“Ask a Priest: Am I being too scrupulous?”

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Q: When I try to make a daily examen, I sometimes have trouble recalling my sins of the past day. Then when I am ready to go to confession, I can’t come up with any sins to mention. Is this a sign of scrupulosity? -M.G.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is commendable that you are trying to take advantage of two treasures in the Church: the sacrament of confession, and the time-honored practice of a daily examen (or examination) of conscience. In addition to making us more aware of our faults and failings, the examen helps us to see God’s hand at work in our lives and where he is leading us.

Your difficulty in recalling sins isn’t so much a matter of scrupulosity as it is an opportunity to advance in the spiritual life.

Scripture gives us sober reminders about fallen human nature. “The just fall seven times,” says Proverbs 24:16. And, “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves,” says 1 John 1:8. Let’s use these passages as a springboard to delve deeper into the daily examen.

The examen is, above all, a prayer. And significantly, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). So it helps to turn to the Holy Spirit for help. St. Ignatius Loyola recommended a five-step method for the examen.

Step 1 is to become aware of God’s presence through thanking Our Lord for the gifts he has given you this day. Step 2 is to ask God to enlighten your mind, so that you can see what he wants you to see. Step 3 is to look over the day (or whatever period is in question) and recall your feelings and motives as you dealt with events and people, and to see whether you tried to follow God’s will at every moment. Step 4 would be to ask forgiveness for anything you did wrong or (this particularly might help you) see what you could have done better. Step 5 involves making a resolution for the next day and asking for God’s help.

An even simpler approach is to ask yourself how was your relationship with God, your neighbor and yourself? Did you give God his due? Did you pray well? Did you prepare for Mass well? Were you charitable toward your spouse? Were you patient with companions at work? Were you too hard on yourself — beating up on yourself for “not being perfect”?

If unaware of any sins, you might consider whether you could have done something better. For example, maybe a greater show of patience could have helped someone who was having a bad day. As humans we are imperfect, and there is always something we can improve on.

And what should you do if at confession time you can’t think of any sins? You might consider two options. One, you could mention a particular sin or a category of sin from the past (“I’m sorry for those times that I didn’t visit my grandmother before her death”; “I am sorry for all the times that I gossiped”). Another option is to mention a category of imperfections (“I’m sorry for the times in the past month when I could have reached out more to people but didn’t, because of laziness and self-absorption”). You could also mention the “sins that I have forgotten or am not even aware of having committed.”

Another spiritual practice — tried and true — may be of assistance. It is spiritual reading, and it consists of taking 10 or 15 minutes every day to read good, solid books on Catholic spirituality. By forming this habit (consistency is key, as is choosing spiritual classics, not just short Internet articles like this one), you will give the Holy Spirit room to continue educating your conscience. All the saints considered themselves great sinners, so when we have seasons when we can’t see our sinfulness very clearly, it is usually a sign that we need some more light from the Holy Spirit. Spiritual reading can help make that happen.

One book you may want to start with is “Frequent Confession: Its Place in the Spiritual Life,” by Benedict Baur. In any case, keep taking advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation. The grace Our Lord gives in the confessional can keep you pointed in the right direction.

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