I noticed before I started writing this post that, over at the Loyola Press blog that I have linked on the right side of my site, Fr. Paul Campbell SJ already had written a short post on the examen. But, that just means that two people will be promoting the examen today.
As Fr. Campbell points out, Ignatius felt the practice of the examen to be of great importance in the lives of the Jesuits. The examen provides us the way to take a step back from the business of our everyday lives, to recollect all that has happened, to see our day with the help of God. Indeed, if we were to lose all forms of prayer except one, the Examen was to be the prayer that we kept. In a way, the examen is a small retreat in the literal sense of the word. The examen is a time to withdraw so that we may re-enter the world more grounded and more mindful of God's presence in our lives than we were before the prayer time.
Last Thursday, I gave a short presentation and guided meditation over at Fordham, so I thought I would share some preliminary points about prayer before I walk you through the steps of the examen itself.
1) Coming as you are. God knows all that is going on in our lives--we do not need to pretend with God. We seek to be our true selves, coming as we are to God in prayer. I do not believe God would want otherwise.
2) Place. It is important to cultivate an environment that best fosters our prayer life. Personally, I know I have a hard time praying in my room, so I try to utilize the chapel spaces here in the house. However, that's one of the perks of religious life that most people do not have. Maybe there is a special place in your home that you find helpful to pray. Maybe it means going for a walk or using a candle. You know yourself best--find what works best for you.
3) Taking your time. Especially in our culture that values efficiency of time, I think the temptation in prayer is to rush through it. The examen should not be rushed. Going over your day takes some time and effort, but that time is well worth the investment.
4) Flexibility. The rubrics of the Examen are there to help you, but don't feel constrained by them. Make the examen your own. Perhaps you would like to pray through writing, music, or images.
Here, then, are the general steps of praying the examen as I know and pray them (I try to, anyway). These are not universal steps in the sense that every Jesuit does it this exact same way, but the core essence of the prayer is here. In the novitiate, we were given around 15 minutes to do our examens. But, you just roll with the Spirit in terms of time, and sometimes the length of time you spend on any one step will vary from day to day.
1) Placing myself in God's Presence
6) Looking Forward
For me, the examen is all about God's work. I find my examen prayers to be fully alive when I give up control of the prayer time and allow God to guide me through my day. The prayer is about God's initiative, of God leading us to those places and moments in the day in which we need to review. It is about what God has given, God's love, and God's grace. Step one, then, is to remind ourselves of our faith in God's presence in the here and now. God is with us and desires to move into greater relationship with us. It is not just us talking at God as an abstract concept. It is God leading us in prayer.
Gratitude. As you may know, the greek meaning of the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. For Catholics, thanksgiving to God is the root of our prayer--it is our centering attitude towards the celebration of Mass. Many scholastics in my province go out to Hayden Lake for our annual 8 day retreat. I remember looking out at the beauty of creation during one of those days, the richness of all of God's work, and thinking how one could not stop and be thankful for that bounty. God, indeed, has given us so much. The root of all relationship, I think, is gratitude. Without gratitude and thanksgiving, our relationships lose their depth, they become shallow. Disposing ourselves with gratitude, then, allows us to enter more fully into the examen, as it encourages us to look through our day with that lens. Oftentimes, we experience our day without gratitude, which makes the examen so important.
Petition. As I have mentioned earlier, I believe the examen should be all about God's work. For me, then, this petition phase is to ask God to help me pray the examen, to ask God to lead me in prayer, to bring me to those moments of the day that I need to examine further. And, I ask for an open heart and open mind, that I be receptive to the work that God will do. You may have your own types of petitions as you enter the review phase.
Review. This step will probably take a majority of the time. Where is God leading us? What parts of the day is God calling us to see? Perhaps He will show us a moment of great joy. Or perhaps God will bring us to a moment of hurt. We consider those experiences, remembering how we responded, how we felt. It is seeing these experiences anew, seeing it as God sees it. In this step, we have a conversation with God about these experiences--what we did well, where we can grow, where we need to be challenged. We converse and comment with God as a commentator would during scenes of a movie.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Sometimes it is important for us to express regret and sorrow for our failings throughout the day. None of us are perfect, and we often do and say things that we regret later on. How could we have responded better? Where do we need reconciliation in our lives? We are sinners, but sinners loved by Christ. God, in His great mercy, continues to beckon to us over and over and over again--God never gives up on us.
Looking towards the future. Having reviewed the day, we are more disposed to re-enter the world with thankful hearts. We consider all that has happened in the examen period, seeking God's help to be made anew. Hopefully, our examens change us for the better, seeking to continue doing those good things that we have been doing already and to improve in those areas in need of improvement.
I really do promote praying the examen, and I hope that it may be an avenue to promote your own relationship with God especially during this season of Lent.
If you are interested in reading more about the Examen, I would recommend the book The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today, by Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV. He uses not only personal stories to illustrate the steps of the Examen but also takes from the St. Ignatius' own writings, giving you a glimpse of how Ignatius examined his own day.