The examen changed everything for me, but that almost didn’t happen. For years I had occasionally heard people talk about the examen as a good way to pray. I went to a Jesuit college; I remember one of my teachers saying that St. Ignatius of Loyola himself thought that the examen was the indispensible prayer. But I wasn’t interested because I thought they were talking about the Examination of Conscience.
The Examination of Conscience was the methodical inventory of sins that I was taught to do as a boy in Catholic schools of the 1960s. I would work my way through lists of faults, toting up my offenses in preparation for the sacrament of confession. This was a grim exercise, also a confusing one. I understood lying, and eventually I knew what lust was. But what was “acedia?” (It means spiritual laziness.) At any rate, the charm of the Examination of Conscience wore off as I grew older. I set it aside and moved on to other things, not all of them improvements. When people talked about the examen, this is what I thought they meant, and I wasn’t interested. I thought it was just the thing for people who like that kind of thing, but I wasn’t one of them.
Then I learned that the Ignatian examen was not the old, depressing Examination of Conscience. Quite the opposite. This was a prayer that focused on God’s presence in the real world. It looked to a God who was near to me, present in my world, and active in my life. It told me to approach prayer with gratitude, not guilt. It helped me find God in my life as I lived it, not in some heavenly realm beyond space and time. The examen had me take myself seriously, as I was, not as I wished I was or thought I could be someday if I worked hard enough.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the examen changed everything. It might change things for you too.
the examen in a nutshell
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention.
—Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
The examen is a method of reviewing your day in the presence of God. It’s actually an attitude more than a method, a time set aside for thankful reflection on where God is in your everyday life. It has five steps, which most people take more or less in order, and it usually takes 15 to 20 minutes per day. Here it is in a nutshell:
1. Ask God for light.
I want to look at my day with God’s eyes, not merely my own.
2. Give thanks.
The day I have just lived is a gift from God. Be grateful for it.
3. Review the day.
I carefully look back on the day just completed, being guided by the Holy Spirit.
4. Face your shortcomings.
I face up to what is wrong—in my life and in me.
5. Look toward the day to come.
I ask where I need God in the day to come.
Simple? Yes. Easy? Not really. Sometimes praying the examen is smooth and joyful; sometimes it’s arduous. If the examen prayer is doing its job, it will bring up painful moments and cause you to look at behavior that’s embarrassing. Sometimes you squirm praying the examen, but why would you have it otherwise? Real prayer is about change, and change is never easy.
But there’s nothing complicated or mysterious about making the examen part of your life. The subject matter of the examen is your life—specifically the day you have just lived through. The examen looks for signs of God’s presence in the events of the day: lunch with a friend, a walk in the park, a kind word from a colleague, a challenge met, a duty discharged. The examen likes the humdrum. God is present in transcendent “spiritual” moments, but he’s also there when you cook dinner, write a memo, answer email, and run errands. The examen looks at your conscious experience. The ebb and flow of your moods and feelings are full of spiritual meaning. Nothing is so trivial that it’s meaningless. What do you think about while sitting in traffic or waiting in a long line at the grocery store? What’s your frame of mind while doing boring and repetitive chores? You’ll be surprised at how significant such moments can be when you really look at them.
The examen surprised me because it was so unlike prayer as I had previously understood it. Prayer for me was a time set apart. With the examen the boundaries between prayer and life became blurred. People usually pray the daily examen at a set time (for me usually in the morning), but there’s no reason why we can’t pray the examen while standing in that long line at the grocery store. After all, God is there too.
But in another way the examen didn’t surprise me at all. God is certainly there while you’re standing in line. All you need to pray the examen is a little quiet time. This made intuitive sense. I am God’s creature living in God’s world; of course God would be present in my everyday experience. If prayer is making a connection with God, it makes perfect sense to spend some time finding God in my conscious experience of daily life.
In fact, the examen is a very old practice. The word examen comes from a Latin word that means both an examination and the act of weighing or judging something. It’s as old as Socrates’s instruction to “know thyself.” A practice of regular self-scrutiny is found in most religions of the world, and this is certainly the case with Christianity. To follow the path of Jesus, we must regularly scrutinize our behavior and ask how closely our actions conform to Christ’s.
Five hundred years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola made an innovative twist on this ancient tradition of prayerful reflection. He made it a way to experience God as well as to assess our behavior. Ignatius’s famous book The Spiritual Exercises is a guide to an intense experience of conversion to the cause of Christ. He designed the daily examen to sustain and extend this experience. Ignatius wanted to help people develop a reflective habit of mind that is constantly attuned to God’s presence and responsive to God’s leading. The examen became the foundation for this graced awareness. Ignatius wanted Jesuits to practice the examen twice a day—at noon and before sleep. He considered it so important that he insisted that Jesuits pray the examen even when they were too busy to pray in other ways.
Over the centuries, the practice of the Ignatian examen has taken on different forms. For a long time it closely resembled the Examination of Conscience that troubled the prayer of my youth. In recent decades Jesuits have been restoring the examen to something more closely resembling Ignatius’s original vision for a prayer practice that would help us find God in our everyday lives and respond more generously to his gifts and blessings. That’s the form of the examen that’s presented in this book.
I’ve read everything about the examen that I could find. Interestingly, there’s not a lot written about it. Except for a couple of small books and a few learned essays, most of what I found has been pamphlets, flyers, and web pages that give a brief overview. That’s not really a surprise because most people learn about prayer by talking to other people. News of the examen spreads by word of mouth. But at some point a book might be helpful, at least for some people. I hope this is that book.
The examen isn’t the only way to pray, but it’s a way that everyone can pray. It banishes the abstract and relishes the concrete. It is inexhaustible. It treats every moment of every day as a blessed time when God can appear. It’s a way to find God in all things.
why is this a good way to pray?
God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paint-brush, my needle—and my heart and my thoughts.
—Pierre Theilhard de Chardin, SJ, Hymn of the Universe
What’s not to like about the examen? It’s simple; it’s about the stuff we do every day; it connects us to God; it helps us walk with Christ in our daily rounds. It sounds like the perfect prayer. What’s the catch?
I began to talk up the examen as soon as I started using it as a prayer practice, and it wasn’t long before one of my friends gave me a skeptical look. “Why is sifting through our memories of the past twenty-four hours a sound way to pray?” she asked. Our memories aren’t reliable. She told me a story about discovering that something she remembered very vividly never happened at all. She pointed out that we all filter our memories through preconceptions and desires; we tend to “remember” things the way we wish they had happened. Oh, and there was one other thing. The examen struck her as being very self-centered. She asked, “What’s to keep it from becoming a play starring myself as the hero of a one-person show?”
Good questions. The examen doesn’t make immediate sense to everyone; it isn’t like most prayer. The examen is not liturgical prayer, devotional prayer, intercession, or prayer with scripture. It’s not contemplation or centering prayer, which involve emptying our minds of images, words, and ideas. It’s not the kind of prayer that lifts our hearts to a God who stands apart from our lives. From the perspective of capital “P” prayer, the examen hardly looks like prayer at all. It’s a way of looking at ordinary life in a certain way. So why exactly is this a good way to pray?
The big theological answer
The theological answer is that God really is present in our world. He is here, not up there. Christianity has much in common with other religions, one of them being the practice of a discipline of self-scrutiny. But there are differences too, and the main one is the Christian belief that God became human in Jesus Christ. God’s project of saving our world involves God becoming personally caught up in the lives his creatures lead. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation—the conviction that the God who created men and women has intimate knowledge of their lives because he is human as well as divine.
Personal is the key word. God is a community of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and the relationship we have with God is a personal one as well. The word for it is friendship, says Jesuit spiritual director William Barry. Nothing in our lives is so insignificant that it doesn’t deserve God’s attention. In fact, the mundane and the humdrum parts of our lives give depth and texture to our relationship with God. Washing the windows and cooking dinner are as much a part of the relationship as graduation day. If it’s part of our human experience, God is in it.
God is present to us in many other ways too—in creation itself, in the scriptures, and in the history of the Christian community. We connect with God through many forms of prayer, including communal worship, silent meditation, devotional practices, and formal prayers. The examen focuses on God as present in our human experience. This doesn’t represent our whole relationship with God but it’s a vital part of it.
The down-to-earth practical answer
That’s the theological argument for the examen. The other argument is a practical one. Experience shows that the examen can be a central element in a vibrant spiritual life.
The man who discovered this was St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatian spirituality, the spiritual tradition associated with Ignatius, has become a sophisticated discipline. There’s a lot to it. People study it, write books about it, and earn doctorates in it. But Ignatian spirituality is also intensely practical. Just about everything to do with Ignatian spirituality originated in the life of Ignatius. Discernment, imaginative prayer, an approach to making decisions, and the other components of what later became Ignatian spirituality all sprang from Ignatius’s needs and the needs of his friends. These spiritual practices were practical responses to real-world problems. Ignatius did not invent a spiritual system; he discovered certain truths, which he knew were true because he saw how they helped people thrive spiritually.
Ignatius was a careful and perceptive observer—a great “noticer.” I imagine him as something of a detective in the spiritual realm. He noticed clues that eluded others. That’s how he found God, and that’s how the examen came about.
A soldier’s daydreams
Ignatius was a Basque, coming from an ancient people in the mountains of northern Spain who had a reputation for toughness and independence. The young Ignatius was no saint; he was a soldier and a strutting courtier who liked the ladies. In 1515 he was arrested for street fighting, making him one of the few saints with a police record. In 1521, when he was about thirty, he was badly wounded in battle and spent many months recovering in his family castle. He became intolerably bored and asked for something to read. His literary tastes favored romances and adventure stories—the sixteenth-century equivalent of Harry Potter and John Grisham novels. He was disappointed to learn that the only books in the house were a life of Christ and a collection of stories about saints. Reluctantly, he read what was available.
Ignatius liked the religious books more than he thought he would. The life of Christ stirred him, and he was inspired by the lives of the saints. He imagined what it would be like doing heroic deeds for God as St. Francis and St. Dominic did (he surmised that he would do better than Francis and Dominic). After a while the lure of the saints diminished, and he took to daydreaming about his past life—his lady loves, the excitement of battle, and the deeds of derring-do that he hoped to accomplish again someday. Eventually these fantasies would recede, and he would again dream about the lives of the saints and imagined how good it would be to serve God. This is how Ignatius spent the lonely weeks and months of convalescence—alternating in his imagination between dreams of glory and romance and dreams of following Jesus.
The big question that loomed in the background was the one familiar to thirty-year-olds everywhere: what am I going to do with my life? Ignatius’s dreams of military glory and knightly valor were just that—dreams.
His emotions were unsettled. Some days he would feel happy and confident; other days he would be restless and troubled. He began to notice a pattern in his feelings. Eventually the light bulb went on: his feelings were related to his imaginative life. His daydreams were always fun, but the emotions that followed them were different. He was joyful and confident after dreaming about following Christ. He was agitated and sad after daydreaming of machismo, lust, and honor.
Ignatius realized that these feelings weren’t just fleeting moods; they had spiritual meaning. God was in the feelings of joy he felt after thinking about a life of service to God. Some other spirit, an “evil” spirit, was in the feelings of gloom and agitation that followed thoughts of his old life. He realized that something important was going on, that God was communicating with him through his emotions. The peace and joy seemed to point to the answer to the “what’s next?” question. Before long Ignatius understood that the lasting fulfillment he sought would come by following Christ. For the rest of his life, Ignatius built on the insight he had received during those long months of recovery—that he could hear God by carefully attending to the movements of his inner life.
God in our experience
This is the “genesis story” of Ignatian spirituality because so many of its principles are seen here in embryonic form. One is that we can trust our experience. God spoke to Ignatius about the most important decision of his life through the emotions associated with his convalescence. Books and ideas and the counsel of the wise are fine, but the vital place where we find God is in what we ourselves experience. Like Ignatius, we can discern the right path by thoughtful reflection on our relationships with others, on our work in the world, and on the feelings generated by those encounters. The examen is a way to do this.
We can trust our experience because God deals with us directly. That’s another principle of Ignatian spirituality. The church and scripture teach truth, and sacraments and devotional prayer nourish us, but God also communicates directly with each of us. We can have a personal relationship with God.
Another principle found at the beginning of Ignatius’s story is the importance of the journey. Ignatius arose from his sickbed determined to serve God. But, especially during the early years after his conversion, he walked a meandering spiritual path full of U-turns, blind alleys, dead ends, false starts, and odd tangents. God was with Ignatius every step of the way. At the end of his life, Ignatius wrote a short autobiography in which he referred to himself in the third person as “the pilgrim.” He saw his life as a journey, marked by deepening understanding of who God was and how he could best serve him.
My skeptical friend raised real issues; memories can be unreliable, and a prayer like the examen, in which we reflect on our experience, can become self-centered. But these are pitfalls to be avoided, not big red signs saying ROAD CLOSED. Ignatius found a way down the road. He developed the examen to help him to find God on the journey. We pray it for the same reason.