Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Examination of Conscience and the Examen


As I am in the process of concluding my annual retreat, I am still confronted with a question with which I entered the retreat: does the daily examination of conscience and the examen have any application to the many elements that go into or undergird the Mirror of Justice project? The question lingers because I did pay some attention to this website during the retreat and was fascinated by Professor Greg Sisk’s impressive trilogy on Catholic Legal Theory and the role of many of us as educators. Perhaps the question is all the more in my mind as the new academic year is about to begin.

For those unfamiliar with the examination of conscience, it is a process by which a person prepares one’s self for the sacrament of reconciliation prior to making a confession. It is also related to an important daily element of Ignatian spirituality, the examen, promoted by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of my religious order. Father John Hardon, S.J. made a helpful suggestion about the examen when he pointed out that dwelling on and praying about the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity can advance the encounter with God, something very much on my mind during the retreat.

In the examen, a person considers the daily events that have occurred and reflects upon God’s presence and absence in these events; thanks God for what has been encountered, be it good, bad, or indifferent; focuses on the personal impact of these encounters; takes one of these encounters and using it as a catalyst for prayer; and, finally, seeks God’s assistance for taking all that has been gathered in the examen and carrying it forward to the next day and beyond. I think Father Hardon’s contribution of the theological virtues (I should like to suggest that the cardinal virtues would also be useful, but will wait for another day to do this) accents the examen in a way that is useful for at least some of us who are preparing for the new academic year in which the plan is to offer, as Greg was pointing out, a Catholic approach to the law and the education associated with the institution and the profession. So, here go a few thoughts for those wondering how this year’s work might be improved by the disciple engaged in the apostolic activity of the classroom.

 I begin with faith. Specifically does it have an impact on what I am doing or trying to do in the classroom, the public lectures, and any other forum in which I serve God and my neighbor? In short, does faith, does Catholicism, have a distinct and palpable role in what I am doing? Do I fear presenting unambiguously this faith knowing that if may subject me to ridicule by colleagues? Am I concerned that the truth claims of Catholicism which conflict with the current trends of the culture the permeate the academy of the present age will be mocked or at least dismissed without a serious engagement of and discussion about their merits? The answers that I have arrived at to these questions are these: I should proceed with the gift of faith in whatever I do and wherever I live my apostolic life. As both Testaments of Sacred Scripture frequently exhort: be not afraid… particularly when disinterest or derision are the responses proffered to these initiatives.

The second theological virtue follows: hope. It is a credible hypothesis to suggest that there are too many lawyers who find there way into the general population today, although it is equally plausible that there are not enough good and virtuous people who happen to be lawyers in this same population. We find ourselves living in a country and world where there is not much hope about the future because apprehension is much easier to forecast and embrace. Notwithstanding the clarions of the candidates for public office who profess frequently these days that they are agents of hope, we live in a society and profession where hope is conspicuous by its absence. For those of us who are legal educators, we know that the economy and the cost of legal education are taking their toll on the concrete success of our students who begin to question the future and, therefore, display a frugality about hope. But is it not a part of the responsibility of the Catholic law professor to show that there may be something critical that is missing from this rather dismal view? Have we all deluded ourselves with notions of self-empowerment and being the “best” of whatever it is we claim to provide at our schools that we have neglected the promise of Jesus Christ: I am with you always even to the end of the age? When human aspirations are insufficient to show us the way to hope for the future, why not embrace Christ?

This is where the theological virtue of charity comes into play. I am sure that every person can find something for which he or she is grateful but then quickly forgets about this. The ease to forget is what can easily blind a person to the fact that there is something good in spite of the litany of difficulties which intersect human existence yet seem to be more easy to recall. Both the examination of conscience and the examen provide opportunity to recall the good that comes from God and that can be used to assist those who cannot see or elect not to see that there is reason for hope and, therefore, reason to experience the good, perhaps just in the simplest dimensions of our lives. The desire to show that there is hope to others who may be skeptical about hope and its companion the good is the task of the disciple, even the one who is called a lawyer and law professor. This desire is holy and apostolic, and it is an exercise of caritas. Quite frankly, this theological virtue is often absent from the halls of the legal academy notwithstanding self-serving proclamations that the law school is all for “tolerance,” “diversity,” “social justice,” “community,” etcetera. But where is love in its genuine and wholesome manifestation? The exercise of this desire can be present in daily challenging one’s self with this question: do I have time to talk to someone who seems to have no one else to talk to and be with? While for some the heart may be a lonely hunter, in the disciple it is the gift of God that helps find the lonely who have lost hope. Since God is with us, even to the end of the age, can I be with someone just for a few moments in their time of need?

I pray that I will be able to pursue this proposal for the new academic year. It is imperfect, but it is a meaningful beginning to something that makes faith and reason strongly united in the enterprise of the law and legal education. Perhaps others may wish to appropriate it in their new season of learning and teaching as well. May the grace of God animate us during the coming year.


RJA sj


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