Dear Friends in Christ,
If you have never lived in snow country where the roads are salted because of snow and ice, you may not know how salt can corrode the fenders and undergirding of your car. I remember seeing, one morning as I drove to work, an oncoming car lose its rear wheels and chassis. The trunk of the car hit the asphalt with sparks and scraping, while the rear axle and wheels went rolling off the road and into a vacant field. Since no one was hurt, I couldn’t help snickering to myself at the jocular scene, when I was suddenly arrested by the sobering thought: “Mark, when was the last time you examined the frame of your car?” Most of us, before we go on a cross-country trip, will check the oil, tires, brakes, and fill the gas tank. Yet surprisingly enough, many of us on the great journey of the Christian life, traveling over rough roads, in bad weather, icy passes and lonely barren deserts, demonstrate an all too lackadaisical attitude to the equipment of our spiritual lives.
Lent is a good season to do what Evelyn Underhill calls spiritual stocktaking. In the disciplines of the Christian life this is called “Self-Examination.” It is the first discipline mentioned in the Ash Wednesday invitation to a Holy Lent. The Prayer Book reads: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” (BCP, p. 265)
Although Self-Examination, or “the examination of conscience” as it used to be called, is a long honored discipline of the Christian life, too often the average Christian not only doesn’t know how to do it, he doesn’t even know what it is. This of course is not his fault; it is the fault of us who are pastors and teachers in the Church. Ironically, 12 Step groups like A.A. and N.A. make important use of this discipline. The Fourth Step of A.A. reads: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The Fifth Step follows up: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Sixth Step: ” Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.”
These steps are part of the process of self-examination and repentance. As St. Paul counsels in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves….” There are two fundamental sources of help for practicing self-examination. The first and most important help, which seems almost superfluous to mention, is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit indwells us as believers. The Holy Spirit knows us thoroughly and searches the deep things of our lives. (Read for instance such passages as Psalm 139, John 7:37-39, John 14:16-26, Romans 8:26-27). To invite Him to search your heart is an invitation not merely to compile a list of sins to be gotten through; it is an opportunity for growth, learning, discovery, making new connections, receiving insight and to seek His help in putting things in order. The second help for self-examination is a written list to be worked through with self-honesty. Some people use the Seven Deadly Sins–(Pride, Envy/Jealousy, Anger, Sloth/Melancholy, Greed, Gluttony and Lust), others, the Ten Commandments, or the Litany of Penitence in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy (BCP, p. 267). One possibility that is often forgotten is to use not those lists that accentuate the negative dimensions of our lives but to ask the question about the place and pursuit of virtue. After all we have spent, as a culture and Church, far too much time with the clarification of values and given too little attention to the cultivation of virtue. So to take the Beatitudes, or the Fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:19-26, or even Seven Saving Virtues (Justice, Courage/Fortitude, Prudence/Wisdom, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Love) as the focus, after scrutinizing our sins of omission, can be a profitable exercise indeed. Such written forms might nudge us into areas we might be unconsciously avoiding and yet towards that which God would have us go.
Self-Examination of course is not a one-time thing; something done merely before the Ash Wednesday Liturgy. You might want to do it periodically during Lent. Find a quiet place where you’ll be alone and uninterrupted. Put aside the cell phone and computer. Allow twenty to thirty minutes. Bring along a pencil and paper. Once there ask God’s Spirit to help you in your search. It may lead you to repentance, which is of course not only the result of grace but the key which unlocks the wondrous treasures of grace.
With joyful embrace of the Lenten disciplines,
I remain faithfully yours,
–(The Rt. Rev.) Mark Lawrence Is Bishop of South Carolina