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Tim RyanMarch 28, 20245 min read

Four Levels of Happiness and Lenten Examination of Conscience

The Catechism of the Catholic Church pronounces that Lent is reflective of Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert:

"Jesus' temptation reveals the way in which the Son of God is Messiah, contrary to the way Satan proposes to him and the way men wish to attribute to him. This is why Christ vanquished the Tempter for us: 'For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning.' By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert."

—Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, para. 540)

The Catechism also says that Lent is an “intense moment of the Church’s penitential practice.” (CCC, para. 1438). A key aspect of being aware of temptation and seeking purposeful penance, as we have learned, is an honest and thorough examination of conscience. 

What is Conscience?

In his encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, Pope St. John Paul II explores this question of conscience and refers to the writings of the Second Vatican Council, which defines the conscience as “the sanctuary of man, where he is alone with God whose voice echoes within him.” Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, says:

“We have knowledge of God’s will in our inmost heart, that anchored deeply within us there is a participation in God’s knowing, which we call conscience.”

Pope Francis warns us what conscience is NOT:

“We also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience.“ 

The shared wisdom shines through these popes. . . conscience is not simply something that we can individually conger up to satisfy the morality of the day or define whatever suits our needs at the moment. Conscience is our inherent human connection with God’s will. But that discernment can be difficult. Benedict XVI goes on to say that “this knowledge [God’s will] has become buried in the course of history, but it can never be completely extinguished.”

We must be able to open our minds and hearts to this knowledge again. John Paul II raises up St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (12:2): “to not be conformed to the mentality of this world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind. It is the ‘heart’ converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience.” 

We, therefore, need a means to help us get past our ego to recover this buried knowledge, renew our minds, and convert our hearts to the Lord and to the love of what is good.

The Four Levels of Happiness and Conscience

The Four Levels of Happiness provides an excellent tool for this self-examination. It is a means for unearthing those areas where our “history” has buried our knowledge of God’s will. Where am I tempted or have been indulgent in my Level 1 desires, such as food, drink, entertainment, sex, or extreme measures in avoiding pain and suffering. Or in Level 2, where have I put too much emphasis on winning, control, power, or prestige? And, yes, even Level 3. . . in an effort to do good, have I fallen into the trap of putting myself above others, asking why they are not as good and giving as I am?

The Four Levels of Happiness During Lent

Ultimately, Lent is also about how I prepare for Easter Sunday Resurrection. Level 4 helps me contemplate my most profound yearnings, that is, my desire for perfect and unconditional truth, love, goodness/justice, beauty, and being (or sense of home). A desire that, when fulfilled, provides a happiness that is most pervasive, enduring, and deep. Fundamentally, I contemplate how I engage Level 4 to direct my lower-level desires to something greater.

Through Jesus’ Passion, His grace restores what sin damaged in us.

"By his Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us."
—Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, para. 1708)

In the sacrament of Penance, we resolve to change our lives with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of His grace:

"Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart)."
—Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1431).

Essentially, my act of penance is an acceptance of God’s/Jesus’ gift of grace as a means to overcome my sin. The Four Levels of Happiness can be an essential tool in helping me more thoroughly examine what is in my heart, repent of my sins, and thus experience the transcendent joy of an Easter Sunday Resurrection. 

The Four Levels of Happiness After Lent

The whole point of Lent is not to simply endure our sacrifices or spiritual practices until Easter and then say on Easter Monday, “WHEW, I made it! I can get back to ‘normal’ now.” We should be establishing new habits through our Lenten disciplines. One of the key lessons Fr. Spitzer teaches in the Four Levels of Happiness curriculum is what it takes to build new habits. When we embark on a new course and intentionally choose Level 3 and Level 4, there are three phases we will typically go through:

  1. Tension—our subconscious mind is going to push back, and there is going to be failure, but that must not deter us.
  2. Because during Lent, we build a Proclivity to our new habits, with intentional contemplation and prayer, and healthy self-talk/self-awareness our practices begin to become more integrated with our subconscious.
  3. Finally, Level 3 and Level 4 views will become Habits. BUT, our job is not done. We need to be vigilant, particularly in times of stress and fatigue, as the lower self-consciousness can return with a vengeance. 

We must, therefore, maintain our practice of examination of conscience regularly using the Four Levels of Happiness model, but also adopting prayers such as the daily Ignatian Examen prayer.



Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan has worked for over thirty years in the secular workplace as an information technology professional in both consultative and executive roles. Throughout his career, he recognized the importance of relationships and a sense of purpose in the effective performance of organizations. This recognition evolved into a set of skills related to strategic planning and organizational development. He soon recognized how these principles coalesced with theological values that extol the need for a shared vision, values, and meaning. His recognition led him to an academic pursuit, resulting in a Master of Pastoral Studies degree from Loyola University New Orleans, emphasizing spirituality in the workplace and marketplace ministry. Tim has been trained in Fr. Spitzer's content for 15 years and started working for the Spitzer Center in 2017.