Pope Francis: the case for a 2-minute examination of conscience
Below is the text of Pope Francis’ weekly Wednesday audience, delivered on Nov. 30, 2022.
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Dear brothers and sisters,
As we continue our reflection on discernment, and in particular on the spiritual experience called “consolation”, which we spoke about the other Wednesday, we ask: how can we recognize true consolation? It is a very important question for a good discernment, so as not to be deceived in the search for our true good.
We can find some criteria in a passage from the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Ignatius says “We ought to note well the course of the thoughts and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Angel; but if in the course of the thoughts which he brings it ends in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens it or disturbs the soul, taking away its peace, [taking away the] tranquility and quiet, which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our profit and eternal salvation” (no. 333).
Because it is true: there is true consolation, but there are also consolations that are not true. And therefore, we need to understand well the process of consolation: How does it come and where does it lead me? If it leads me to something wrong, that is not good, the consolation is not true, it is “fake,” let’s say. And these are valuable indications that merit a brief comment.
What does it mean that the beginning is inclined to good, as Saint Ignatius says of good consolation?
What does it mean that the beginning is inclined to good, as Saint Ignatius says of good consolation? For example, I have the thought of praying, and I note that it accompanies affection towards the Lord and neighbour, it invites gestures of generosity, of charity: it is a good beginning. It can instead happen that such a thought emerges to avoid a job or task that has been entrusted to me: every time I have to wash the dishes or clean the house, I have a strong urge to pray! This happens, in convents. But prayer is not an escape from one’s tasks; on the contrary, it is an aid in realizing the good we are required to do, here and now. This regards the beginning.
Then there is the middle: Saint Ignatius said that the beginning, the middle and the end had to be good. The beginning is this: I want to pray so as not to wash the dishes: go, wash the dishes, and then go to pray.
Then there is the middle: that is what comes next, what follows that thought. Staying with the previous example, if I start praying and, like the Pharisee in the parable (cf. Lk 18:9-14), I tend to please myself and despise others, perhaps in a resentful and sour mood, then these are signs that the evil spirit has used that thought as a key to enter my heart and transmit its feelings to me. If I go to pray, and I am reminded of that of the famous Pharisee—“I thank you, Lord, because I pray, I am not like other people who do not seek you, do not pray”—that prayer ends badly there. That consolation of praying is to feel like a peacock before God. And this is the wrong way.
We need to examine well the path of our feelings and the path of good feelings, of consolation, at the time when I want to do something.
And then there is the end: the beginning, the middle and the end. The end is something we have already encountered, namely: where does a thought take me? For example, where does the thought of praying take me? For instance, it can happen that I work hard for a good and worthy task, but this pushes me to stop praying, because I am busy with so many things; I find myself becoming more and more aggressive and incensed, I feel that everything depends on me, to the point of losing confidence in God.
Here, evidently, there is the action of the evil spirit. I start praying, but then in prayer I feel omnipotent, that everything must be in my hands because I am the only one who knows how to get things done: evidently there is no good spirit there. We need to examine well the path of our feelings and the path of good feelings, of consolation, at the time when I want to do something; at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.
The style of the enemy—when we speak about the enemy, we speak about the devil, because the devil exists, he is there!—his style, we know—is to present himself in a sneaky, disguised way: he starts with what we hold most dear and then draws us to himself, little by little: Evil enters secretly, without the person noticing. And with time the suavity becomes harshness: that thought reveals itself as it really is.
Hence the importance of this patient but indispensable examination of the origin and the truth of our thoughts; it is an invitation to learn from experiences, from what happens to us, so as not to keep repeating the same mistakes. The more we know ourselves, the more we sense where the evil spirit enters, his “password,” the entrance to our heart, which are the points to which we are most sensitive, so as to pay attention to them in the future.
Authentic consolation is a sort of confirmation that we are accomplishing what God wants of us, that we are walking on his paths, that is, on the paths of life, joy, and peace.
Each of us has the most sensitive points, the weakest points of our personality: that’s where the bad spirit comes in and takes us down the road that is not right, or takes us off the real right road. I go to prayer but it takes me away from prayer.
Examples could be multiplied at will as we reflect on our days. This is why a daily examination of conscience is so important: before ending the day, stop a moment. What happened? Not in the newspapers, not in life: what happened in my heart? Was my heart attentive? Did it grow? Did it go through everything unaware? What happened in my heart? And this examination is important, it is the valuable effort of rereading experience from a particular point of view. Noticing what happens is important, it is a sign that God’s grace is working in us, helping us to grow in freedom and awareness. We are not alone: the Holy Spirit is with us. Let’s see how things have turned out.
Authentic consolation is a sort of confirmation that we are accomplishing what God wants of us, that we are walking on his paths, that is, on the paths of life, joy, and peace. Discernment, in fact, is not simply about what is good or the greatest possible good, but about what is good for me here and now: on this I am called to grow, putting limits on other proposals, attractive but unreal, so as not to be deceived in the search for the true good.
Brothers and sisters, it takes understanding, moving forward in understanding what is going on in my heart. And that takes the examination of conscience, to see what happened today. “Today I got angry, I didn’t do that…”: But why? To go beyond the why is to look for the root of these mistakes. “But, today I was happy but I was bored because I had to help those people, but at the end I felt filled by that help”—and there is the Holy Spirit.
Learn to read in the book of our heart what happened during the day. Do it, just two minutes, but it will do you good, I assure you.