Underlying this practice is the conviction that God is at every moment laboring to “turn our hearts toward Him.”
There are about 28 million people who use a Fitbit, a device that tracks the number of steps taken, the change in heart rate, and the hours of deep and light sleep achieved each day. Some people check their health-tracking devices constantly and others a few times a day. When used properly, rather than obsessively or seldom, such a daily self-examination could promote the intended health benefits.
In the spiritual life, a Fitbit can be compared to an Examination of Conscience. It’s a way of checking to see if the soul is healthy.
You’re probably familiar with making an Examination of Conscience (or “Examen” as St. Ignatius of Loyola called it) before going to confession. Usually, at Reconciliation services you receive a list of sins organized under one of the Ten Commandments, or just under the general categories of God, neighbor and self.
I recall preparing for my first Confession and Communion. The nuns sent home a list of sins so I could practice making my confession. My mother read it over and checked off the ones to confess and crossed out the ones to ignore. Otherwise, I would have confessed everything on the list!
Jesuits, and most religious communities, have a practice of examining their conscience daily, not just for sacramental confession. In fact, Jesuits in formation are required to make two daily Examens. We’re told early on in our training: whether you’re writing philosophy papers, teaching high school, running a university, caring for refugees, or recovering from illness — don’t let the day pass by without bringing it to the Lord.
St. Francis Xavier, who was known to have baptized over 300,000 people in his lifetime while preaching the Gospel in the foreign missions, recommended at least one Examen a day, if two were not possible.
Underlying this practice is the conviction that God is at every moment laboring to “turn our hearts toward Him” (1 Kgs. 8:58), and conversion is a daily work in progress.
Pope Francis, sharing the fruits of his Jesuit formation, recently said in one of his homilies that the devil also labors, but to turn our hearts gradually away from God. Serious sin almost always arises from neglecting or justifying a seemingly small temptation — a “small desire or idea” — that might also come in the guise of virtue: “Life has been difficult, I deserve this”; “Just one more time”; “It’s not as bad as what everyone else is doing”; “It’s not hurting anyone”; “Everyone is doing it.” In short, hearts do not harden overnight, and the Examen shines light on those spots that are vulnerable to attacks.
The Examen as a prayerful review of the day allows for counting the steps God made toward us and the steps we took either toward or away from Him. Like a dog whose ears perk up at the slightest sound, those who practice the Examen sharpen their sensitivity to God’s subtle movements throughout the day. Growing in familiarity with God, we will–with God’s help–know right away when our desires are not aligned with His and seek to remedy the situation as soon as possible.
St. Ignatius’ own method included five steps (distributed over a period of 15 minutes):
- Acknowledge God’s presence and thank God for graces received.
- Ask God for the grace I need to recognize and reject my sins.
- Review the day, hour by hour, examining thoughts, words, and deeds.
- Ask God for the grace of forgiveness.
- Make a firm resolve to change with God’s grace.
To be clear, unlike using a health monitor, the Ignatian Examen isn’t only about us; it’s always about us in relation to God. The Ignatian Examen grounds the search for faults in the context of gratitude and grace — the work God is already doing in us. God’s grace rather than human effort alone roots out sin and thaws the heart.
St. Ignatius himself actually made an examination of faults at every hour. However, Fr. Joseph de Guibert, S.J., pointed out that in doing so St. Ignatius was far from being scrupulous or obsessive over sin. Rather than sinking into the quicksand of self-absorbed rumination, St. Ignatius went over his virtues and vices with and before God — in the light of the Holy Spirit — with gratitude, calmness, and tranquility. With whom would we rather review our sins than with the Creator Himself?
There are many versions of the Ignatian Examen out there based on the original. For example, Fr. Mark Thibodeaux, S.J.’s Reimagining the Ignatian Examen offers 34 creative ways to pray the Examen. Audio recordings and apps are also available. In any case, whichever you choose, consistency is key.
Here, I offer a “Speed Examen” that can be prayed several times for 5-10 minutes throughout the day:
- Lord, show me what you want me to see from my day so far. (Pray an Our Father.)
- Lord, thank you for … (list at least three)
- Lord, I’m sorry for … (name at least one fault — omission or commission)
- Lord, help me with … (name at least one action you plan on carrying out)
- Pray an Act of Contrition, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be.