BY Timothy M Gallagher OMV
The examen prayer is a short method by St. Ignatius to examen our daily life so we can overcome sin and grow in virtue and closeness to God. In five short steps is a method that Ignatius recommends daily to everyone and twice daily to his Jesuits. It is the foundational prayer to become aware of the movements of heart so we can be aware what is of God, us or as St. Ignatius calls him, 'the enemy'. St. Ignatius' method is less than a half page in length, yet it opens the door to a deeper spiritual journey. In his book on the Examen Prayer Fr. Timothy Gallagher draws from real-life stories and his experience as a spiritual director to explain the core principles of the examen prayer: What is the examen and how can we begin to pray it? How can we adapt it to our individual lives? What are its fruits?
Here are the original steps of the daily examen from Ignatius’ spiritual exercises of 1584
METHOD FOR MAKING THE GENERAL EXAMEN
It contains in it five Points.
First Point. The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received.
Second Point. The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.
Third Point. The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts, in the same order as was mentioned in the Particular Examen.
Fourth Point. The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.
Fifth Point. The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace.
The examen is “a daily intensive exercise of discernment in one’s life.” (Fr. Achenbrenner) It is at the heart of the spiritual exercises and ample time should be given to reflection. A personal time just to think things over is a good start, but this can be helped by journaling or talking with a spiritual director or trusted other to help work things out. The examen is meant to be a personal exercise shared with God. It should become an attitude of heart. Already we would have made use of each of the steps of the examen on their own, but the examen is a complete package. It is important when starting to give sufficient time to enter into each step and make each step one’s own. Each step can take time to really understand and participate in. For some it takes years. There are obviously various levels of experience.
To begin with take time with each step. It is not a matter of breadth, but depth. It is not a matter of finishing all the steps. It is important to really enter each step and with limited time, just do what you can. The examen is a work of grace, and it can take time for it to be transformed from our work to become a work of God in us. Where is God active in my life? Where is he leading?
THE FIRST STEP – GRATITUDE
This step can lead to great joy. It is the step of realization that all is gift from God, and through giving thanks to God for the many gifts we receive and have, our hearts can be freed. Think of the specific gifts over the last day. Think about how God has blessed you. Allow yourself to thank God for things you don’t normally thank him for. It is worth persevering until a deep thankfulness is gained for what has happened. Even thank God for the bad things, for God can even bring good out of them.
God is gift itself and he never tires of giving us gifts. He wants to give us gifts more than we want them.
THE SECOND STEP: PETITION
“Lord, what do you want to show me about this day?” This is a humble prayer asking God for the grace to make the examen fruitful. We are asking God for the gift of understanding that leads to new freedom. We pray for deeper insight in God’s workings and any resistance that hinders God’s action. This step should not be a cursory petition, but a deep prayer of the heart begging God for his light to bear upon our soul. It is particularly important in times of desolation to petition the Lord for guidance.
STEP THREE: REVIEW
The review should be systematic, ie hour by hour or period of time to period of time.
Review the emotional setting (mood), emotions, thoughts, words and acts.
Then for each set of experiences reflect upon the beginning, middle and end. Usually a particular event (whether, mood, emotion, thought, word or action) takes your attention. Explore what this leads to and from where did it come. As you explore this series of events you may become aware that what initially appeared as a good thing, turned out quite bad. Once the full revelation of the series has occurred, then after any needed forgiveness, it is possible in the final step to devise a way to not fall for the same trick that led you astray.
It is in this third step that we apply the rules for spiritual discernment (see the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius) and see if any movement is positive or negative.
Inspirations, opportunities or temptations, hinderances.
How did I respond?
Was there a particular cycle?
How did the mood start/change?
Was there a trigger?
Why was I feeling like that?
What did it lead to?
Is it related to something/someone?
There are so many different possibilities, that really the first is to gain an awareness of what is happening. Then the reason for its beginning, development and what it leads to.
An example may be helpful. The mood is desolation, and I am being tempted to despair, I feel like taking a break from my duty, but I am aware of it, so I resist and try to continue my work asking for God’s help. I may decide to pray a chaplet and this helps give me the strength to keep going and gradually I find the desolation dissipates.
FOURTH STEP: FORGIVENESS
Forgiveness is the natural complement to the review step. We would not be able to bear the weight of seeing our sin and frailty if not for the knowledge and experience of a loving God. God loves us and forgives us. It is in this step that we receive that forgiveness and know all is well. But first it must be asked for, and hence the need for this step. While a “I confess …” prayer can be used, it is important that this not be a routine, but an actual encounter with God’s loving mercy. To experience God actually forgiving and renewing me in His love, personally, now is the aim of this step. This step should be a step of joy. This step should be an open and honest step.
FIFTH STEP: RENEWAL
All the previous steps (the past) lead to this step which looks to the future. This step is to “to purpose amendment with His grace”. The issues of the past, present us with opportunities for growth. There are several key questions, “What area do I need to work on the most?” “How could I have acted better in that situation?” “Do I need to make an adjustment to my priorities?” “What do I need to do to improve the situation?” The previous steps if entered into fully, provide ample insights as to what to work on. With the help of the Holy Spirit creative responses can be illuminated. Some will be small initiatives, others larger. It is better to hold onto and be consistent with small things, that to attempt larger projects. “Inch by inch is a cinch, yard by yard is too hard”. Be faithful in the small things, and God will lead you to greater. The response should normally be small, eg the decision to call someone.
Initially the examen should be practiced mechanically, one step after the other to become familiar with the steps and to gradually find a home in each step as well as the natural process from one step to the next. If however you feel led to a particular step, or to spend more time with one step than another, you should yield to the Spirit. You should also be aware of your own inclinations, which may need to be resisted, eg you feel angry and upset and so you want to review your feelings, step three, but you should resist and first thank God, which may dispel some of the anger, and by asking for God’s help you may shed light on the situation rather than review how you are right and the other person is wrong, to be able to see your own sin which should be in step three ready for seeking forgiveness from God in step four. If in doubt go through each step mechanically. As you become more attuned, you will be able to perceive the guidance of the Holy Spirit and recognize his ways more clearly, so it becomes more spiritual and guided.
The examen can be prayed anywhere which is conducive to reflection.
The examen should be prayed daily and ideally at a routine time and place to aid reflection and focus on the examen itself.
It is good to use a journal as an aid, so all the reflection is exposed and writing aids reflection and perspective.
The examen is complemented with a daily prayer routine which should deepen as the examen deepens.
Structure aids freedom. If you just sit and let yourself reflect or just ‘pray’ that way, it might not be as fruitful as focusing on each step and engaging with it actively. This will increase an ability to listen to the Spirit and instill the habit of each step so it becomes natural. This will lead to a natural habit of being open to the Spirit throughout the day.
BEGINNING THE EXAMEN
It is important to spend a little time at the start to let go of the day and the emotions of the day, thoughts, and events, so as to rise up a little with God’s grace above the day. This way you are able to see over the day with a greater vantage point. This way you may see things that you might have missed if you rushed into the examen. It also provides the opportunity to short circuit any current movements that might need to be resisted.
ENDING THE EXAMEN
The classic ending is the colloquy which is a heart-to-heart conversation with Jesus. Whatever the experience of the examen, this is like walking back down from the experience with Jesus and allows for some directed chat-chat to prepare for ‘re-entry’ into the world. It can take many forms and include some intimate formula of surrender, or prayer. It is during this time that a key point from the examen is chosen to be taken on board for application or guidance in the person’s life after the examen.
THE EXAMEN AND JOURNALLING
It is best to begin the examen by writing a response to some points of the examen. Both a diary and a journal can be used at the same time. The thankfulness could be a poem in the journal, or a note in a diary to thank someone for the help they gave as a way to express thanks to God. The petition could be a special prayer used to ask for the grace needed. Or a journal prayer created to help the person. The review could be a deep journal reflective piece, or a symbolic diagram of a situation. It could be a review of the things to do in a diary, or a reflection of the events in a diary to aid reflection on the day. The forgiveness could be a particular prayer used, or particular points in a diary of sins that need to be confessed later. The renewal could be a set of things to be done which are written straight into a diary so they won’t be forgotten. The key point from the colloquy could be written as a diary point so it can be seen and remembered time and time again throughout the day. Both the journal and diary are useful and should be used during the reflection. You will find the necessary balance between free mental reflection and more structured written reflection over time.
The Jesuit tradition suggests two 15 minute examens per day for the Jesuits and one 15 minute daily examen for non-religious. Initially when starting it will probably take longer to complete all the steps while you are getting use to it. Then it may settle down into a better routine. If you are practicing the examen as part of the MAYO Ignatian retreat, then the minimum recommendation is about 10 minutes three times a week. This can be either part of your prep time the night before or part of the actual meditation time.
Over time the examen will become an essential part of the daily routine where you encounter God. Due to busyness it may be undertaken every second day. A time when you are able to place life under God’s microscope, but also see God’s action there. These small movements and guidances of the Spirit over time will point in particular directions. One is towards love. Another is towards vocation. Since true vocation is where you will love most, by following the promptings of love, you will end up in your true vocation. The path will become clearer and clearer. Be aware that sometimes the fastest path is not a straight line. Sometimes what appears as impossible is God’s will, because God wants to be God in your life. The strength of the examen comes from your longing for God. Do all you can to increase this longing for God.
O God, you are my God, for you I long,
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.
For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.
On my bed I remember you,
on you I muse through the night.
For you have been my help,
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you,
your right hand holds me fast.
Timothy M Gallagher OMV. The Examen Prayer, New York:Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006