A person should examine himself. I Corinthians 11:28
Is it my imagination, is it a sign of approaching old age or is it just too much TV? Lately, I have this recurring feeling that the world is becoming crowded with out-of-control individuals who accept fewer and fewer boundaries and less and less personal responsibility. It is painful to watch the personal and communal devastation that results from people seizing their personal freedom, while shirking the personal responsibility that goes with it.
It is painful to listen to people talk as if they were powerless over their own passions and appetites. A common response of someone with multiple out of wedlock pregnancies and marital infidelities is: “I didn’t mean for it to happen.” A typical response to opportunities to steal, cheat or take advantage of another is: “What could I do? The opportunity was right there in front of me!”
Lack of self-mastery has a direct impact on the quality of multiple areas of people’s lives. Those who cannot establish mastery over themselves will no doubt see many aspects of their lives quickly unravel. The ability to subordinate a lower impulse to a higher value is the essence of a satisfying life.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the ancient practice of “examining our consciences” so that we can take stock of our bad choices, thoughtless judgments and lazy decisions in order to become masters of ourselves and be able to focus our lives in more life-giving directions. If we cannot establish mastery over ourselves, we will eventually become victims of our own passions.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “We should every night call ourselves to an account. What infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptation resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abort themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.”
Even secular intellectuals have recognized the value of calling oneself to account by using the term “autocritique,” a “methodological attempt to step away from oneself through a process of self-objectification.”
St. Bernard taught: “As a searching investigator of the integrity of your own conduct, submit your life to a daily examination. Consider carefully what progress you have made or what ground you have lost. Strive to know yourself. Place all your faults before your eyes. Come face to face with yourself.”
St. Pius X summed up our long tradition in this regard when he said, “The excellence of this practice and its fruitfulness for Christian virtue are clearly established by the teaching of the great masters of the spiritual life.”
Maybe the old spiritual masters were not so out of touch after all. Maybe their wisdom should not be so easily dismissed as “primitive myths and superstitions.” Maybe we can still wake up and realize how destructive unexamined lives can become. Maybe it is not too late to “get a grip on ourselves!”
Leonardo da Vinci was right when he said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
Father J. Ronald Knott