There is a cartoon of a man and a woman standing in front of a mirror. The woman is rather skinny, and the man is fat. Looking at her image in the mirror, the woman screams, “Oh gosh, am I fat!”, while the man watching himself, just mumbles “Hmmh, just what I thought, nice and trim!”
Our self-image is important for a happy life. Many suffer the consequences of negative upbringing. “Don’t be like him/her!”, “You are good for nothing!”, “Why can you not be like him/her?”… these remarks, often intended to stimulate and help us, affect us negatively even later in life.
Deep down we ask ourselves “Why am I constantly compared to others?”, and “Why can you not accept me as I am?”. Everyone knows stories about parents wanting their child to excel in a given sport and the poor child, who hates every moment of it, is constantly frustrated not being able to live up to the parents’ expectations.
The Greek philosophers understood the key to life when they said, “Know yourself!” (gnothi seauton). Indeed, to know oneself is very important for our happiness. We need to look in the mirror and see ourselves as we truly are: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is the principle behind the examination of conscience and confession. We are recommended to make an examination of conscience every evening before going to bed.
In my experience and also as a confessor, I must say, many of us live without ever reflecting or evaluating upon our life. Thus, we come to confession saying that we have no sins, or we just recite a list of sins which we learned once by heart. We are like ostriches, sticking our heads in the sand, and pretending all is perfect.
During the past couple of years, I increasingly meet people who tell me that they quit the Church because of the sexual scandals. I then ask them “Don’t you know that we are a Church of sinners; don’t you have any sins”? It is precisely because we are sinners that Jesus came – “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Unfortunately, people have a wrong idea of what the Church is, and thus, many feel they do not belong.
Early in his reign, Pope Francis broke with tradition. While at a Penance Service in St Peter’s Basilica during the entrance of the procession with ministers, the Pope suddenly disappeared. As people were looking for him, they saw him kneeling at one of the confessionals confessing his sins before a priest in public, the likes of which we have not seen before.
Did we ever see a Pope confessing his sins? Does a Pope sin? In the same way, saints are often wrongly understood as people without sins, who are pure and holy. No wonder people give up on saintly life, feeling one could never live up to such a standard. Thus, we frequently hear people say, “I am not a saint!”.
In spiritual life it is crucial to understand that “saintly life is not the same as a life without sins and weaknesses”. Only our Mother Mary was and is without sin. The life of a saint and thus everyone’s life in Church is the life of “a sinner”.
St Paul writes “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23). The Bible is therefore not afraid to tell the sins of Israel, David, Peter etc. Precisely because we are sinners, the scriptures are able to proclaim the mercy and love of God who, in Jesus, came to forgive our sins.
To know yourself as a sinner, as the prodigal son who is “on his way to the Father”, gives me the right perspective for my spiritual growth. I have tried in vain to be free from sin and temptation in much of my life, which resulted in frustration, tears and self-condemnation. The true happiness that God has for me thus escapes me. Slowly I discover that God is not like a parent who wants his child to live up to his expectations. He knows that we are sinners.
True spirituality is the road towards the realization of my weaknesses and sins, and the acceptance of myself as I am – the good, the bad and the ugly. The road is not an end in itself. The ultimate goal of this road is the joyful discovery of God’s profound love. He shows me that in Jesus he is indeed “Emmanuel”, God with me. He is with me in my suffering, pain and disappointment, as well as in the struggle with my weaknesses and sins.
 The five steps for a good Examination of Conscience according to St Ignatius of Loyola
a. Presence: I relax in my favourite prayer space and posture. I become aware that God is looking at me with love, and I ask for the Holy Spirit’s aid in this time of prayer.
b. Gratitude: I give thanks to God for his gifts today. What was my favourite moment? How did God reveal himself to me?
c. Review: I recall my emotions, thoughts, and urges during the day. What stirrings in my heart were of God? Did I resist his grace today?
d. Forgiveness: I acknowledge the times when I acted sinfully and selfishly. I ask for God’s forgiveness and healing, and rest in his mercy.
e. Hope: I resolve to trust in God’s loving guidance. I plan, with the Holy Spirit, how I will live more in accord with his love tomorrow.