One of the classic practices of Catholic spirituality is the particular exam, which is a positive resolution to do something concrete to grow in a specific virtue or eliminate a vice or imperfection.
For example, if you want to grow in humility, you might make a particular exam to listen to others’ opinions before you share your own, or do menial tasks you would prefer not to do, or praise others rather than yourself.
Once you make a particular exam, then you check in three to five times a day on how well you’ve kept it, resolving to keep at it until a good new habit takes solid form. Some particular exams can rather quickly lead to a new virtue. Others can require weeks or months of consistent effort. But to grow in virtue and progress spiritually, it’s one of the most powerful practices.
If over the course of a year one makes several sequential particular exams, one can advance a lot in virtue. If one does so regularly over a decade or two, the growth can be monumental.
One of the most consequential particular exams I ever made was on Easter Sunday morning 20 years ago. I was meditating on St. Mary Magdalene’s announcing to the apostles who were fearfully huddling in the Upper Room, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).
I thought about what it must have been like to hear those words for the first time and eventually to experience the reality of Christ’s rising from the dead, when soon afterward Christ came through the closed doors of the Upper Room to greet and wish peace to the apostles. It would have changed everything, their grief, fears, confusion and so many what-ifs. Jesus’ resurrection spiritually raised them from the dead.
I wondered what would happen if I formulated a particular exam to ponder Mary Magdalene bursting in to my day-to-day life saying, “I have seen the Lord!” I thought about how my getting out of bed in the morning would change if she careened into my room screaming the Lord had risen. I mused on what would occur if I was experiencing a headache or suffering the effects of a sports injury if she proclaimed that the stone had been rolled away and he had called her in the garden. I meditated on how that greatest news ever told would change how I did my work, ate, handled daily contradictions and difficult people, as well as everything else.
By the end of that Holy Hour, I had committed to keeping that particular exam for the 50 days of the Easter season. The fruits were life-changing.
That particular exam concretized for me the reality that the Risen Lord Jesus is still risen, is still with us until the end of time, and wants to share each day with us full time.
It also made tangible St. Paul’s words on which the Church reflects on Easter morning at Mass: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3). Recognizing that the Risen Lord Jesus was with me made it so much simpler to lift up my heart to what he desires, to elevate my thoughts to what God cares about, to seek his Kingdom rather than grasp onto the things of this world.
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