St. Ignatius’ Examen has been curing spiritual blindness for 500 years.
When Mom became very ill, Dad retired early to care for her. There were days when they were not out of each other’s eyesight for even a minute, from sunrise till bed time. Over dinner, during one of those days of constant togetherness, Mom asked Dad, “So, how was your day?” Dad replied, “You tell me! You were there!”
That’s a good illustration of how we so often live our busy lives—we were there, but we didn’t see it. We live it, but we live it largely unaware of what’s happening around us or within us. We open our eyes on Sunday morning and we think about getting ready to go to Mass and then we blink and it’s Saturday night and we have no idea about how we spent the intervening days of the week. We are too rushed, too busy, too unobservant—too spiritually blind—to take note of what’s happened to us, in us or through us. As a result, we overlook graces offered, and graces received; we overlook near and actual occasions of sin; patterns of sin and grace may be taking root in us and we don’t know how, where, or why. Who can live like that? We do. Who should live like that? No one. Is there an alternative? Yes—thanks to Saint Ignatius Loyola.
Saint Ignatius offers a form of meditation known as the Examen. Some Jesuit scholars refer to it as the “Examen of Consciousness” to distinguish it from the examination of conscience we undertake while preparing to make a good confession. The Examen is a way of taking note of our spiritual vital signs daily so as to heighten our awareness of the temptations to sin and the invitations of grace that constantly surround us. Practiced faithfully, the Examen can keep us alert to the unique patterns of light and dark that are at work in each of us, so that we can learn to cooperate with one and resist the other. A good Jesuit will tell you that praying the Examen daily is just good spiritual hygiene that can be a lifelong, life-transforming habit.
Saint Ignatius introduces the Examen in His “Spiritual Exercises” in five simple steps.
1. “The first point is to thank God our Lord for all the good things I have received.”
Saint Ignatius was a great advocate of the habit of gratitude. As I gratefully recall the gifts, graces and mercies I have received since I last prayed the Examen, my heart is disarmed. Overcome by God’s generosity, I can dare to come to terms with the mix of light and dark in my own life. When every other resolution fails, there will always be a reason to be grateful. Anyone who has said, “This time it will be different!” knows how easily determination and promises can sputter. But if I join awareness of reasons to be grateful with a commitment to prove my gratitude in each moment, in each decision, and especially in each time of temptation, then I will be well on the way towards making the spiritual progress we all so often tell ourselves that we desire. Real, lasting spiritual progress always starts with gratitude.
2. “The second point is to ask for the gift of recognizing my sins and getting rid of them.”
In other words, I ask for the Holy Spirit to illuminate this time of prayer. I wish for this time of prayer and its aftermath to be more than just the product of my own human efforts. I ask to see myself and my day as God sees them. Note that Saint Ignatius calls such vision a “gift.” No one indicted for a crime ever receives the indictment as a gift. But one who knows he has every reason for gratitude will want to be rid of every sin that is unworthy of the giver of the many gifts he has received.
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