God has created us to be holy. In our daily efforts towards that end we find within ourselves various attitudes and motives that are hindrances to arriving at that holy state.
Many Christians strive for a form of goodness that is on the border of sin and lukewarmness. They do not disobey the commandments, but neither do their lives change. Each confession is basically a repetition of every other confession. Each day’s trial brings on more frustrations. Each heartache leads to new forms of bitterness.
For many Christians, prayer is directed at God rather than to God. Christianity becomes solely a religion and a vehicle by which they calm their consciences or petition the Supreme Being for daily needs. There is a separation — a great gulf between themselves and God. It is almost like a great chasm over which one shouts for help in the hope that an invisible Being on the other side might be listening.
Too many of us live our entire lives in a kind of spiritual Utopia — a dream world of forgotten goals, imagined perfections, and covered-over weaknesses. We put up smoke screens for our sins and rationalize them to the point where we owe neither God nor our neighbor any sign of repentance.
God’s Will becomes so obscure that a dense fog is like a clear day in comparison with what He wants and what we think He wants. At this stage we cry out for God’s Will in our lives, but our preconceived ideas of God, goodness, perfection, and holiness stand between us and God like a medieval castle wall. We freeze and shiver from the cold of frustrated loneliness, searching for the warmth emanating from the fire of His loving will. Unfortunately, our lack of self-knowledge acts like a ball and chain that barely give us room to move in closer to the Fire. Our desires to be better keep us from freezing to death, but our lack of courage to see ourselves as we are, plants our roots securely in the land of unrealized goals. We stand still, afraid of who we are, desperate to be better, but petrified at the sacrifices to be made in order to become better. We are, then, pushed forward by desires and pulled backward by fears. We merely taste a few drops of living water.
Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well that those who drank the water He offered would never thirst again. He certainly was not speaking of the soul’s thirst for God, for that is necessary to grow in His love. The thirst that would finally be satiated for the Samaritan woman was her need to know herself — to admit her guilt — to admit her personal responsibility and to repent.
When Jesus asked her to call her husband, she began with a half-truth. She admitted she had none, but never mentioned her life with a man not her husband. Neither did she tell Jesus she had been married five times. Jesus wanted to release her from that gnawing conscience that gave her no peace and that feeling of guilt that drove her from one excess to another.
The water of His grace poured into her soul, made her admit her weaknesses as Jesus proceeded to tell her all her sins. She was so relieved she ran through the town telling the people about the Man who told her everything she had ever done — forgave her sins and gave her a joy that had to be shared with everyone. She had found God — she would no longer be parched for want of the water of spiritual honesty.
Most of us have never reached that stage of integrity, clear vision, and humble discernment that would satisfy our need for repentance.
We do not possess enough of the Spirit of Jesus to keep our capacity for love and holiness continually being filled and continually growing. We know when, how, and what we do that is wrong, but we hardly ever discern why we do it. We take for granted that society, the devil, and our neighbor bear the responsibility of our actions. We then rush in to change them instead of ourselves. The result is only more frustration, for we ignore the real cause of our weaknesses, sins, and frustrations — ourselves.
Life for many of us is like a seesaw. We are always going up or down while remaining in the same place. We never tear ourselves away and go out into the unknown land of our interior to explore its depths, scale its mountains, fill in its valleys, and surmount its obstacles.
We are afraid to look at ourselves because we do not use Jesus as our measuring rod. We do not place our feet in His well-worn footprints. We prefer to ride sidesaddle through the wilderness rather than walk the narrow path that winds slowly but surely to the Father.
To know we offended God and our neighbor is the first step to self-knowledge, but it cannot end there. We should discern what defect of character or soul is the real cause of our failures. To merely seek out effects is like taking an aspirin for a headache when the cause of pain is a tumor.
We should ask ourselves why we react to various situations the way we do. Motives are an important part of our actions, and they often form the reason behind them.
To say we gave in to anger is only part of the fault, for if the anger is justified, it was no fault at all. We all possess a main root fault, and from that one weakness many shoots spring forth. When we find that main root fault we shall overcome many weaknesses in the conquering of one.
Jesus, Our Model
The more we read the Gospels, the more of an understanding of Jesus will we possess. With this knowledge comes the light of discernment — self-discernment — the kind that is suddenly aware of the degree of contrast between our soul and Jesus, its Model.
Jesus is not only Lord and Savior — He is our Model of Holiness — of Perfection — of action. His life and revelations tell us exactly what He expects of us.
We find Jesus more concerned over man’s interior life than his exterior life. One day He asked His Apostles about their conversation as they traveled from place to place. They reluctantly told Him they were arguing about supremacy — who among them was the greatest. This was wrong, for envy had begun its ugly work among them. In asking the question, Jesus exposed the fault and in giving them the example of what they should be, He exposed their motive — the reason for their fault. He used the positive approach to expose and heal a negative effect.
He told them they were to be like children — humble, docile, gentle, loving, joyful, and ever preferring others over themselves. If they desired to lead, they were to be as one who serves. This contrast brought out to the Apostles a never-to-be-forgotten lesson in humility and love. They knew what they did; they now knew why they did it, and they understood what they should do about it.
Their self-knowledge had the three ingredients so necessary to be fruitful. Our examination of conscience should also bear these three aspects of self-knowledge. If we stop at any one of them, then our spiritual lives will continue on a seesaw.
Our Faith should be strong enough to tell us what we do that offends God so that . . .
Our Hope will be trusting enough to give us the courage to face the reason why we offend God and then . . .
Our Love will give us a deep awareness of how to be more like Jesus. Love makes like — love transforms — love changes the ugly into beautiful — love makes the weak strong.
Self-knowledge that constantly feeds our Faith — Hope —and Love—will always be fruitful—always be joyful—always be humble. But when self-knowledge creates doubts and makes us discouraged and lukewarm, then that knowledge has turned within the soul and acts like a deadly arrow — destroying and tearing apart what God has created to be whole and beautiful.
We should never be discouraged or disheartened over our weaknesses. Jesus has given us His Spirit to help us to be more like Him. He has given us His shepherds to lead us back home. He has given us the grace we need to repent, change, and become holy.
Only in heaven shall we be faultless and flawless. We must accept our sinner condition with humility and a determination never to give in to the weaknesses inherent to that condition. It is to the glory of the Father that we “bear fruit in plenty” (John 12:24). Each one of us will radiate different aspects of the Father’s attributes. What is His by nature becomes ours through grace. It is important for us to know our weaknesses so we can turn them around and change them into beautiful facets of the life of Jesus.
Our examination of conscience should be honest, courageous, and humble. It must tell us what we did, why we did it, and how to change. It will do these things only when the eyes of our conscience rest on Jesus, for with that glance comes grace, and His “grace is at its best in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
May the Spirit, who made our souls His Temple, teach us how to examine our conscience, how to change, and how to pray to the Father in whose Image we were created.
Edtior’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in the book Mother Angelica’s Quick Guide to the Sacraments. It is available as a paperback or ebook from your favorite bookseller or online through Sophia Institute Press.