Praying The Examen

The examen prayer has been mentioned before on my website (here) in the context of a book review, but I’d like to dig into this a little deeper today and share about how treating the examen as a sort of spiritual check-up can impact our lives for the better. The Ignatian examen finds its origins in The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Contemplative and introspective prayer already existed prior to this point but St. Ignatius is credited for boiling this type of prayer down to a handful of easily-remembered points in his spiritual exercises. There are any number of books widely available that cover the five basic precepts, from the original book, to journals and situational questions, to bite-sized pocket guides. Rather than re-tread the same ground, I’d humbly like to offer a look at it in practice, from my own life, in the hopes that perhaps it will help guide you in your own attempts at incorporating the examen into your time with God.  Resources for books on this topic can also be found at the end of this article.

Author’s note: While this is written in the present tense (for readability) the examen detailed below was not done the day of this blog’s posting.

Experiencing the Examen Firsthand

Prepare for your Examen by finding a quiet place, or a quiet time for you, wherever that (safely) is, and put aside any distractions — turn off the TV, silence your phone notifications, etc. For the purpose of doing this Examen today, I’ve found a favorite chair and am seated comfortably. I’m cheating a little as I have my own phone to take notes while I’m conducting this spiritual checkup.

Step 1: Gratitude

Depending on whose guidelines you’re following, the first step may differ. Some recommend starting with discernment, others, with gratitude. For this session, I am going to begin by opening up my prayer time with gratitude. I’ll be honest with you here…if I’ve had a really, really awful day, then finding things to be grateful for can be HARD. Today was more in the middle of the spectrum.

Thank you Lord for all of the provisions you’ve given me (and here I might list things I take for granted like: a steady job and paycheck, reliable transportation, a roof over my head, running water and plumbing, and other utilities, food on the table, etc.). Your situation is probably different from mine, so just thank God for whatever you can.

Thank you Lord for the people you have placed in my life (people like: my loved ones, friends, colleagues, fellow church parishioners, clients, etc.). Whoever those people are, thank you for them being in your life.

As I begin mulling over these different areas, my mind will begin to drift to specific people, or situations, and right now, my mind is at peace, so I let myself be, like a little boat that skiffs along the river of thoughts. I don’t mean to imply here some New Age sense of emptying oneself of thoughts, rather, it’s an intentional lingering of the mind, a savoring of the goodness of God.

Thank you Lord for the opportunity to not only have steady work, but the time to tackle the responsibilities under my care, and to do them well. I’m so grateful to be able to work in a non-hostile environment, to do meaningful work, and to utilize my time management skills (amongst others) to do my work efficiently. What gifts has God given you that you clearly do well? Thank Him for those.

If I don’t have a clear sense of direction of what else to earnestly express gratitude for, then I will move on to step 2.

Step 2: Ask for discernment

I think the point of these exercises, is to get a sense of God’s presence, actively at work in your life, and to be grateful for that, and to respond in kind. So, I will ask God to please guide me through these reflections to recognize His presence, to discern His will, and to make my heart tender to respond to those revelations, so hopefully, I will do better tomorrow, and grow closer to being more like Christ. Discernment is crucial as you complete the other steps because you are asking God to walk with you, hand in hand, throughout the day, and show you what needs to be brought to your attention. It is also not uncommon, I have found, that by reviewing your day (Step 3), that other situations and instances will be brought to mind, deserving of further gratitude. And so you see, it’s not an entirely linear process by any means.

Step 3: Walking through your day

Today, I worked, had meetings, and following my day, went home to retire for the evening. Sounds pretty straightforward, nothing too unexpected that came up during the course of the day.

I remember…having a song come up in my soul (as they often do), this one in particular conveyed hope, strength and exhortation, along with a sense that I needed to share the name and artist with a particular person. I did, and we had a moment of connection that we might have otherwise missed out on having. I feel like my relationship with this individual, a fellow Christian, has been strengthened.

There might be other moments like this, but I am grateful for this one. I move on.

I remember…treating someone else with less compassion (after the fact) than Jesus calls me to, and I regret that. Why did I have that reaction? What was wrong? What could I do differently? I should continue on these lines, trying to remember if there was anything else during my day that gave me pause, drew me closer to God, or pulled me further from Him.

To continue with the boat analogy, my skiff has hit upon a cluster of rocks, and I am temporarily beached by the memory of a few difficult interactions from the day.

I recall a few other conversations along these lines, in recent memory, with different people, and negative reactions under certain circumstances. Why? What was different? What did they share in common? This is an opportunity for further reflection as I try to identify any root hindrances in my soul that need to be addressed. I trust here, in the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to reveal to me what I need to know, in His timeframe. This means that I may not get an answer now, but what I can do, is trust God to reveal it in His perfect timing, and in the meantime, move on to step 4.

Step 4: Asking for forgiveness

I’m so not perfect. If I were perfect, the amount of effort it would require of me to stay perfect would be absolutely terrifying. Thank the Lord for His mercy. While I presume nothing, I do, as a sinner, fall upon His mercy and look for that forgiveness that only God can offer.

Tomorrow may be different, but today, I am apologizing for my lack of compassion towards others, particularly when I am in jest and they are serious, and the awkwardness now present in those relationships, that was caused by my ill-timed levity. Instead of hope, I offered humor. Instead of compassion, censure. And now, any chance of sharing Christ’s love with those people, now has a hindrance I’ve caused by my own actions. May God forgive me.

Step 5: Takeaways from the Examen

After praying, I wish I could tell you that I feel lighter in spirit, but I don’t. I feel keenly the sense of wrongness in my actions, and a desire to amend them. I recognize this too as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to urge me to change. Before I close out this Examen, I want to contemplate concrete steps the next time I see these people, to try and right those wrongs. Not by my own efforts, but being willing to be led by God to mend things. An apology for one; for another, a conscious effort will be necessary on my part to be more attentive to their needs and feelings, and in so doing, practice humility. Too often, I recall, I can be my own stumbling block.

Concluding Thoughts

By and large, this was a short, short look at an Examen. I specifically refrained from sharing names or places where these interactions took place, out of respect to protect everyone involved. If you somehow are reading this and recognize yourself in my stories, I’m sorry. I intentionally approached this with some care and thought.

I think allowing myself 10-15 minutes of reflection would probably be a decent start for future check-up (3 minutes a section). If you have more time, take longer. This is not dissimilar from an Examination of Conscience. However, rather than focusing on a list of ways you’ve sinned, it’s meant to be a self-guide to walk you through discovering for yourself, a) gratitude for God’s goodness, b) discernment to recognize God at work in your life, c) personal reflection, d) forgiveness, and e) proactively looking at how to do things better next time. If you decide to give this a shot yourself, or if you already have, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Resources available on this topic include some of the following:

  • The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by St. Ignatius of Loyola
  • The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom For Our Lives Today by Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.
  • Reimagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways To Pray From Your Day by Mark E. Thibodeaux
  • A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer by Jim Manney
  • The Examen Journal: Finding God Everyday by Mary Williams
  • The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life by Kevin O’Brien, SJ

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