The Christian life is not about a “once and for all” event. Just because we are baptised or receive the Eucharist does not mean that we have achieved holiness. The Christian life is similar to the journey of the Hebrew people through the desert on the way from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land: a journey of hardships, failings, but also insight into the gracious enduring love of God. On our journey it is really important for us to be aware of ourselves, of how we are doing, whether we are on the right track, and when we lose our way, how to get back to the route.
This is where an examination of conscience comes in. This examination can take many forms. We can use the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes as our map and check on ourselves daily or weekly to see whether we are on track. If we use the Ten Commandments as our guide, we need to remember that they are not a checklist: “I haven’t killed anyone—check. I’m okay.” Rather, they are general guides which can be grouped into Jesus’s two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbour. How in my daily life do I demonstrate one and the other? Similarly, using the Beatitudes is not about whether we have “blessed someone poor in spirit”; it is asking ourselves whether we have shown respect to the lonely, depressed, rejected. There are various styles of “road maps” to help our personal journey. Here is a website with examples of such examinations of conscience: https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-woorship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/penance/examinations-of-conscience.
Regardless of which method is best for you, three central elements are constant in an examination of conscience: first, sit down (perhaps in front of an icon) and relax—recall that you are in the presence of God; second, be honest with yourself: what have you done or failed to do; third, decide how you will improve. Be realistic in your resolve. Our weaknesses need to be addressed with a plan of honesty, and patience.
The examination of conscience is how we stay aware of our way of being in life. But what if my questioning shows me that I am lost? What if I have done something terrible—something that contravenes the love of God? We have God’s gift of the Spirit to us and the Church, the Body of Christ. To get back on the road of Christ, as it were, we have the help of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession).
The sacrament lets us re-establish our compass, to continue this analogy, so that we are stronger and more committed to living God’s Love, and the best preparation for this sacrament is a regular examination of conscience. Reconciliation is there for us whenever we want advice, support, or encouragement on our life’s journey, not just when we feel we have committed a serious sin. It is a sacrament of healing, not punishment.
What is the essence of a “good confession”? Honesty and a desire to be healed by the Spirit’s presence in me. We know the formula for confession from our childhood: http://www.stsophiaukrainian.cc/resources/howtoconfess/ . Stumbling, falling, getting lost is expected on a life-long trip. But we have God’s grace and the embrace of our Church to keep us going on the adventure.