Socrates said that the wisest man in the world was the man who knew himself. It was the opinion of Jeremy Taylor that "he that does not frequently search his conscience is a house without a window." The great British philosopher, Thomas Green, in his Prolegomena to Ethics, writes as follows: "Our conclusion then is that the state of mind which is now most naturally expressed by the unspoken questions, have I been what I should be, shall I be what I should be, in doing so and so, is that in which all moral progress originates."
The main reason why there are so few wise people in the world and why the moral progress of the race is so slow is that there are so few people who really know themselves. Very few know themselves as they really are, as they are known to God. It is strange how easily we are led to accept other views of ourselves than the right one.
A great many people, for example, know themselves only as they were when they were children. It would be ludicrous if it were not so pathetic: these middle-aged people who have not changed their views of their own character since their childhood. They do not know themselves as they are to-day at all; they think they are still the same people that they were twenty or thirty years ago. They do not realize that they have grown up, and that the passing years have left deep marks upon their moral nature.
And then many, who do not take this antique view of their own character, adopt the view of their family or their neighbors. They know themselves only by the reputation which they have acquired among the men and women of their acquaintance. Sometimes a kind friend repeats to them some damaging criticism which was passed upon them; but more often they are protected from these jarring notes, and hear only the soothing flatteries of friends and kindred. Smooth sayings of this sort help to fill up the monthly letter from a cousin or an aunt. Or perhaps one attains a position in the great world, and has the pleasure of reading about oneself in the newspapers. But the world's view of us at best can only approximate the truth; because our motives, our desires, our inmost thoughts, our secret actions, are rarely made known to the world.
If self-examination is the road to wisdom, why do we not practise it more thoroughly and more frequently? One reason is that we have not the time, or we do not take the time. The world is too much with us. We have all experienced the difficulty of finding time to clean up our desks, to look over old papers, and to destroy letters and papers that have ceased to have any value. When we do get at these papers, we find them covered with dust; they have been lying there undisturbed so long. It is difficult too to find time to look over our other possessions and sort them out and put them in some kind of order, to find out what we have and where to put it. It is not surprising then that we cannot find time to look over ourselves.
Another reason why self-examination is so rare is that we so easily deceive ourselves into thinking that nothing is the matter. We often see people who are in like manner negligent of their health. They totter along bent and trembling; and they little realize that they are in the grip of a fatal disease, and in a few months will drop in their tracks. And yet they might have prevented it all if they had exercised ordinary precaution and gone to a doctor in time and submitted to a thorough physical examination. If people are so prone to deceive themselves about their physical condition, is it strange that they deceive themselves about their moral and spiritual condition?
Another reason why self-examination is so difficult and infrequent is that too great familiarity with sin dulls our consciousness of sin. The unfortunate people who live in some wretched hovel in the slums or on a farm do not notice the heavy, rancid stench that renders the house so loathsome to a stranger entering for the first time. Their olfactory nerves have become dulled through familiarity with foul air. So it is with the conscience of many of us. It has become dulled and deadened through familiarity with sin. Our own sins perhaps have become so much a second nature to us that we no longer notice them; or the sins of others press so closely upon us that we live in an atmosphere of sin, and our spiritual perceptions soon lose their keenness.
Even if we do practise some kind of self-examination every night when we say our prayers, that is no guarantee that we shall really know ourselves as we are in the sight of God. We need to effect longer reaches of self-knowledge than can come from looking back over a single day. We must scrutinize the tendencies, the crosscurrents, and the under-currents of our lives, during a whole month or a year, if we would know whither we are tending.
This longer retrospect is what it is so difficult to find a place for in our lives. It takes time and prayer and systematic effort. If it is to be effective, its results should be definitely written down. Otherwise it will degenerate into the spiritually harmful practice of merely roaming through the chambers of the memory. It is human nature to avoid all this trouble and pains, or at least put it off as long as possible. Most people feel that they ought to undertake it some day; but they will not undertake it until they have to.
Now it is one of the strong points in favor of sacramental confession that it compels us to face this task of self-examination. One need not say that people who do not go to confession cannot make a real and searching examination of their own consciences; but simply that they rarely do. On the other hand if we make our confessions before a priest once a month or even once a year, we are driven to a regular and methodical self-examination. And that in turn reacts upon our daily self-examination. If we know that we must give a definite and coherent account of our lives at certain regular intervals, we shall be more careful to discover the sins and shortcomings of each day.
It is human nature to procrastinate. Especially is this true of our attitude toward duties that are difficult and disagreeable. We attack them only when we are driven to it. The experience of most Christians who do not go to confession is probably something like this: they realize the importance of self-examination and repentance before making their communion; they fully intend to take the time to examine their consciences and confess their sins to God; but they are prevented or diverted by one thing after another; and their repentance is finally reduced to a vague feeling of sinfulness as they repeat the General Confession in church. But that is not repentance at all.
If one makes an appointment with a priest for confession, one is compelled to make a categorical self-examination. It would be absurd to go to confession with nothing to confess. Strangely enough, people have very little hesitation in appearing before God unprepared and unrecollected, and in that condition receiving the most holy Sacrament; while they have a very great reluctance to appear ridiculous before a minister of God. That most people make their communions without preparing for them by any real self-examination is abundantly evident to every priest who has heard many first confessions. Probably the majority of adult communicants, in going to confession for the first time, would admit that never before have they made a definite and serious self-examination. In fact they have never known how to make one. They need to be taught simply and plainly how to go about it, as children are taught.
"So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:12). That is the terrible ordeal we must all face some day. There can be no shuffling nor evasion in our self-examination then. Surely it is the highest wisdom to prepare for this ordeal of the Divine judgment by giving account of ourselves from time to time to the ministers of God, the ambassadors for Christ. May not God have intended it as one of our greatest helps to prepare us for the judgment, when He gave the apostolic ministry the power to absolve from sin?