One of the most important spiritual practices to help us take the steps toward the lofty height of holiness is the Particular Exam
There's a huge difference between a general wish to grow in faith and holiness and a plan to cooperate with God's help to do so.
A Plan of Life involves not just good desires but concrete practices to unite our life to God. It includes an inventory of where we are right now, clarity on where God wants us to be, a good strategy to get from where we are to where we ought to be, and the courage and resolve to follow that path.
But as in many areas of life, we can't do everything at once. "He who would climb to a lofty height," St. Gregory the Great commented 1400 years ago, "must go by steps, not leaps."
One of the most important spiritual practices to help us take the steps toward the lofty height of holiness is the Particular Exam. Unlike the General Examination that reviews globally how we corresponded to God's presence and help throughout the day, the Particular Exam focuses on one particular good habit that needs to be developed or bad one that needs to be eliminated and then reviews several times a day how we're doing just on that score.
The Particular Exam is a remedy against the experience St. Paul writes about so candidly, "I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want" (Rom 7:19).
If someone has the nasty habit of gossiping about and criticizing others, for example, a particular exam resolution could be, "I will say nothing negative about persons to third parties" or, better, "I will regularly speak in praise of people or say nothing at all." When one awakens and makes the Morning Offering, one can prayerfully ask God for the grace to keep that resolution that day. Then every few hours one can stop for a moment to review how one's been keeping that resolution over the course of previous period.
The expectation with an entrenched bad habit is not necessarily that one is going to go from gossiping constantly to never gossiping at all -- would that it be that easy to change our bad habits! -- but that over the course of several days, or weeks, or sometimes even months, the frequency gradually declines toward zero. And with a Particular Exam geared toward the acquisition of a good habit, the goal is to go from doing something infrequently or never at all to developing the virtue and doing it so routinely that it becomes like second nature.
The great spiritual writers from St. Ignatius of Loyola to the present day have made several suggestions about the Particular Exam to do it effectively.
First, they have recommended having only one Particular Exam point at a given time, so that we can be totally focused on making progress in the shortest span of time.
Second, they have advocated making a Particular Exam not toward a relatively minor matter but toward rooting out a predominant fault or acquiring an important virtue.
Third, they've recommended persevering in this Particular Exam toward the finish line, examining ourselves several times a day on this point for as long as it takes to acquire or extirpate the habit. At the end, one's behavior in a particular area may not be perfect -- old habits die hard! -- but one will be changed much for the better.
It might seem at first that working on one good spiritual resolution at a time in this concerted way is a slow way to make progress, but the saints have said that once one starts building momentum in this way, various other issues in the spiritual life become easier. "The person who is faithful in matters," Jesus said, "is faithful also in great ones" (Lk 16:10). The gradual acquisition of self-mastery in one difficult arena can overflow into other parts of one's life.
When I was in college and began the practice of Particular Exams, I generally focused on eliminating bad habits: wasting time rather than studying, using inappropriate language, making fun of others or bragging. Eventually, however, I shifted toward the acquisition of good habits because I found that when with God's grace I made progress on these scores, there would be many positive side effects.
Among the many ones that have helped me over the last couple of decades have been: awareness of God's presence at my side at every moment; docile attentiveness and obedience to the Holy Spirit; constant cheerfulness because God dwells within me through grace; listening twice as much as I speak; recognizing and naming above all others' good qualities; seeing God in those I am serving, notwithstanding their defects; greeting the guardian angel of others so that I always maintain a supernatural vision toward them; seeing each person as a gift sent to me by God; starting my prayer off with praise and thanksgiving; venerating the crosses God gives me each day; uniting my work more consciously to St. Joseph; and doing first the thing that needs to be done rather than what I prefer to do.
On some of these points, my friends might remark that at times I show no sign, for example, of constant cheerfulness or listening twice as much as I speak. But I can honestly say that compared to where I was, and where I would have been without the Particular Exams, I see a continent traversed!
St. Ignatius recommends having a little book and keeping score of how one has done since the last review a few hours earlier. I've never found that type of accounting helpful, but the practice of examining oneself on one point over the previous few hours, renewing one's resolve, and praying for God's help, most find tremendously helpful.
Over the years, I've rejoiced to see the happiness of those who come to see me for spiritual direction or Confession when they have set and made progress on their own Particular Exam points. The Particular Exam makes the ascent toward holiness more manageable and a lot less daunting.
I'd urge you to take up this practice so that step by step you might with God's assistance ascend the lofty heights.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.