An examination of conscience is a way of holding ourselves accountable before God and each other for the many ways we miss the mark of excellence in life, being honest about the evil we participate in and the good we fail to do. In such an examination we take time to scan our motives, thoughts, and actions to detect our loyalty to or betrayal of the priorities of the reign of God. Twelve-Step programs do this in Step 4 — making a searching and fearless inventory of one’s life. It’s a healthy and necessary discipline for anyone who desires to develop their fullest human potential, to grow ever more fully into the person s/he is created to become, whether the motivation is religious or not.
The delicate and difficult part in this process involves what we hold as our guide for accountability. For centuries the blueprint for good conduct was the list of Ten Commandments, until Jesus proposed a very different set of guidelines with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1- 13). In this season of Lenten observance, with its annual focus on penitence and confession, it continues to amaze me that the Beatitudes, or any of Jesus’ instructions for that matter, are not resorted to in most churches as the standard by which to examine our conscience.
As early as A.D. 150 in a document written by the Shepherd of Hermas, the Beatitudes were accepted as the positive norm of morality for Christians, stressing the ideals of their founder and avoiding the “do nots” of the Decalogue.
What follows is an examination of conscience and consciousness based on the Beatitudes, something I shared with parishioners when I worked in pastoral ministry. If we truly believe that the teachings of Jesus have practical applicability in the world in which we live and breathe, we will find enough power in our fidelity to these counsels to renew the face of the earth.
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Do I fear being poor, in spirit or otherwise, and prefer to be rich in money, brains, or influence?
Is my desire for poverty of spirit congruent with my lifestyle?
How does the Word of God guide and ground my lifestyle; am I willing to heed God’s Word when it criticizes my lifestyle choices?
Do I cling to my own ideas, opinions and judgments, sometimes to the point of idolatry?
Do I contribute my time, talent and money to the poor of the world?
Do I make it my business to examine the causes of poverty in our world and work to eradicate unjust systems?
2. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Do I grieve over loneliness, despair, guilt and rejection in the lives of others?
Am I willing to admit my own despondencies and need for comfort?
How do I actively extend consolation and healing, or do I blandly encourage people to “have courage,” while avoiding getting too involved?
What am I doing to dry the tears of those who suffer war and poverty, hunger and injustice, illness and loss?
3. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Do I see any value in meekness or nonviolence?
Do I cringe at the thought of being called meek?
How do I use nonviolence as a way to fight evil with good; do I choose to live that way?
How much are intimidation and force affect my own relationships and dealings with people?
Do I work for nonviolent social change?
How do I foster a non-violent and cooperative spirit in my children?
4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
How do I respond to important current events that are manifestations of injustice?
Are my energies and passions focused on Christ, or are they scattered, disordered, divided?
How do I honestly try to improve the quality of life around me?
How do I try to improve the environment, racial relations, care for the unborn, sexual equality, the lives of the poor and destitute?
What is my commitment to eradicate injustice within my family, my school or workplace, my church, my community, my world?
When does fear keep me silent when I should speak out against prejudice, injustice and violence?
5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
Do I operate on a double standard of expecting mercy without extending it myself?
Do I prefer the strict law and order approach, or that of mercy, tenderness and compassion?
Are there places and people/relationships who/which are suffering because of me and my unforgiving attitude?
Am I devoid of a merciful spirit toward those I call “enemy”?
What is my attitude toward capital punishment, ex-convicts, sex offenders?
6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Am I trusting and trustworthy?
Do I value living without pretense and suspicion, or am I constantly fearful that someone will take advantage of me?
Am I open and honest about who I am and what I do?
Do I deflect attention and honour due to God and claim these things for myself?
Have I been untrue to myself, even a little, for advancement, money or good opinion?
Have I failed to take time for prayer, solitude, reflection?
7. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”
Am I eager for reconciliation, or do I antagonize and yearn for revenge?
Do I think apologizing is a sign of weakness?
How do I build bridges of reconciliation in family and community arguments?
Do I enjoy watching violence in films, television and sports?
Have I studied peace and taken initiatives to stop violence and war?
Have I read, and do I support, the many official church statements against the arms race, nuclear weapons, war?
Do I see the Christian vocation as one of peacemaker?
Is my presence a source of peace to those around me?
8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Do I criticize or ridicule those who suffer for their beliefs?
Am I embarrassed to step out of the mainstream to stand up for a principle?
Who are my heroes? Are there any among them who gave their lives without vengeance for what is true? Would I do the same?
Do I worship security and fear costly discipleship?
Have I called myself Christian without making my life a witness to the teachings of Jesus?
Have I openly supported those who defend justice and give their lives for peace?
9. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Do I live confident of the promises of Jesus? Or do I surrender to pessimism and anxiety?
Do I perceive the paradoxical victory in the cross of Jesus that breaks through power structures and conquers in peace and love?
Have I become cynical rather than hopeful?
What else do I need to bring before God in search of divine mercy?
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