"King David in Prayer" by Pieter de Grebber

A Catholic Approach to Making “New Years” Resolutions

As we all know, the beginning of each New Year is a time that people make resolutions about how they will better their lives. Like many of you, I have participated in this tradition over the years. And like many of you, I have broken these resolutions faster than I care to admit. So this year, I decided to try something different.

Many of you have seen (more than once, I presume) the movie Elf. There is a scene where Jovie, played by Zooey Deschanel, puts aside her inhibitions and sings before a crowd in the streets of Manhattan in order to increase the “Christmas Spirit” that makes Santa’s sleigh fly. The Christmas carol she sings is Santa Claus is coming to Town and includes the line, “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice.”

This got me to thinking.  Santa can be seen as a metaphor for God and it is Emmanuel – God with us – whose incarnate birth we celebrate at Christmas. Set aside all the commercial aspects of the season. Instead of kids needing to be concerned about Santa’s list in regards to receiving material presents, we can see the need for each of us, no matter our age, to look within and see how far from and how close to we compare to the authentic image that God created us to be. This is at the heart of the various examens that a Catholic should make on a daily basis to deepen their spiritual lives. So, I thought, why not make an Advent-long examen this year.

Examen is another way for saying, “examination of conscience”.  Considering the above, I concluded that although I always try to spend Advent profitably in terms of my spiritual life, this Advent would be a time for humble and honest self-examination and spiritual growth.  Therefore, I have spent this Advent Season taking a prayerful, hard and, I hope, honest look at myself; asking God to let me see myself as He sees me. And from this, I would make a list and check it twice. Guided by the teachings of various saints, I started out to see what I would discover. What I wish to share with you has less to do with my own discoveries about myself and more to do with how I went about it. Maybe you can incorporate the practice of a good examen into your daily prayer. The following is a series of frequently asked questions I composed regarding making an examen.

Frequently Asked Questions about Making a Good Examen

  1. What is an examen? As, I said, “examen” is another way to refer to “examination of conscience”. There are generally considered to be two types of examens: a general examen and a particular examen.
  2. What is a “general” examen? In a general examen, one looks at his life, usually a period of time just completed, and asks for the grace to see himself with the eyes of God… in what ways have I failed to live and act as God desires? In what ways have I obeyed God greatest two commandments to love Him, self and neighbor? In general terms, what changes should I make to live more perfectly and to grow in holiness?
  3. What is a “particular” examen? A particular examen looks more closely at recurring successes and failures. This is particularly helpful to deal with sins that are repeated. A particular examen is made possible by a regular and frequent general examen.
  4. When should I make an examen and how often? There are many different answers to this question. Many people practice the Jesuit Examen which follows a set format and occurs for short durations, multiple times throughout the day. Personally, I practice my examen generally once each day, incorporated into Compline (Night Prayer of the Liturgy of Hours). This is the last thing I do before retiring to sleep each night. You should choose a time during the day or night when you can be by yourself without interruption and you should do this daily.
  5. Why should I make an examen? Great question! The purpose of making an examen is not to beat yourself up. The purpose of an examen is to assist you in becoming holy. That is why you identify both the successes (virtues) and failures (sins) that comprise your day. If you honestly discover those ways in which you are faithful and holy, you can resolve to act in those ways more often. If you honestly discover those ways in which you have sinned – that is, failed to be faithful and holy – you can resolve to repent of those failures, ask forgiveness of God and avoid them in the future. All of this is possible by asking God for His grace to become holy.
  6. Does an examen take much time? No, it really does not. The approach I take can be completed in about 15 minutes, though I have found that I generally spend 20 to 30 minutes at the end of each day. In either event, you have to admit that is very little time considering, on the one hand, all the time one usually spends each day on things that matter very little and, on the other hand, that all that we have and are capable of being comes from God.
  7. Can this help me make a good confession? Absolutely. In fact, one cannot truly make a good confession without an adequate and honest self-examination. If you only make that examination of conscience a few moments before entering the confessional, it is difficult to completely identify all your sins. This is especially true if you only receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation infrequently. Do you sometimes find it difficult to know what to confess? This is a sign that you are either very holy or that you need to make more frequent examens.
  8. Can you tell me more about making a “particular” examen? This sounds helpful. Yes, it is not just helpful; I think it is essential to overcoming habitual sin. So let’s concentrate on identifying habitual sin to explain the purpose of the particular examen. When you make, regular, frequent general examens, you will undoubtedly become aware of repeated sins. It is at these moments that you can pause from the general examen and focus more specifically on the sinful behavior. What is the sin? When do I commit it? Is there a pattern to this behavior? Is there something or someone who triggers my sin (it may not be their fault, by the way)? Aware, now, of these patterns and triggers, what can I do, by God’s grace, to change them? Should I avoid them or is there something I can do proactively to help change my behavior? This is the essence of a particular examen. And it is practiced on each area you want to improve.

A Possible Format for your Daily Examen

Again, how you choose to incorporate an examen into your daily prayer is up to you. As I mentioned, I make my examen during my Night Prayer from the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. If you are unfamiliar with Night Prayer you can visit http://divneoffice.org for all the prayers and structure for any given day. Here is what I do:

  1. Make the Sign of the Cross.
  2. (v.) God, come to my assistance. (r.) Lord, make haste to help me.
  3. Glory to the Father, and to the Son…
  4. Spend 5 to 15 minutes making a general and a particular examen, asking for God to inform and enlighten your mind and heart
  5. Sing the hymn from Night Prayer.
  6. Pray the specified psalm with antiphon from Night Prayer.
  7. Read the specified scripture reading from Night Prayer and recite the accompanying responsorial: (v.) Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. (r.) Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. (v.) You have redeemed us, Lord God of truth. (r.) I commend my spirit. (v.) Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. (r.) Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
  8. Recite the antiphon for the Gospel Canticle. Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.”
  9. Recite the Gospel Canticle (called the Nunc dimittis) for Night Prayer from Luke 2:29-32, making the sign of the cross.
  10. Repeat the antiphon for the Gospel Canticle.
  11. Pray or chant an antiphon in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I chant “Salve, Regina”.
  12. Conclude with the Sign of the Cross.

Whatever format you choose, pray to the good God for faith, hope, charity, humility, knowledge, wisdom and strength… and all the graces needed to live your life according to God’s plan. And today is always a good time to begin.

Into the deep…

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, Editor-in-Chief for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization at his parish and a deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

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