No matter what we do, God will always love us. But sinning is not a matter of whether God loves us. It is a matter of whether we will accept His presence in our lives. As with all relationships, we can choose to let ours with God die. An examination of conscience is an opportunity to assess this relationship and the ways we have hurt or killed it. Looking the relationship over, we can see occasions where it is not what it could be, and with God’s help we can then make it stronger than it was, removing the stumbling blocks that keep us from following God and being as close to Him as we could.
St. Ignatius was aware of all this as he developed the examination of conscience (called the “Examen” for short) that came to be included in the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius says in the Exercises that the Examen should be prayed twice daily, for a few minutes each time (15 at the most), and at about the same time each day: once around lunchtime and once shortly before going to bed. This practice was so helpful that Ignatius and other early Jesuits usually suggested to people that they continue it even after they left the retreat setting, and Jesuits everywhere are asked to do so as part of their regular spiritual practice.
St. Ignatius includes five “points”, or steps, to go over as one prays the Examen. The first thing is “to give thanks to God our Lord for favors received”. While this step may seem out of place in the Examen, it is important not to skip it. As was said earlier, sin is not about breaking a rule or incurring a debt to be payed later. It is a rupture in a relationship with God. Because our sins only really make sense in the context of our relationship with an infinitely loving God, it is important to begin the prayer by thinking over the numerous ways in which God has shown His love just over the course of a few hours.
Next, St. Ignatius says “to ask for grace to know my sins, and to rid myself of them.” St. Paul says that “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rm. 8:26), and the Examen is no exception. In this prayer, we do not one-sidedly take stock of an account, but enter into a conversation with God about our relationship with Him, and where it has not been what it could be.
After this, St. Ignatius says “to demand an account of my soul from the time of rising [or the time of the previous Examen if it is your second of the day] up to the present examination. I should go over one hour after another, one period after another.” As you go over the period, get as concrete and specific as possible. Just saying “I sinned a lot” and leaving it at that isn’t particularly helpful in looking at what is going on between you and God.
Next, St. Ignatius instructs us “to ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults.” Again, remain in the concrete. Look at what you have actually done, what God has given to you, and just how truly one falls short as a loving response to the other. Let the reality of this sink in for a minute or two, and ask God’s forgiveness.
Finally, St. Ignatius asks us “to resolve to amend with the grace of God.” The Examen is not a tool in a self-help program. As far as sin goes, there is no “self-help”. So we have to ask God to give us the grace to reform. Go over what the day will look like until the next Examen with as much detail as you can. What is God calling you to? As you go over each event, ask God to help you respond to that call with total generosity. Then, finish by saying the “Our Father”.