“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
So C.S. Lewis quips in The Great Divorce, neatly summarizing the determinative power of our human free will. Yet, such a choice is not one that is sorted out in just one decisive moment – at the end of time or before – but rather each at each moment of our lives. It is to an examination of the way we use our wills that we now turn.
Immediately after offering the Principle and Foundation at the opening of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius lists the examination of conscience. Upon consideration this makes plenty of sense; only once we know the proper destination of our course of life on earth can we have a clearer understanding of what deviates us from this path. Better understanding that we are made for God calls for a response on our part! The course of life offers us choices – some of which promote our end, some of which slow us down in pursuing it, and some of which outright oppose our end. Most simply put, sin and the praise, reverence, and service of God do not coincide.
St. Ignatius does not bring sin into our consciousness early in the Spiritual Exercises because moral law is the sum of Christian religion or because we must first be perfect in order to follow God. Much the opposite, whatever our state in life and whatever the condition of our soul, a deepening awareness of our true end, God, must be accompanied by a continually growing knowledge of what keeps us from that end.
Self-knowledge is a condition of amendment of life. St. Ignatius’s Examine equips us with the tools we need for moral and spiritual growth, to follow God’s will more faithfully.
At the beginning of the season of Lent (and particularly on its first Friday), it is probably very beneficial for each of us to take up a broad assessment of our way of living that St. Ignatius calls the “General Examine.” He recommends making this prayer twice daily (around lunchtime and bedtime) for about 15 minutes. Committing to making such an examination daily in a reasonable way – even once a day if this more feasible for you or you are just being introduced to the practice – can greatly help making the Spiritual Exercises and can significantly deepen the graces we receive in meditation.
With that, here is the method St. Ignatius gives for making the Examine – to aid us in keeping ourselves firmly oriented to our true end, to better avoid sin and say to God, “Thy will be done.”
After reminding the retreatant that we can sin in thought, word, and deed, St. Ignatius outlines these five steps for making the Examine.
(1) “… to give thanks to God our Lord for the favors received.”
(2) “… to ask for grace to know my sins and to rid myself of them.”
(3) “… to demand an account of my soul from the time of rising [or of the previous Examine of that day] up to the present examination,” going over it “one period after another.”
(4) “… to ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults.”
(5) “… to resolve to amend with the grace of God.”
Above all, in making the Examine, we must be patient with ourselves! It takes time to learn such a prayer, and still more time to undo the knots of sin we may begin to recognize. Yet God is ever-ready to help us to fight this battle. Always pray the Examine with a great sense of trust and of God’s present help to aid your resolutions. We hope it will be fruitful to you throughout Lent and beyond.