Monday, July 14, 2008

Biblical (Pauline) Evidence For the Catholic Examination of Conscience

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From: John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980, 199):
Examination of Conscience

Reflection in God's presence on one's state of soul, e.g., in preparation for the sacrament of penance.

Examen, General

Prayerful daily periodic examination of one's conscience to determine what faults have been committed, which call for repentance, and what good actions were performed, for which God should be thanked.

Examen, Particular

Regular prayerful examination of one's conscience by concentrating on some one particular moral failing to be overcome or virtue to be exercised. Its focus is on such external manifestations of the fault or virtue as can be remembered for periodic inventory. Particular examens are changed weekly, monthly, or otherwise in order to ensure maximum attention. They are also commonly associated with some brief invocation for divine assistance, as occasions arise for avoiding a sin or acting on a virtue. And after some time another cycle may be started of the same defects that this person has to conquer or good habits he or she needs to develop.
On the CHNI board, an evangelical Protestant woman (not skeptical at all but very open) asked about Catholic devotional practices, such as the scapular and Rosary and fasting, and how to not allow these to degenerate into "good luck charms" and efforts to control the world.

One of the best treatments that I recall of the exact question she raised (the danger of sacramental practices descending into mere superstition and "good luck charms") was in two replies in This Rock magazine concerning the scapular (November 1992 and January 1993) and correct and incorrect understandings of it.

I think these two treatments hit the nail right on the head. Sure, any practice can become rote or separated from its essence, so that folks rely on it rather than God: towards Whom the practice was designed to foster worship and closeness. That's why we Catholics believe in being very self-aware and "vigilant" in the spiritual life: we're always examining ourselves to make sure that our hearts are oriented towards God (as a result -- always -- of God's grace, that we must seek and ask for).

This very self-examination is what Protestants sometimes critique and scorn as "uncertainty of salvation," as if it were a bondage or something undesirable, or altogether lacking in the hope and joy and peace that we have in Christ. Not at all. St. Paul expressed something that I believe is very much along these lines:
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (RSV) Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Paul also wrote to the same Corinthians about the same necessity of self-examination:
1 Corinthians 11:28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

2 Corinthians 13:5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? -- unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
If we pursue this notion, we find that the Greek word in the last two examples above ("test" in 2 Cor 13:5) is dokimazo (Strong's word #1384). In the KJV it is translated variously as examine, discern, prove, try, and approve. Here are some other NT uses of it in similar fashion (RSV):

Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

2 Corinthians 8:7-8 Now as you excel in everything -- in faith, in utterance, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us -- see that you excel in this gracious work also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.

2 Corinthians 8:22 And with them we are sending our brother whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters, but who is now more earnest than ever because of his great confidence in you.

Galatians 6:4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.

1 Thessalonians 5:21 but test everything; hold fast what is good,

1 Timothy 3:10 And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons.
"Examine" in 2 Corinthians 13:5 is a different word: pirazo (Strong's #3985), usually translated as tempt or tempted. In this case it is used in the sense of "tempting" or "testing" or "trying" oneself (i.e., examining).

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