The general examination

Last week we discussed how to get the plan of life off to a solid start each day by making a good Morning Offering, consecrating the day at its outset to God. 

Today I’d like to look at the Spiritual practice that complements the Morning Offering at the other end of the day: the General Examination of Conscience that saints and Spiritual directors have long urged us to make in the evening before retiring. 

The General Examination is a prayerful daily evaluation we make to assess how well we’ve been faithful to the consecration we made at the start of the day. When done well, it’s one of the most powerful and important means for us to grow in the holiness that the plan of life is meant to foster. 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great 12th-century doctor of the Church, said that it is a crucial practice to get to know oneself in light of God’s calling and grace. “As a searching investigator of the integrity of your own conduct,” he wrote, “submit your life to a daily examination. Consider carefully what progress you have made or what ground you have lost. Strive to know yourself. Place all your faults before your eyes. Come face-to-face with yourself, as though you were another person, and then weep for your faults.”

St. John Vianney once told a businessman who had poor knowledge of his soul that this daily Spiritual examination is more important than a regular accounting of receipts and expenses. “It is necessary to put your conscience in better order than you put in order your business affairs,” the patron saint of priests told him. If we’re going to take our “moral bottom line” more seriously than a businessman takes his economic health, Vianney told his parishioners, “We will do well to make an examination of conscience every night.” As comptrollers know, it is easier to make reconciliations on a daily basis than to try to do so over the course of a week, or months or years. 

St. Ignatius of Loyola made the practice of the “examen” one of the pillars of the Spiritual discipline he sought to impart to Jesuits and to the faithful in general. It was so important that he counseled us to do it twice a day, at noon and at bedtime. He taught it is essential for us to discern the various movements of our soul, to determine which come from God, and to decipher the direction God is trying to give us in life. 

One of the confusions I often find when encouraging people to make a daily General Examination of Conscience is that most people think that it’s meant to be a daily review of one’s sins, similar to the Examination of Conscience we do as we prepare to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Few people would get excited about finishing each day pondering the day’s moral failures! 

But the daily examination is focused on something much broader and deeper than a review of one’s sins. It is centered on God: how He has sought to accompany us throughout the day, how much we’ve been conscious of that help and how well we’ve responded. 

For the last 25 years, I’ve made the daily general examination according to the advice given by Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, who encouraged us to review the whole day in light of how we’ve responded to God’s presence, an approach that will lead to three prayerful responses: “Thank you, Lord” for the gift of so many graces over the course of the day; “Sorry,” for the times we were not aware of them or failed to correspond to them; and “Help me more,” an expression of hope to do better on the morrow. I was very pleased that when Blessed Alvaro was beatified in September, Pope Francis wrote a letter reiterating what Blessed Alvaro taught the whole Church about the practice of finishing each day with this prayerful, sincere “gracias,” “perdón,” and “ayúdame más!”

The most traditional form of the daily examination comes from St. Ignatius and involves five parts: thanking God for the gifts received throughout the day; asking Him for the grace and the courage to know one’s sins and eradicate them; prayerfully reviewing one’s thoughts, words and actions throughout the day to determine where God has been in each of them; begging God’s mercy for whatever faults we may have committed and His help to make the necessary changes to keep better union with His saving love; and resolving to amend our conduct in accordance with that help. 

Finishing each day with daily examination is a means to live by Socrates’ great insight that the unexamined life is not worth living. It helps us to resist the modern obsession with spontaneity to live with the intentionality, self-discipline and joy that forms a faithful disciple. It helps us to heed the famous words of Psalm 95, “If today you hear [God’s] voice, harden not your hearts,” because it makes us daily more sensitive and attentive to that voice and assists us to find God in all our daily activities. 

Like the Morning Offering, the General Examination is a prayerful encounter with God that doesn’t need to take very long, generally only a few minutes a day. But that short period of time is an investment in our relationship with God that will bear great fruit, because this holy anamnesis will help us renew our Christian identity each night before God. I encourage you to make it part of your Spiritual game plan. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at

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