Learning to Listen: Examen Prayer
Updated: May 9, 2022
As I mentioned previously, the Examen Prayer (or as St. Ignatius called it, the Examination of Conscience) is one of two key spiritual practices I have in my toolbox.
The Examen was created by St. Ignatius. In its classic form, it had 5 steps, which are outlined in the graphic (right) from a 1691 edition of Ignatius' classic, the Spiritual Exercises:
Give thanks (Gratias age). "Give thanks to God our Lord for the favors received."
Ask for light (Pete lumen). "Ask for grace to know my sins and to rid myself of them."
Examine our day (Examina). Give "an account of my soul."
Express sorrow for our sins (Dole). "Ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults."
Resolve to improve (Propone). "Resolve to amend with the grace of God."¹
*All quotes above are from the Puhl translation
The beauty of the Examen is its simplicity, which lends itself to experimenting with creative variations, including my Haiku Examen, which I will share in a future post. The traditional Examen is a review of one day, but you can do a weekly, monthly, or even yearly Examen. You can do an Examen of ecology, the Ten Commandments, New Testament passages, and yes, there's even an app!
Let me share my version of the Examen:
RECOGNIZE GOD'S PRESENCE AND EXPRESS GRATITUDE
The first step is becoming aware of God’s presence and giving thanks for what we've received. In our busy world, it takes some time and effort to transition into the place where we notice God.
This is a time to become aware of God’s presence and to hear from and speak with God honestly. What better way to begin that noticing than to look for where God has blessed us?
REQUEST GOD'S GRACE TO SEE WHAT GOD WANTS US TO SEE
The second step is asking God to give us light to see what God wants us to see, hear what God wants us to hear, perceive what God wants us to perceive, do what God wants us to do.
Ultimately, the Examen is about truth-telling and truth-receiving. It is not about judgment or condemnation, nor is it about sugarcoating the truth or minimizing pain. It invites the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the truth about us, God and others, and it challenges us to receive that truth with open hands and hearts, without defensiveness or blame.
It comes from the position that Christ paid for us all and nailed our junk to the cross, so we can be confident of his love and approval of us (Rom. 8.1-4). Therefore, we can listen to what God is saying without fear of reprisal or shame, so that we can see what truly IS.
REVIEW OUR DAY WITH GOD
The third step is to review the last 24 hours with God, in God’s presence.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius focuses on two things: consolation and desolation. We often think of these as emotional states, but he defines them as orientations of our heart towards God, more than our feelings--but they include our feelings.
So we can experience consolation--turning our hearts toward God--while feeling joyful, such as when we are grateful for his blessing, or while feeling sorrow, such as when we are convicted and repentant about a sin God reveals to us.
Likewise, we can experience desolation--turning our hearts away from God--while feeling happy, such as when we pursue empty pleasures to numb or escape pain, or while feeling despair, such as when we are so angry with God that we shut him out.
The Jesuit Institute puts it this way:
Consolation is when something is deeply and genuinely good for us, good for our souls, leads us towards God and away from our selfish preoccupations.
Desolation is when something is not good for us, when we are wrapped up in ourselves, and careless of God's gifts and grace working in us, when we substitute other things in place of God.²
Sometimes it seems like events can be both. Ultimately, St. Ignatius gives us a quick rule of thumb to 'test' whether something is truly consolation or truly desolation: by noticing the faith, hope and love in us. Something that is truly consolation will show itself in an increase in faith (e.g. self-confidence in myself, in my family, in my colleagues and friends, in society in general and in God), an increase in hope (ie. Being able to see the positive in things, having a reason to get out of bed in the morning), and an increase in love (ie. the loving and compassionate ways I treat those around me, especially those I find difficult to love).
RESPOND, REPENT, AND RECONCILE OURSELVES WITH GOD
The fourth step gives us the chance to respond to God--to speak honestly with God about what has been revealed to us and to repent if need be. In doing so, we reconcile (restore to harmony) ourselves to God (1 John 1.8-9).
REORIENT OURSELVES TOWARD GOD AND REVEL IN GOD'S GRACE
This last step of the Examen encourages us to move back into consolation so that we can receive Jesus’ hospitality and discern what His invitations are to us for the road ahead (James 4.8; Jeremiah 29.12-14). What is Jesus inviting us to be and do from this point forward?
If you'd like me to walk you through this practice, I welcome you to try it out with me here on YouTube--see you there!