How often do you examine your conscience? I was taught to do so every day as a constituent of my night prayers. So there I was in the dormitory at school thinking of all my sins. And there was good reason – for, prior to bedtime, we were led through the night prayers to be found in the “Manual of Prayers for Youth”. Do you remember it? It was strong on the possibility that one might die in one’s sins during the coming night, and “if you die ill the loss is irreparable”. Whether this was good psychology for developing the spiritual life of a nine-year old is questionable, but it certainly provided motivation.
I address the subject for this is the time of the year when we may decide on good resolutions. To do so effectively we need to examine our conscience for the previous year. But here we are unlikely to focus on individual incidents for we are looking at tendencies to vice or virtue which we can identify. You may notice that I use the word “virtue”. Although the emphasis of my youth was on recalling vice, this was bad spiritual psychology.
John Paul II was quite right to suggest that sins “breed”. What he meant was that once we allow ourselves to, say, become slack about telling the truth, it becomes gradually easier. Thus what has been a habit of minor lies can grow into deeper falsehoods. But similarly our good deeds lead to better deeds. So we need to reflect primarily on what, in our judgment, we have done well. And experience shows that we are most likely to rid ourselves of what we do badly by promoting what we do well. In fact our resolutions should ideally build on increasing the virtues where we have already made progress. As a result our vices begin to feel neglected, and they crawl away.
I have written before on practical ways to setting about improvement, so my reminder will be brief. The first principle is to be concrete. Thus a global intention to be more considerate to one’s spouse should be replaced by, say, “when my spouse says something with which I disagree, I will delay answering back until I have understood all the reasons why he/she made the statement.” That has the advantage of being measurable and of course it will promote the greater consideration which I want to show.
Secondly, only pursue one resolution at a time. We do better by focussing on one resolution for one month than by three resolutions for three months. If you want to, apply the next resolution in the following month. With three resolutions you could have four cycles during 2015. Of course, as the year goes by, you will find the resolutions easier to master. The virtues (and vices) are habits, and habits deepen with use.
By January 2016 you will have become a saint!