels of Perfection: Examination, Falls, Rising Again


This week's reading of Counsels of Perfection is on:
  • Chapter 6:  Examination of Conscience
  • Chapter 7:  The Art of Rising After We Fall
Chapter VI  Examination of Conscience
"We can be very imperfect and not be aware of it, unless we are guided by a rule.  On the contrary, as soon as we adopt a rule, we can easily perceive our defects."
 "When we clean a room, we gather up all the dust and dirt and then sweep it out.  We should clean our spiritual room in the same way."
An examination of conscience fits into a Rule even in ordinary terms, because all goals or objectives need to include in them a way of measuring whether we have reached them or not.    If you are trying to lose weight, you look at (say) the scale at regular intervals and if you are not losing, you ponder what habits to change or whether your goal needs to be modified to be more realistic.

The same is true in the Christian life, but with supernatural motivations and aid.

Possible Objections/Misconceptions:

#1:  It is impossible to remember everything we do in a day; it all happens so fast and there is so much that goes out of our minds.

Answer:    It is not necessary to remember every detail; only review the big picture and with help from the Holy Spirit, the things that especially come to mind.

#2:   5 minutes seems too long for an examination (or too short).

Answer:  5 to 7 minutes ought to suffice.

#3:   Examinations of conscience are a sort of search-and-destroy mission against sins.

Answer:   An examination of conscience should "be a halting place in our lives ".

Msgr Lejeune gives two methods of examining the conscience.    Both are inspired by St Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises: 

A Rule of Life Examination:
  1. Have I observed the rule of life which I have drawn up for myself?
  2. Have I kept up the struggle against that particular fault which I purposed to correct?
  3. Have I acquitted myself conscientiously of that duty of state which I have a tendency to neglect?

In addition to these questions and their answers, he recommends that you look ahead to the next day, particularly foreseeing temptations against your particular fault and your tendency to neglect a duty, and figure out ways to guard against them.

An Ignatian Examen

Here is his version of the Ignatian examen:

  1. Begin by thanking God for his benefits.   Fix your attention on one general blessing of God to be grateful for.     Then call to mind a particular grace or blessing of that day.
  2. Ask God for the grace to know yourself and for His light.
  3. Examine yourself on the particular fault you want to correct.   You can also think of ways to increase the opposite virtue.
  4. Ask pardon for where you have fallen into your particular fault; ask God for help in overcoming it.
  5. Impose a penance on yourself for any negligence.

My Notes:
 Modern forms of the Ignatian examen emphasize feelings. ... recalling, and praying from, your feelings.  This sounds sort of like that excessive, sickly sensibility that Msgr Lejeune deplores in an earlier chapter of this book.  Yet "discerning of spirits" was an important part of Ignatian practice, way back through history, and emotions are often intuitions to what's going on at a deeper level in your psyche.   Another basic Ignatian principle is one of integration of all the faculties -- our interiors are not supposed to be divided houses, with our reason heading one way and our emotions balking and resisting.   It's important to at least try to get our hearts in line with our minds and wills.    This is no doubt why "affections" play such a huge part in all spiritual writings.   Perhaps naturally we love comfort food and dislike thinking of Jesus's death for us.   Ignatian examens are meant ultimately to move us away from love for things that might be obstacles to grace, and towards love for the enduring things.    This takes time and is probably harder than just forcing ourselves to ignore our feelings, but it is apparently time well spent and is not simply a progressive innovation.

Chapter VII:  The Art of Rising After We Fall

This is a corollary and necessary aspect of our intention to make and abide by a Rule, and check regularly how we did on it. 

What is perseverance, my daughters?  Does it mean that we never fall?  No, indeed!  It is the rising again as soon as we have fallen.  It is the intention to march onwards towards the goal, without wasting any time lamenting over our falls.
There are a lot of good things in this chapter.  I would recommend reading a bit of it once a week or so after an examination of conscience, because it is full of quotes on how to trust in God's love for us even when we stumble, and His desire to help us "become what we are".

It seems to me significant that in the Way of the Cross, we meditate on no less than three falls of Jesus.  Of course, Jesus did not sin, but because He was human,  He experienced physical and emotional human frailty like all of us.   Time and again in the Gospels His compassion towards the suffering and fallen is shown.

We are supposed to feel sorrow for straying from the path and sinning, but we are supposed to learn to harness our tendency to wild grief and discouragement and remorse that is actually little more than injured pride.  Those things often plunge us into deeper sins.      St Francis de Sales writes:

One important direction in which to exercise gentleness, is with respect to ourselves, never growing irritated with one's self or one's imperfections; for although it is but reasonable that we should be displeased and grieved at our own faults, yet ought we to guard against a bitter, angry, or peevish feeling about them.
Many people fall into the error of being angry because they have been angry, vexed because they have given way to vexation, thus keeping up a chronic state of irritation, which adds to the evil of what is past, and prepares the way for a fresh fall on the first occasion. Moreover, all this anger and irritation against one's self fosters pride, and springs entirely from self-love, which is disturbed and fretted by its own imperfection....
 Believe me, my daughter, as a parent's tender affectionate remonstrance has far more weight with his child than anger and sternness, so, when we judge our own heart guilty, if we treat it gently, rather in a spirit of pity than anger, encouraging it to amendment, its repentance will be much deeper and more lasting than if stirred up in vehemence and wrath. 

My Notes: 

Personally I have a hard time practicing this art of getting up after a fall.   I think for my part it is laziness and pride.   When I am trying to do better, I want the road smoothed for me.  I don't want to deal with the same irritating issues over and over again; I don't want to face that I am stupid enough to keep doing things I know are simply foolish and harmful. 

However, even in secular terms, apparently perseverance is the key to success, just as they keep reiterating in sports movies and so on.   And perseverance is simply a resolve to keep trying and trying no matter how bad it gets.    In my case, pride sometimes moves into even my best intentions, so to counter that tendency to become self-centered in my attempts to improve, I try to keep God in mind rather than myself.     That is pretty evidently what Jesus did -- He persevered because of His love for the Father and desire to do His will, and through that, for love of us.    He said, "Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect."  To try to do the first part without the second would probably be to become a whited sepulcher, emphasizing exterior rules without allowing the heart to change.

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