‘Watch and pray’

Satan despises the practice of making a daily examination of conscience, for it serves to punish him

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

“Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” — James 4:7-8

Knowing one’s weaknesses. During the deadliest war in American history—the Civil War—smuggling along the dividing lines of the North and South grew into a large criminal enterprise offering many lucrative opportunities to profit off of the war.

One day, a riverboat captain was approached by a man and offered a large sum of Confederate money if he would transport a large load of contraband. When the captain quickly but politely refused, a larger amount was offered, but this time it was in Union dollars.

The captain briefly paused, but again politely refused the offer. Sensing the captain might be weakening, the man offered an even larger sum, but this time in gold. At this offer, the riverboat captain quickly drew his pistol and pointed it at his tempter and said, “Get away from me—you’re getting too close to my price.”

What we value most. It is said that everyone has a price. Perhaps. But like the riverboat captain, there is wisdom in knowing what it is so as to better guard against falling into sin, particularly mortal sin—that which we choose to sell our life of grace in Christ for. For Judas, it was 30 pieces of silver.

But since all of us are subject to temptation, we must be steadfast to “watch and pray” with Christ, to participate in His watchfulness against the tempter’s deceit and tactics (Matthew 26:15, 41). God’s warning, tragically ignored by Cain, are words we must always remember: “Sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Genesis 4:7).

Interior battle. There’s something of a civil war that rages within each of us. It is the spiritual struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. And St. Paul clearly explains the nature of this struggle, reminding us that “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). In reflecting upon the mystery of iniquity, the Second Vatican Council observed that:

“The whole of human history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so Our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding ourselves in the midst of the battlefield, we have to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to ourselves, and aided by God’s grace, that each of us succeeds in achieving our own inner integrity.”

Know thy enemy. Though worded somewhat differently in past centuries, Hollywood can be given some credit for a rare nugget of truth worth repeating: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” (from “The Usual Suspects,” 1995).

And if there is no devil, it easily follows that sin is only what we decide it should be. As Pope Pius XII observed 75 years ago, “The evil of this civilization is the loss of the sense of sin.” But as Dr. Peter Kreeft stresses, “All sin is from Hell…. All evil is from Hell. Where else could it be from? (Back to Virtue, 95).

Know thyself. Behind every temptation, at its very core, we find its author—Satan—who knows our weaknesses better than we do. And because he does, he works hard to exploit them whenever he can, particularly when we neglect our prayer.

This is why it is so important to know our weaknesses and to be vigilant “with” Christ our strength. And an indispensable way to acquire this essential spiritual self-knowledge is by making a daily examination of conscience—an “examen.”

Daily examen. Satan hates when we make a good examination of conscience each day. Why? Very simply, because it helps to expose our faults. And like his “greatest trick,” Satan doesn’t want us to recognize the gravity of our sins and to ask for God’s mercy and help.

The examen reveals to us where we have echoed Satan’s Non serviam to God—“I will not serve”—in choosing to sin in our selfishness instead of dying to ourselves for love of God and neighbor. And the longer we go without exposing our faults to God’s mercy, the more we allow the garbage of selfishness and sin to build up within us.

Garbage trucks for the soul. Among the various gates of ancient Jerusalem, one was particularly important—the “Dung gate” (Nehemiah 3:14). And like all cities, garbage must be frequently collected and taken out of the city to be buried or burned. Otherwise, it will rot, attract rats and foul insects, and become a breeding ground for deadly diseases.

Making a daily examen with a good act of contrition is like collecting up the trash and taking it to the garbage truck. But if our sin is mortal, we need the deep cleansing of sacramental confession. And the daily examen should also increase our desire for frequent confession and the sacramental grace it provides.

Five simple steps. While there are various ways to make a daily examination of conscience, St. Ignatius popularized five easy steps in his “Spiritual Exercises” that provide us the essential framework:

  1. Recall and give God thanks for the day’s blessings;
  2. Ask God for the grace to know your sins and to purify your heart’s desire of what is sinful;
  3. Examine your thoughts, words and deeds of the day;
  4. Ask God for forgiveness;
  5. Resolve to amend your life with the help of God’s grace, and pray an act of contrition.

Grace of vigilance. It is always recommended to conclude our examen with the Lord’s Prayer. For when we pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” we ask for God’s help to resist choosing “the way that leads to sin”—we ask for the “grace of vigilance,” which is necessary for the protection or “custody of heart,” and for “proper Spirit of discernment and strength” to not yield to temptation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2846, 2849, 2863).

Resistance training. Remember, while temptation is itself not a sin unless we consent to it and open the door of our heart to act on it, our struggle to resist it actually helps to strengthen us spiritually and build up our fortitude.

Athletes, such as sprinters and weightlifters, know the great value of “resistance training.” The principle is very simple—you strengthen your muscles and build endurance by making them work against something that offers resistance, such as weights.

The same essentially applies to the effects of “resisting” temptation. God permits temptation because by resisting it, we grow stronger in holiness than if He were to shield us completely from it.

Turning temptation into Satan’s punishment. But consider this. Because our temptations can actually serve our greater sanctification, Satan’s temptation of us can turn into a terrible affliction for him.

Father Chad Ripperger, a noted exorcist and author of books on the subject, explains, “Just as Satan is now stuck tempting man as a punishment for having enticed men to fall, so the demons of the air are stuck afflicting man so they might be better. Demons become the instrument of man’s betterment, and that afflicts them” (Dominion, 426-7).

Gaining from our weaknesses. While we may think of our spiritual weaknesses only in their negative sense (and that is what Satan wants), they should instead be understood as the very avenue for God’s grace to work in us, as St. Paul explains.

In asking God to take away a “thorn in the flesh” that he struggled with, God replied to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

St. Augustine. In conclusion, I offer St. Augustine’s reflection on the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). May you ponder these words of wisdom so as to be more attentive in watching and praying with Christ.

“In Christ you were tempted, for Christ received His flesh from your nature, but by His own power gained salvation for you; He suffered death in your nature, but by His own power gained life for you; He suffered insults in your nature, but by His own power gained glory for you; therefore, He suffered temptation in your nature, but by His own power gained victory for you. If in Christ we have been tempted, in Him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptation and fail to think of His victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. He could have kept the devil from Himself; but if He were not tempted He could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.”

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