Examination of Conscience

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You can’t always predict what will cause readers to react and write. In an earlier column entitled “Know Thyself,” I said in passing that I had for many years asked my students to fill out a “self-knowledge survey,” which they resisted doing, because few really know themselves.

Several people wrote to ask me whether I would send them the “self-knowledge survey” I used. A good friend wrote asking: “Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves these questions every day?” Perhaps, but it depends on the nature of the questions.

The two “self-knowledge” surveys I used were borrowed from Stephen Covey’s book First Things First. The first survey involved thinking about what you would want people to say about you (truthfully) at your eulogy. I asked the students to think about what they would want the people closest to them to be able to say honestly about them in ten years. My goal was to get the students to think about their goals for the next four years of college and how they related to their goals in the five or six years beyond.

The second survey asked questions like: “What do I deeply enjoy doing?” “Who is the person that has made the greatest positive impact on my life?” “What have been my happiest moments in life?” “Why were they happy?” Other questions asked about “quality-of-life” results in the physical and social realms. They were good questions, but limited in their scope in a way I’ll describe in a moment.

I originally chose these two surveys because so many of our students come to college with no other goal than to “be a success,” especially in business, and Covey’s book was a “business best-seller.” Indeed, in previous years, many students had been required to use a Franklin-Covey Planner in high school and junior high. So I thought Covey’s name was one my students would recognize and respect.

Covey’s questions also struck me as direct, concrete, and down-to-earth rather than abstract and fuzzy. Asking young adults to think about “the meaning of life” is like asking them to think about being eighty-years-old or about the purpose of history: it’s just too abstract and distant from their everyday experience. I wanted to give them questions they could more easily see as having consequences in their everyday lives.

And yet, as I mentioned in my previous article, after the first couple of times I used these questions, all I really expected was for the students to look at me blankly and admit that they hadn’t answered them. So then I could ask them: “Why not?” I always used these surveys in conjunction with selections from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, so that when I asked the question, “Why did you avoid answering these questions about yourself?” they had a reading that might help them realize: “Like many people, I don’t know or understand myself very well.”

When people started asking me for the “self-knowledge survey” I had used, I was hesitant. I never thought Covey’s surveys were perfect, especially not for Catholics. And they certainly didn’t get my students to “know themselves” better, although I never expected a single survey to accomplish this. There was nothing wrong with these surveys; people could do themselves a lot of good examining their lives using these questions. But something crucial would still be missing.

St. Peter’s Square, early 20th century

I proposed in my previous article that we can only “know ourselves” truly when we can see ourselves the way God sees us. As our Creator, He knows us better than we know ourselves. He sees clearly, without invention or illusion, both the good and the bad. He knows not only who we are, but who we are meant to be. Paraphrasing a line from the poet Robert Burns, I suggested asking, “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as God see us.” And yet, how do we do this?

One good way is with the tried-and-true, daily examination of conscience. It might help if we think of this practice not merely as a recounting of our sins and failures, but as a means to know ourselves. Stephen Covey’s survey asks: “What qualities of character do I most admire in others?”

Good question. A related one would be to ask: “Which qualities of character that I most admire in others do I find lacking in myself?” Covey asks: “What talents do I have that no one else really knows about?” A related question would be: “Am I burying my talents the way the wretched man in the Parable of the Talents does?”

Covey asks: “When I look at my work life, what activities do I consider of greatest worth?” A further question would be: “Which activities that I engage in would God consider of greatest worth?” And if there is a disjunction between what I consider of greatest worth and what revelation teaches me God considers of greatest worth, then what does this tell me about myself?

The goal here would be to examine ourselves in light of what God’s revelation tells us about human nature and true human flourishing. For if we begin with mistaken notions of the human person and human flourishing, we are likely to end up going very wrong.

This is why there is great value in having the Church with its centuries-long wisdom and spiritual traditions to trust in – rather than having to trust in our own limited understanding.

So find a good examination of conscience, one based on foundational biblical texts such as the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, and use it regularly, not merely to prepare for Confession. Then pray, give thanks, go to Confession and Mass, give freely to others, and forgive others as God has forgiven us.

When we can see ourselves in the light of Christian revelation, and become more like Christ, we will begin to know ourselves the way God knows us.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.