How to dig deep by praying the Examen
Saint Ignatius of Loyola created the Examen to be a very short (“quarter of an hour”) prayer that can be prayed at any time that is most convenient. In the Examen, we review our recent past to find God and God’s blessings in daily life. We also look back to find moments in the day when things didn’t go so well—when we were hurt by something that happened to us, or when we sinned or made a mistake. We give praise and thanksgiving for the blessed moments. We ask forgiveness and healing for the difficult and painful moments. Having reflected on this past day, we then turn to the day yet to come and ask God to show us the potential challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. We try to anticipate which moments might go one way or the other for us: toward God’s plan or away from it. We ask for insight into what graces we might need to live this next day well: patience, wisdom, fortitude, self-knowledge, peace, optimism. We ask God for that grace, and we trust that he wants us to succeed in our day even more than we do.
That’s the basic idea behind the Ignatian Examen. Ignatius would say that this should be the most important moment of our day. Why? Because this moment affects every other moment.
If you are like me, at any given moment there are little truths about your life that lie beneath the surface of your consciousness—things you have not yet recognized or acknowledged. For me, these hidden truths are usually, but not always, a painful reality that I have trouble accepting. Sometimes there are felicitous happenings in my life that I simply haven’t slowed down enough to notice and name. This Examen tries to dig deeply into our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and motivations to try to uncover a hidden truth or two.
One thing to bear in mind before you begin is that sometimes the really important hidden inner truth is difficult to bring to the level of consciousness and will resist any attempt to do so. Sometimes it’s just hard for us to admit an inner truth that is having its way with us. In these cases, your psyche will try a diversion tactic to keep you off the trail; it may reveal a less threatening inner truth to keep you occupied for the duration of the Examen. Therefore, I recommend that you not be satisfied with the first couple of inner truths that surface. Keep digging for a few minutes before you settle on the one you think is most important, which may well be the third or fourth one that comes to mind.
1. I begin in my usual way.*
2. I spend a few moments in gratitude, thanking God for one or two of the blessings, big and small, that I’ve received today: the good mood I woke up in, a kind word from a friend, my undeserved good health, an easy commute to work, another day with my wonderful spouse.
3. I ask God to reveal to me any hidden truths about any of the important relationships in my life. For example, “I didn’t realize it, but . . .”
• I’m angry with ____.
• I’m attracted to ____.
• I’m getting along better with ____.
• I’m not so angry with ____. I seem to have forgiven her and not noticed!
• I’m afraid of ____’s outbursts.
• I’m trying to impress ____.
4. If a large and striking revelation occurs to me, one that makes me go, “Wow, I hadn’t noticed that before” or “Well, I guess it’s time to admit the truth of that,” then I remain on that one hidden truth for the rest of the Examen. If nothing big shows up when I muse over my relationships, then I move on to my subconscious thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about recent events in my life, about any attachments I’m clinging to, and about my own relationship with myself. For example, “I didn’t realize it, but . . .”
• I’m sad about ____ moving away.
• I’m not as anxious about that daunting task at the office.
• I’m worried about our finances.
• I’m spending more and more time on useless web browsing.
• I’m clinging too tightly to owning ____, when perhaps God or my life circumstances call me to let it go.
• I’m getting older and am not admitting it to myself.
• I’m not as bad at ___ as I think I am.
• Despite my pessimism, things are turning out OK.
5. When I have settled on the most important inner truth, I let go of all of the others and simply have a conversation with God about this one reality in my life. I summarize it in one simple statement such as one of the examples above, and I make that statement over and over again to God, letting its reality and existence sink in and not hide again.
6. I note what emotions I am feeling as I make this statement to God. What is the strongest emotion that I feel as I name this truth to God? I now add this to my statement. For example, “Lord, I feel ____ as I admit that ____.” I let myself steep in that emotion for a while and I keep presenting to God both the truth and its accompanying emotion.
7. I get really quiet now and try to detect if God is trying to say or do something about this reality. How does God feel about this truth? How does God feel about how I feel? If I feel called to do so, I listen for God’s message to me or I await his touch on my heart. I ask God, “What is it you would have me do about this? How should this truth affect who I am?” I listen for what might be an answer from God.
8. If I feel called to do so, I make a commitment to God about this. I ask God for help to be faithful to my commitment.
9. I end in my usual way.*
* I recommend that you slowly develop unique and personal rituals for beginning and ending your Examen. Some people begin the Examen with a recitation of a formulaic prayer such as the Our Father, with the singing of a simple song such as “Amazing Grace,” or with the repetition of a favorite line from Scripture. Others bow to their prayer spot as a way of declaring this a sacred space. Catholics usually begin with the sign of the cross. Many find it helpful to begin by taking some slow, deep breaths. All of these examples could also be rituals for ending one’s Examen. The idea is to have a simple, short, prayerful way to enter this experience and a similarly helpful way to close it and get back to the day’s tasks.
This Examen is excerpted from Reimagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways to Pray from Your Day by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ. Used with permission of Loyola Press.