The examination of conscience is a pious exercise directed to the discovery and detestation of our sins; and it possesses especial efficacy towards aiding us in the work of our sanctification. St. Ignatius, and after him the whole host of spiritual writers, divide it into general and particular. The general examination has for its object all the sins of our life, or all those which we have committed during a certain period of time; as, for instance, during the course of a year, a month, or a day. The particular examination, which is intended to be an instrument for reducing to practice the good resolutions made in the general one, has for its object some particular virtue, which we need more especially to acquire; or some particular vice, which we need more especially to overcome.
Importance of frequently examining our conscience in order to purify our soul from sin and advance in virtue.
We learn from history that the wisest of the ancient philosophers looked upon the examination of conscience as a most powerful and efficacious means to preserve themselves free from vice, and advance in virtue, and in the attainment of solid wisdom. Thus Pythagoras was accustomed each night to examine how he had spent the day, and whether by thoughts, words, or actions he had deviated from the path of justice, and violated his duties. And the same practice he also recommended to his disciples; so that it afterwards became a rule amongst his followers to perform carefully this exercise every day. Cicero also, in his treatise De Senectute, greatly extols this practice, and recommends it to those who desire to attain true wisdom and to advance in virtue.
But if the examination of conscience is deemed to he of so great importance for the attainment of mere human wisdom and the advancement in natural justice, what shall we say of its necessity for the acquisition of that heavenly wisdom, and for the attainment of that supernatural justice, to which Christians are called? Who can reflect upon this without seeing at once the particular obligation under which Christians lie of often searching into the recesses of their hearts, of scrutinising the actions of their life, and carefully examining their own conscience?
That we may be the better convinced of this truth, let us consider the practice and teaching of the Saints on this point. The great St. Basil, the father of the ancient monks, speaks of this examination as being practised by all the religious of the East every day. St. Ephrem, also one of the most ancient Oriental fathers, speaks with great praise of this holy duty; and, in order to promote its practice amongst religious, makes use of the following comparison: 'As a merchant,' says he, 'who wishes to succeed well in his business, and to gain a good fortune, diligently examines each day his books, to see whether he has lost or gained on that day; so should the religious carefully examine every day his own conscience, to see how he is proceeding in the path of perfection, whether he is advancing or falling back.' St. John Chrysostom also highly commends this practice, and exhorts all Christians to adopt it. 'As a master of a family,' says he, 'calls together his different servants at the close of the day, to see how they have fulfilled their various offices, so must the Christian summon before the tribunal of his reason every day the senses of his body, and all the various faculties and powers of his soul, and ask of them to give a strict account of the manner in which they have fulfilled their respective functions.' St. Gregory says, that he who neglects to examine his conscience walks at random, and, as it were, blindfolded; and that he knows not whither he is going, nor how he is proceeding in the path of virtue.
In addition to highly extolling and recommending the practice of examination of conscience, the Saints have always been most diligent in adopting it themselves. Thus we know that St. Ignatius was not satisfied with making the two examinations prescribed by his rules at the evening and at noon, but he examined himself every hour in the day, to see what advances he was making in perfection. On a certain occasion, meeting with one of his religious, who was regarded by all as a saint, St. Ignatius, to see how far he was advanced in perfection, asked him how often he had examined his conscience that day, and having received for answer that he had done it seven times, the Saint subjoined, with a kind of surprise 'Only seven times!' Thus shewing in what esteem he held this practice.
The principal reason which shews this necessity of frequently examining our conscience, that we may purify our souls from sin, and advance in the path of holiness, is the corruption of our nature. If we had retained those excellent dispositions and that perfect righteousness in which our first parents were created, we should have no need of examining our conscience so often. For in this case our understandings would be bright and enlightened with perfect clearness by the lamp of truth, and our hearts sweetly and strongly inclined towards virtue. But far different is our present condition from that of our first parents; for we are now encompassed by a corruptible flesh, which continually struggles against the spirit, making us violently bent towards evil and averse to good. Our fallen nature is like a wild and desert land, which naturally yields only thorns, briers, and thistles. Our mind is bewildered amidst darkness and obscurity, and overrun with innumerable distracting thoughts. Hence, whatever may be our good purposes, however desirous we may be to do right, however fervent our aspirations to love and serve our most sweet and bountiful Lord, we are always exposed to the danger of committing innumerable faults, which spring up almost imperceptibly from the bottom of our corruption. This is beautifully expressed by the Prophet David in several passages of his Psalms, and particularly where he says that even the just man falls seven times in the day. This is also pointed out in a most emphatic manner by St. John in those words, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
And such being the case, it follows that all Christians, whatever may be their rank and state of life, and however advanced they may be in virtue, stand in need of examining their conscience frequently, in order to purify themselves ever more and more from sin, and persevere in the path of virtue. He who abandons this holy practice is like a gardener who neglects the care of his garden, which quickly becomes overrun with weeds and wild herbs; for, as St. Bernard remarks, the sins which we eradicate to-day are ready to spring up again to-morrow, and in the end will choak the good seed and ruin our souls, unless we take pains to discover and root them out again and again by examination and contrition.
Taken from - The Way to Heaven. A Manual of Devotion. By The Very Rev. John Baptist Pagani.