The Particular Examen

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

In going through some personal effects recently, I came upon the rule book from my high school seminary, and in a fit of nostalgia, I spent some time paging through it.

For seminarians, the rule was second only to the Bible in importance, and it was a close second. We were frequently reminded that the purpose of the rule was to “open our souls to the workings of the Holy Spirit.” The rule directed just about every aspect of our lives – our attire, the use of our rooms, where we could walk outdoors, the reception of visitors, the use of the telephone, restrictions on mail, and even, what we could and couldn’t do on summer vacation. On that point it sternly reminded us that we were forbidden “to enter taverns or similar places” or have summer jobs “where girls or young women were employed.”

The rule also dictated the details of our daily schedule, and one important element of the schedule was the “particular examen.” Every day, at 12:10, the whole community, about 250 of us, would stop in the chapel before lunch for five minutes for the particular examen. This was a brief exercise during which, in the context of silent prayer, we were to focus on one particular moral fault in our lives and renew our determination to conquer it.

So, for example, if the fault, the sin, I was dealing with was anger, each day I would think about the times I was angry, what caused me to be angry, and how I could avoid it in the future. When I felt I had made some progress handling anger, I would move on to another fault – envy, lying, or swearing, for example.

As simple as it sounds, I think the particular examen was an effective tool in the spiritual life. It forced us to look in the mirror, confront our sinful habits, and do a little better next time. Experience tells us that the imitation of Christ, our growth in holiness, is the work of a lifetime; it requires determination and patience. A daily examination of conscience, a particular examen, combined with regular confession, is a very effective way of overcoming our faults and sins and becoming better persons.

Something to think about: If you were to start a daily particular examen, which fault or sin would you first focus on?