“Prayer is not so much an activity so much as it is a way of life.”
The Examen is not meant to be merely a prayer practice; it’s a way of being in the world and with God. Engage it with understanding and you might find it one of the greatest gifts your soul has ever received. And, I don’t write that lightly. Eight years ago, I received the directive to practice this method of prayer like an allergy attack.
My first reaction to the Examen was probably due to its title: EXAMen! I was sure that if I spent a month prayerfully reviewing my days with God, all I would be able to see is: FAIL! FAIL! FAIL! After all, I was the product of a Christian culture which had trained me to notice my sin and general decrepitude far more than all the little ways God’s love, direction, and life come to us… disguised in the ordinary, in our desires, or in the shifting of our moods.
So, despite seven centuries of Christendom promoting this practice, I concluded that as a painfully, self-reflective person, it was not right for me. I’m not proud of that, but I know for a fact I’m not alone in my skepticism to this method of praying. So, whether you’re an Examen skeptic, Examen fan, or you’ve never-in-your-life heard of it, this article is for you. I’m hoping it will either change your mind, deepen your understanding, or get you started off right.
What is the Examen?
The Daily Examen is an ancient prayer practice where, with God, we reflect on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern His direction for us. The method is attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesuits. St. Ignatius was emphatic about the Examen. He told the early Jesuits that if they did no other spiritual exercises, they should do this one. And, they listened. It’s a habit that Jesuits and many, many other Christians practice to this day. Seven centuries of good fruit speaks for itself!
Here’s the thing, the Prayer of Examen is most transformational when coupled with the teachings of St. Ignatius. Unfortunately, my understanding of the deep bed of Ignatian Spirituality was non-existent when I first tried it. However, the second time I was directed to the Examen, I was also taking a course rooted in Ignatian Spirituality and reading Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian spirituality into daily life by Margaret Blackie. Practicing the Examen whilst simultaneously immersing myself in this rich tradition of following Jesus, turned the Examen from a prayer into a new way of knowing myself and God. It has, overnight, become one of the greatest avenues of grace and discernment in my life. Here’s what I wish I knew the first time around…
What are we actually EXAMENING?
It is not an examination of your conscience, but of your consciousness of God’s presence with you in your day.
You do not review your day to see where you’ve sinned or succeeded, rather you review it to find God in all things, including those moments you completely lost sight of Presence. God was there. God was speaking. The Examen is a discipline of God-discovery and self-discovery, but a few attitudes need to be in place in order to experience it that way.
- The Examen requires an honest, nonjudgmental review of your day. After all, God is not judging you in this time, so why judge yourself? Rather God is guiding you, healing you, re-forming you. He’s unblinding you to the fact that His loving presence has never forsaken you.
- The Examen requires offering hospitality to your brokenness, allowing it to be both a teacher and a space of intimate encounter with God’s unconditional love. Take note that this love is aimed right at you. What you need will be found by prayerfully exploring it.
- The Examen requires you to take yourself seriously, but not in the way you think! Don’t dismiss those moments of joy, ease, laughter, or excitement. These are great tools of discerning God’s guidance and character as well as clues to your true self. Also, don’t dismiss your moodiness, procrastination, restless sleep, or even that cranky zinger you shouldn’t have said to your spouse. You’ll find God in that too.
“Ignatius was not afraid of the chaos of daily life. Rather he was utterly convinced that God is present in all of it. If we can just bring ourselves to pause for long enough to notice, we will not be able to miss God’s presence in our lives.” – Margaret Blackie
The practice of noticing
The Examen invites you into the practice of noticing, and to take these ‘noticings’ to God in prayer. Recently, I noticed I was procrastinating in an area of my work and finding excuses to miss our Zoom meetings. Normally, I’d give myself a silent lecture to buck up and stick to my commitments, but because I was regularly engaging in the Examen, I noticed myself noticing. Does that sound odd? It gets stranger: This ‘noticing’ felt holy. It felt like prayer.
“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves . . .For quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God . . . Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also as it were, leads us by the hand to him.” – John Calvin
I took this ‘holy-feeling-noticing’ to God in prayer and then to my spiritual director. Could God be in my procrastination and apathy? As it turns out, God was nudging me to focus more of my time on a new project that had captured both my imagination and my attendance at Zoom meetings. In fact, He had quite a lot to say about it! I understood I needed to lessen some of my old commitments and deal with the insecurities attached to that. In this process, I got an intimate sense of the God who is excited to partner with me in His call for my life. My excitement was His excitement.
“Who is this God?” My spiritual director asked me.
I answered, “This is the God I can dream with.”
“There is only one problem upon which all of my existence, my peace, my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself and if I find my true self, I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton
There are few other significant ‘noticings’ that go hand in hand with the Prayer of Examen. We’ll explore those in Part Two of this blog series. Until then, I encourage you to get started with honest ‘noticings’ of your daily life, take those to prayer, and explore them through the lens of God’s relentless love.
Prayer of Examen Instructions
Below is quick summary of the steps of the Examen prayer practice. I’ve also provided the links to several recommended resources. There’s an article I particularly like which can guide you through the prayer. Also, I highly suggest visiting the Pray As You Go website or downloading their app. They offer seven different guided Examen prayers with music. It’s my favorite way to engage with the Examen! Normally, the prayer is practiced before bed, but pick a time of day that best works for you. For me, that’s the late afternoon. Some light a candle. I sit in the sunshine and drink a cup of coffee. Create a liturgy (a routine), and practice for 30 days… and watch your life grow into prayer.
The Daily Examen:
Begin with a pause and a slow, deep breath or two; become aware that you are in the presence of God. Get a sense of how God is looking at you or feeling toward you.
1 – Thanksgiving
What am I especially grateful for in the past day?
The gift of another day…
The love and support I have received…
The courage I have mustered…
An event that took place today…
I am about to review my day; I ask for the light to know God and to know myself as God sees me.
3 – Review
Where have I felt true joy today?
What has troubled me today?
What has challenged me today?
Where and when did I pause today?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?
4 – Response
In light of my review, what is my response to the God of my life?
5 – A Look Ahead
As I look ahead, what comes to mind?
With what spirit do I want to enter tomorrow? (www.jesuitresource.org)
- The Examen: How I Can Pray
- Pray As You Go Website OR Pray As You Go App (Click on Retreats and Series in their drop-down menu to find it.)
- Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian Spirituality into daily life by Margaret Blackie