By Marcia Hotchkiss
One of the gifts of my spiritual direction training program a few years ago was exposure to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. It introduced me to an imaginative and prayerful engagement with the gospel stories, which in turn helped me appreciate Jesus as a very real man who had human emotional and physical struggles like my own. This realization was critical to me for a greater understanding of God.
As enlightening as imaginative prayer is, the most accessible element of Ignatian spirituality, in terms of time and practicality, is the Daily Examen, which the website Ignatian Spirituality (where you can find several helpful resources for incorporating this practice into your life) describes as “a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.”
Jim Manney says that the Examen is “an attitude more than a prayer.” I heartily agree. Contemporary culture accepts and celebrates individuals, and even churches, blowing through our busy days at such a frenetic pace that we can scarcely catch our breath. Ignatius encourages slowing and reflecting daily so that we can notice God at work in and around us.
This insight goes back to ancient times. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Old Testament reiterates the usefulness of self-reflection in several places. An especially important one is Lamentations 3:40: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” Jesus echoes this theme in his teaching, preaching, and interactions with others. He states plainly in John 8:34, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Both the Western and the Eastern Church have historically encouraged personal examination, and confession when appropriate. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous, co-founded by an Episcopal priest, has a daily inventory as part of the Twelve Steps.
Admittedly, looking closely and soberly at what Thomas Merton called “the true self” can be intimidating. I take heart in Jesus’ words, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), which implies that the goal of self-discernment for the Christian is wholeness — knowing who I was created to be and what is my purpose. I should never beat up, punish, or otherwise make myself unable to feel God’s loving and healing touch.
In this vein C. S. Lewis even says, “I sometimes pray not for self-knowledge in general but for just as much self-knowledge at the moment as I can bear and use at the moment; the little daily dose.” Richard Foster suggests praying, “Precious Savior, why do I fear your scrutiny? Yours is an examen of love. Still, I am afraid … afraid of what may surface. Even so, I invite you to search me to the depths so that I may know myself — and you — in fuller measure.”
The word examen, of course, is Latin for “examination,” and is sometimes called consciousness examen. The purpose of the prayer of Examen is to help us see where God is “affecting and moving” and to learn to continually see God in the present.
St. Ignatius recommended the prayer twice a day — once at noon and once at the end of the day. My own experience and that of many others is that in the midst of modern culture — with lunch meetings and the lack of a midday break — noon often doesn’t work. Additionally, I can be so tired at the end of the day, that the prayer can lack focus.
My spiritual director, Jeff Bouis, suggests setting an alarm at five or six p.m. to prompt an Examen at a time that I can more clearly remember the day’s events.
The five steps of the Examen are:
- Ask God for light
- Give thanks
- Review the day
- Face your shortcomings
- Look toward the day to come
James Martin, SJ, uses the word “Presence” for step one. Of course, God is always present with us, but we often need to remind ourselves. Howard Thurman, who has been called the spiritual director of the civil rights movement, describes this step as “centering down.” Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, author of several books on Ignatian prayer, also suggests, “We simply have to be oriented.”
Step two of the Examen is gratitude. St. Ignatius says that ingratitude is “the most abominable of sins.” Such a mindset is certainly visible in the entitlement felt by some in contemporary culture. No matter how difficult our circumstances, a disciple can always find something for which to be thankful. As the liturgy of the Eucharist reminds us, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” Gratitude helps us move away from problem-solution pattern thinking in our prayer. Beyond simply recalling blessings we should also “savor” them or, “Count it all joy” (James 1:2).
Review the day is the third step. The first female deacon in the Church of England, Anne Long, likens the review of the day to asking “the searchlight of the Holy Spirit” to reveal where God’s mercy was present that day, but she cautions that we want to look at ourselves “without judgement” as much as possible. In our performance driven society, we tend to judge, and even convict ourselves when we do poorly. The invitation here is to look at the whole picture of our lives and notice where we can see God’s grace present in the past hours in order to notice it more easily in the future. In the words of “Amazing Grace,” “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Facing our shortcomings, or simply “sorrow,” is the fourth step. The purpose here is to increase in “healthy humility,” and to remind ourselves of our need for God. I will never forget a woman who attended the first church my husband served after seminary telling me that she didn’t know why the liturgy called for the general confession weekly, because she “had never sinned.” Most do not deny their shortcomings so overtly. Scripture recounts human sinfulness repeatedly, but fortunately, it also proclaims the good news that Jesus is our savior. “Where did I fail to love today?” is a searching but important question to ask. We pray the Examen to see ourselves more clearly, but not to shame and denigrate ourselves.
The final step is to look forward and ask for God’s grace. We look to the day ahead and ask for divine help overall and specifically in areas we think will be problematic. This reminds us of our continual need for God. Anne Lamott jokes that the difference between God and us is that God doesn’t think he’s us. That humorous phrase really does ring true for me and for many we minister to at The Abbey on Lovers Lane in Dallas. Despite natural disasters, illness, and questionable human behavior we often cling to the false belief that we are in control. The Examen is tangible evidence that we are not.
Jesuit High School graduate and member of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Dallas, Matt Miller, says that he has maintained the practice of praying the Examen for several years. Matt says, “It helps me focus on the Word for those five to ten minutes,” and adds, the Examen “just helps me slow down for a few minutes and reflect.” In today’s chaotic 24/7 world, this is sound spiritual counsel. My prayer is that modern day disciples, myself included, see the Examen as an easy, brief, and fruitful way to heed Miller’s advice. Then “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
Marcia Hotchkiss is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and co-founder of The Abbey on Lovers Lane (abbeyonlovers.org). Marcia recently co-authored Hope-Peace-Love-Joy: An Advent Devotional. She is a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.