There’s always some wiseacre on the interview panel who suddenly says, “And what do you think your biggest weaknesses are Mr Torkington?”

Picture 060 He usually chooses the moment when your confidence is at its height and you’ve been presenting yourself as Mr Total Competence, who could do the job in his sleep. Suddenly you’ve got to back pedal warily, losing as little composure as possible, while showing that even you are human after all with faults and failings like the rest of human kind. A skilful operator can usually turn the situation to their advantage by humbly admitting to faults that just happen to make them an even more desirable candidate. You know the sort of thing I mean….”I’m afraid I’ve got a punctuality problem I simply can’t be late for an appointment”, or “I do tend to neglect my family sometimes, because I can’t bring myself to leave the office until I’ve cleared my desk.”

Although these ‘smart alecs’ can be a bit of a pain in the neck, and it’s a real joy to get the better of them, they’re right to try and find out whether or not their interviewees are aware of their faults and failings.

In the only retreat I remember from my school days, the famous Jesuit, Fr. Bassett said, “If your friends won’t tell you your faults, pay an enemy to do it for you.”  

The central scriptural theme that runs through the old and New Testament is, in the words of St. Paul, ‘God’s power finds full scope in human weakness’. So if a person is totally oblivious of their weakness, they will not turn to the only One who can help them. That’s why from the earliest times the practice of examining one’s conscience regularly grew, firstly amongst the Desert Fathers and then amongst those who were later influenced by their profound spirituality.

It was Fr. Bassett SJ who first taught me the importance of daily examination of conscience when I went to him for confession. I was in the first flush of my first fervour when I knelt before him to admit as humbly as I could that I couldn’t exactly remember any sins since my last confession, but I nevertheless sought his blessing and spiritual advice. After a long pause he said…., “Well, for your penance say three Hail Mary’s in honour of your Immaculate Conception!”

He then explained that it was only lack of insight that led me to believe I was wearing the confessor’s crown that would only be mine in heaven, if I ever made it. The first step to making it, he suggested, was to gain insight into the many faults and failings that I couldn’t see, because I had unfortunately been blinded, as so many are, by the sweet vapours of first fervour. Although he employed humour and irony to awaken me to the self righteousness and pride that I had been totally unaware of, he did it with such kindness that I began to practise what I have always tried to maintain with varying success over the years.

In recent times, all too many have been deceived into believing that they can speed up the journey to self-knowledge, by using questionable methods of analysis culled from the latest fashionable brands of pop-psychology that happens to be in vogue. So many of these methods can, not only be dangerous to the dabblers themselves, but can cause incalculable damage to those who fall under their powerful influence. In the authentic Christian tradition the examination of conscience takes place in the context of prayer and under the influence of the Perfect Psychiatrist, the Holy Spirit, who is both Truth and Love at one and the same time. As a person becomes progressively aware of their faults and failings, and of the deeper obstacles that prevent growth, the Holy Spirit continually supports them with the love that enables them to become their true selves. This love becomes ever more penetrative and effective as the ever deepening awareness of their weaknesses leads them on to turn and open themselves through daily prayer to the Power who works in weakness. Then He can begin the process of making them into new and unique embodiments of the Man they have chosen to follow.

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