Monday, March 16, 2009

On Prayer: The Examen

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
2) Gratitude
3) Petition
4) Review
5) Forgiveness
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.  


Michelle said...

My favorite article to share with people about the examen is by Dennis Hamm, SJ "Rummaging Backward Through Your Day"...published in America Magazine in 1994.

Ryan Rallanka, SJ said...

Thanks for the article. Interestingly, more than one has told me about this article since my posting, a testament to the good things Hamm has to offer in it.

Ben Robie said...

You are not the only one promoting the prayer of examen. :) A new website went live on the 16th (the day you posted this) devoted to examens.

Please check it out and let us know what you think via the "Contact Us" link. Blessings!

ZIM said...

Hey, Ryan. Could you tell us how to use the journal after the examen. I heard that it is good to write on a journal after each examen. Or was it during? What do I write there?

Ryan Rallanka, SJ said...

Hi Zim,

There are many ways to approaching using your journal with the examen. I'm not going to dictate to you what to write, since it shouldn't be about what you should be writing. But, I will offer a few thoughts--take them or leave them as you find them helpful.

If you want to use your journal as a means for praying the examen, there are a number of ways you can approach it. The website in the post above:, is a good site that provides you with different approaches to do this. Personally, the way I have done it when I use this method is to write down my prayers as I go along. So, I actually write down placing myself in God's presence, my places of gratitude, etc. Follow the steps that I provided for this.

If you want to use your prayer after the examen, then your journal probably serves as a way to record what happened in your prayer. Things you can write about include: what happened in prayer, what were you feeling, how was God present in the prayer, etc. Really, anything that sticks out to you in the prayer period, anything that you feel is worth writing down, is good. Trust your instincts here.

Hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions!

Taylor D. said...

This has really made me think about how I do the examine. I go to a Jesuit school so we do the examine every week. Because I'm not Catholic(actually I don't have any religious affiliation), I've never really payed attention to what was being said during the examine, but after reading this I realize that there are things that I can thank and be grateful for without having to relate it back to God. Thank you for helping me to get involved in the examine

Tori L. said...

At my high school we endure a examen every week, it helps everyone including teachers take a step back from whats happening in our life and to be able to reflect on all the good or all the bad in our life, whether we reflect to fix those problems or just become aware or to just thank god for everything we are blessed with.

Christopher said...

I agree with your approach on the steps in fulfilling an examen. Placing yourself in God's Presence, giving gratitude, petition, showing review and forgiveness, and finally looking forward are fundamental steps in fully reflecting on your daily relationship with God. Like you said, it is God's initiative to lead us to those places and moments, and it is up to us to show our thankfulness and be able to respond to his call.

Ruben B. said...

I believe that the examen is a great way to communicate with God, and as he said, it is here to help us not to feel pressured on doing it. Even though I do not do it everyday, I always do it on Thursdays at my school. This as well, really takes the essence of the examen. It goes deep into the core on explaining what we should do.

Anonymous said...

I go to a Jesuit high school. I pray the examen every Thursday with my teachers and classmates. I just wanted to say that I find the Examen very helpful for me to examine the past events of week and it brings me closer to God.

Laura said...

This is a great way to describe the Examen. The Examen truly is very personal and extremely helpful. Praying it every Thursday at school really gives us time to reflect. The most important part of the Examen for me is the Looking toward the future portion. I think that it really sums up the Examen. I allows us to find in our hearts to move past tough experiences and realize that we are still connected to Jesus and there is love all around us.

Christina said...

Hi, At my Jesuit high school we pray the Examen every Thrusday - I find it to be a very effective form of prayer. Sometimes, it is hard to focus on the prayer and I find my mind wandering, but with much practice and concentration it has become easier. It's worth the time to truly put yourself in God's presense and complete each step - the prayer always seems to have some effect at the end of the day.

James R said...

At my high school, we pray the examen every week, and, while I was initially skeptical of how helpful it could be, I have found that it is an amazing way to connect with God and ourselves.

Thanks for your post! Everyone should know how helpful this is.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article on the examen, I think the examen is a very personal form of prayer but it can be prayed in a group. Thanks for the article, it was very informing

Jeff said...

The examen helps me reflect about my day, week and life. Without the examen, it would be hard for me to recognize most of the things that have happend to me. God plays a major role in my prayers because he helps me think of ways to reflect better and that some of the bad thoughts can become a better reality later on. The examen is a helpful prayer that me and my classmates use in school and I hope I can keep some of the prayers for moments in my future

Ryan Rallanka, SJ said...

To all my recent posters, thanks so much for taking the time to write a little bit about the examen. It seems my post has helped you to understand the practice better and how it can be a helpful prayer in your day. I encourage you all to continue to make the examen in your lives. Those few moments to reflect back on your day with God can really be a source of life for you all!