Let’s admit something: neither you nor I are as holy as we should be. Our sins, sinful tendencies, and imperfections abound and attack us from all sides. At the beginning of our conversion or return to the faith, it was easy to harness our great enthusiasm and zeal to fight off temptation from all sides and to feel like we were winning the spiritual fight with the ease of a guy pulling off the one-man band. However, initial zeal soon wears off and, one by one, we make little compromises with sin; and soon we’re left feeling defeated and overwhelmed by the truth of what we are (or aren’t).
The problem is that, very often, we’re trying to do too much at the same time. We have the impression – especially as men – that God demands perfection from us and we need to produce it right now. And so we try to fight the various sins that plague us all at once – and when we discover that our will is too weak to keep up the herculean effort that a multiple-front war demands, we determine that the whole holiness business must just not be for us.
The great spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis traces a much simpler path to holiness: “If every year we rooted out one vice [from our lives], we should soon become perfect men” (The Imitation of Christ, Book I, XI.5). The tried and true path toward spiritual growth aims at conquering one sin at a time – fighting a single-front battle. This type of stepping stone path toward perfection is both more realistic and more practical.
Holiness is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a slow and steady work that absorbs our entire life. So, let me offer one practical technique that will give both victory in battle and endurance over the long-haul.
St. Ignatius of Loyola calls this technique the “particular examination of conscience.” It’s similar to the “general examination of conscience,” with which we’re probably more familiar. The general examination is done once a day, usually before going to bed. It reviews all the actions, words, and thoughts of the day in order to give thanks to God for his blessings and to identify those places where we have failed the One we love. The general examination, done every day, is an excellent preparation for sacramental confession and a good practice to grow in self-knowledge (Spiritual Exercises, 32-43).
The particular examination is a distinct exercise that goes along with the general examination. It involves choosing just one sin or imperfection in our life that we want to be rid of and, at various times throughout the day, assessing how we are doing in fighting that particular temptation. The man engaged in a single-front battle against sin finds in the particular examination a powerful weapon because it focuses his spiritual energy toward a specific fault, making him more vigilant against that sin and more successful in combating it. With time and God’s grace, the soul either lessens or eliminates that sin, and then moves on to the next one. Following Thomas à Kempis’ logic, “we should soon become perfect men!”
The subject of the particular examination can be anything: avoiding complaining, stifling the habit of being negative or critical of others, fostering chastity by keeping a proper custody of the eyes, refusing to think jealously of the good things others have, cleaning up one’s language, being patient, calming a short temper, avoiding lying, and more. It can also be a positive activity that combats sin or imperfection: striving to encourage others with one’s words, accepting little inconveniences willingly, giving more time to other people and not being caught up in one’s own plans for the day, making more frequent prayers throughout the day, witnessing to the faith, being joyful and lighthearted, offering more intercessory prayer, et cetera.
St. Ignatius advises that the particular examination be practiced throughout the day: first, upon waking, one should make a firm resolution to guard against the specific sin or defect; secondly, after lunch, one should take a few minutes to evaluate how the battle against that fault is going; again, after dinner a similar evaluation should be made. After each examination, the soul should make another prayerful resolution to avoid the sin and continue on with the day (Spiritual Exercises, 24-26).
The time that the particular examination is done can vary according to the individual – it might be easier to do it every time you get in your car, maybe you have an activity at regular times throughout the day at work that it could accompany, think about doing it when you go to check your email, even when you go to the bathroom. Being a very short exercise, it fits in almost seamlessly in the activities of any schedule.
With time and a faithful practice of the particular examination, we begin to overcome the sins and imperfections of our soul one at a time. The cacophony of sinful impulses lessens and the soul begins to find the peace Jesus promises to those who follow him (cf. Jn 14:27, Mt 11:29-30).
Men, we’re not as holy as we should be. But the fight is simpler than we think: don’t fight a multiple-front war against sin! Use the particular examination to give sin the can one at a time – and, in that way, discover the fulfillment that only a life of holiness can offer.