Saturday, August 13, 2011

Examining Particulars

The particular examen faded somewhat in prominence over the last forty years, but it is the true training of the spiritual athlete. Like the wrestler who weighs in or the runner who anxiously checks her time, the particular examen is the daily inspection. It moves us forward.

Often it takes place at a different time than the other examination of conscience: one at midday, the other in the evening. It's purpose is distinct from that of the general examen. Here, we are not so much concerned with staying on course in general, but on honing a particular virtue or good habit.

So in this exercise, we pick one particular area in which we need to grow. (It's usually really easy to figure out what it is!) Break it down. How can I practice this virtue or habit in the day to day? And write it down. Putting things on paper and referring back to them is the best way to be accountable when working alone.

So the steps would look something like:
  1. Place myself in God's presence.
  2. Pray to the Holy Spirit for light and help (without grace, we can do nothing.)
  3. take up my notebook and look at my resolutions. Examine carefully how I done in the past time - how many times have I succeeded? How many times have I failed. Write it down.
  4. Express gratitude and sorrow to God - gratitude for his help in all that I have done well; sorrow insofar as my failures keep me from freely serving him.
  5. Plan for future action. How can I energetically take up the challenge in the next period of time? What are my likely obstacles? What are my likely helps?
  6. Ask God for his grace to continue to grow in this area. Be specific.
A few notes. 

First, the particular examen can be to fight a particular sin in my life. If I have a problem with gossip or glutton or keeping my temper, I can use this means to work my way out of that snare. More often in the lives of those seeking God, the particular examen is used to grow in a particular virtue. I may want to take more time for prayer or go out of my way to be kind or listen to others more attentively. Unless the particular examen is concerned with overcoming a particular sin, the sorrow here is not necessarily contrition. It can be more a sorrow for failing to be the transparent child of God I am called to be. 

Second, the particular examen, like all examinations of conscience, is not to become rigid or discouraging or hurtful. The best test of growth in virtue is a sense of joy and freedom. That does not mean that it will be easy. Working against our ingrained habits can take as much internal sweat as training for a marathon, but it should not induce sadness or anxiety. That is a sure sign that there is something not quite right.

We are called to the freedom of the children of God. Both the general and the particular examen are means to grow in grace and freedom and joy. They are the moments when we check out internal GPS to make sure we are still on the road to God and adjust our actions to stay firmly in the path of virtue.

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