A practical idea for improving our prayer life.
On the one side, there is the Examination of Conscience. In theory, this is an important part of Catholic life. We have to do it to go to Confession. But more importantly, Confession is meant to teach us to have a sensitive conscience all the time, to be aware of the poor choices we make, our failures in love. A good examination of conscience helps us get beyond the question, “will I go to Hell for that?” and into the question, “does this action reflect who I want to be? Who Jesus wants me to be? Did it bring me closer to God? Did it help me to grow in love of my neighbor?”
In one sense, examination of conscience needs to be a constant thing: sensitivity of conscience. But in another sense, it’s important to have times of examining our conscience, to practice thinking through our actions and to take time to repent and start off in a new direction. We get better through practice.
The problem, I think, is that the examination can be a hassle. I think it is legitimate to make the following complaints:
-I don’t need “one more thing” when I’m already having trouble getting good times of prayer.
-I’d rather look at Jesus than at myself. Christianity really isn’t about navel-gazing.
-How do I know what to examine? There can be a circularity, where I only examine myself on the things I care about. But what if Jesus has other things I should be worrying about?
Another issue: Lectio Divina, the prayerful reading of Scripture. Scripture is the bread of the Christian’s life. The early Church described Christians as being like cows, chewing their cud. We are meant to be constantly grazing on Scripture, swallowing it, bringing it back up, chewing and chewing and chewing, internalizing, bringing it back up, chewing it again. This is the traditional spirituality of the Catholic Church, to which Vatican II urged us to return. (That it’s ecumenically friendly is a nice side effect.)
But again, how? The Bible’s confusing. It’s complicated. And it’s so big! Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. And then what do we do?
There’s a popular theme out there, urged by Pope Benedict, that gives four steps to lectio divina. Step one: read. Step two: ponder (or meditate). Step three: pray, ask God to help you with what you’ve thought about. Step four: contemplate (whatever that means).
Okay. But frankly, to me, this feels a bit complicated. I think what it tries to describe is a much simpler process: not so much four steps as (1) reading (2) thoughtfully and (3) prayerfully, with (4) the occasional inspired glance upward as the Spirit moves us.
But whether we do the complicated four steps or the simple all-in-one, it can still be hard to get started. What should we read, and how do we know what it says?
So here’s an idea: examine your conscience with Scripture. Here’s how it works:
First, read a very short passage. Because we’re just looking for a bite, you don’t need this to be anything orderly. You can just open the Bible at random. Or you can go slowly – very slowly – through a Gospel. Or something else that sort of interests you. The Psalms are great, and this can help you pray them well in other contexts.
The point is, keep it really short, so you can keep it simple. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a sentence, or less. For this exercise, give up trying to cover ground. You’re just looking for one little thing to think about right now.
Take from your reading a very short phrase. Just a couple words. One little image, one little phrase you can chew on.
Then, set aside a very short amount of time. Maybe five minutes. Maybe while you do the dishes, or pick up. (This can be a good excuse to do some picking up, as long as it’s mindless.) Maybe before you turn the radio on in the car. Doesn’t need to be long.
Next, examine your conscience with your phrase. The examination and the reading can help each other. Not sure what the reading means? Ask yourself the question, how does this accuse me? What is the challenge this phrase offers to me?
On the flip side, not sure how to examine your conscience? Let your very short phrase give you something particular to examine yourself on. Different every time, inspired every time, and a nice little challenge.
Just a small way to grow in intimacy with sacred Scripture.