One of the things I’m particularly interested in is spiritual discernment. This could be because the data of my life have always been pretty messy and so finding the signal in the noise has been difficult for me, or maybe I’m just indecisive. Whatever the reason, I love tools that help me sift through the data of my life in an intentional way, to help me discover what I need to give thanks for, what I need to repent of, and which path I should follow. One of the greatest tools I’ve discovered for this is the Examen of St Ignatius Loyola. And this is the practice I chose to follow this week.
The Examen is a prayerful reflection on the events and experiences of the past day, developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. These emerged from his efforts to build a stronger relationship with God and discern God’s will in his life. While it can be used as a preparation for confession, its real benefits are as tool for spiritual discernment, as what the Jesuit writer George Aschenbrenner calls an “examination of consciousness rather than of conscience.” The point is less about keeping track of the good and the bad in our day than it is a way of discovering the ways God is moving us and moving in us through our life, and being mindful of the ways we might be pushing or pulling back from God. Again quoting Aschenbrenner: “We are talking about an experience in faith of growing sensitivity to the unique, intimately special ways that God’s Spirit has of approaching and calling us.”
For more background information, including a link to Aschenbrenner’s essay and instructions, please visit Loyola Press’ website dedicated to Ignatian Spirituality.
What is it?
While there are many variants of the Examen in use today, they generally follow a similar five-step process:
- Become aware of God’s presence.
- Review the day with gratitude.
- Pay attention to your emotions.
- Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
- Look toward tomorrow.
The format I used this week is as follows
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
- Take a few moments to still your thoughts and ground yourself in the presence of God
- Look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit:
- Is there anything that seems confusing or troubling? Ask God to bring clarity and understanding.
- Are there times of consolation and clarity, or times when God’s presence or providence were clear? Give thanks to God for that experience of consolation.
2. Review the day with gratitude
- Walk through your day in the presence of God, giving thanks:
- What were the day’s joys and delights? Remember the little things, as well as the big.
- What interactions did you have with others? What did you receive from these people? What did you give them?
3. Pay attention to your emotions
- Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day.
- What might God be saying through these feelings?
- Now, reflect on some ways that you fell short, not only faults or sins, but also other implications.
- What might be coming into your life? What might be passing away? What is grounding your life? Where is your joy?
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it
- Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that is particularly important. It may be a significant encounter with another person or a vivid moment of pleasure or peace. Or it may be something that seems rather insignificant.
- Observe it. Allow prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart—whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
- Stay with it. Reflect on it.
5. Look toward tomorrow
- Ask God to give you wisdom for tomorrow’s challenges.
- Pay attention to the feelings that surface as you survey what’s coming up. Turn these feelings into prayer into prayer.
- Seek God’s guidance. Ask God for help and understanding. Pray for hope.
6. Talk to Jesus
- End the Daily Examen with a conversation with Jesus about what you’ve discovered.
I had a lot of fun with this practice this week. As I said in the introduction, discernment is something that is very close to my heart and taking this time to review my days in an intentional way was a wonderful way to engage with it. The only real difficulty I had in the week was simply that some days provide more fodder for this kind of exercise than others. While I’m sure there is a lot of beauty in the routine of doing a daily Examen (St Ignatius even directed his students to do it twice a day!), for me I think it might get monotonous after a few weeks, particularly in calmer seasons of the soul. The state of my heart doesn’t change much from day to day: I struggle with similar things, I find my joy in similar things, and find God is drawing me towards similar things.
That said, however, there was palpable movement within the week, and I do think that the daily Examen helped clarify and solidify that movement. The exercise gently fanned a spark until it became a warming, comforting fire of spiritual consolation.
When I was first exploring the area of spiritual discernment a couple years ago, one sentence immediately grabbed my attention: “Discernment cultivates our ability to stay with the discordant notes of our lives with alertness and sensitivity until we are able to grasp the theme of what God is about with us.” I love this metaphor. My life has had a lot of discordant notes in it. There have been many things that felt right but were wrong, things I feel called to do yet feel impossible, wrong turns that ended up leading me to exactly where I needed to be, and areas in my life where I have not reaped what I’ve sown. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this; I’m sure anyone reading this will be nodding their head. Life is messy and complicated. It’s rarely easy to hear the theme within all the noise. I also love the fact that this definition of discernment takes the focus off of the decision about which course to take and places it instead on the waiting that comes before the decision is possible. Patience is hard for me. I want answers now. I want a guarantee that things will work out in the end. Engaging actively in discernment eases that pressure a bit, and allows me to stay with the discomfort of the unknown — to stay with those discordant notes — until I know which way to go. In a sense, it’s a way of not having to decide at all: by the time I have to act, discernment has shown me which path to take.
The Examen is a fantastic way of engaging discernment. It is deliberate and gentle, unrushed and calming. And it calls attention to the ways God is present in the busyness of the day. One of the great insights of St Ignatius was his framing of all of our life within a theological framework. God is our beginning; God is our end. God is the source of everything we are; God is the loving fulfillment of everything we are. And this is true no matter what the granular details of our days look like. The Examen in some way is like retroactively practicing the presence of God; even if we didn’t see God in the moment, we can see God in hindsight.
By way of assessment, I really have nothing bad to say about this practice. I think it is valuable as a daily practice, but also as a periodic practice, something that can be done when the day feels particularly fuzzy. But over the two years that I’ve been acquainted with this practice, I have also noticed that once I start asking the questions of the Examen in a formal way, they begin to shape my experience of going about my day. In this way it can transform from a deliberate practice to something that becomes increasingly a part of my being.
What about you? Have you practiced the Examen? What has been your experience?