Many of us, especially those whose spirituality is Ignatian, engage in a daily Examen – a process of prayerfully reflecting on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.
As we approach the end of the year, you might consider a year-end look back at this past year. Adapted from a common method of doing a daily examen, this method was posted on the Ignatian Spirituality website. It might provide fruitful prayer over the next couple of days.
Step One: Become aware of God’s presence.
One way of doing this is to ask the Holy Spirit to help you review the year with a holy perspective—with wisdom, grace, and faith. Ask for the grace to tear yourself away from your own patterns of thinking and seeing so that you can see your life more as God sees it. Of course you will see your failings—but God sees you as a beloved daughter or son who has a future and a hope. Of course you will see your accomplishments—but God sees your deeper self, the person behind all the activity, a person made in God’s image.
Step Two: Review the year with gratitude.
As you use this holy perspective to review the year, pay attention to the good gifts from the year ending. Name specifically those that come to memory now, and thank God for them.
Step Three: Pay attention to your emotions.
Think over the year again, and notice your emotional reactions. What memories speak most loudly to you? What events, conversations, relationships, or activities bring up the most emotion now, as you remember them? Ask God to help you linger with these emotions, whether they are pleasant or disturbing. Ask for help in understanding why you feel as you do. What can you learn about yourself or about your situation as you dwell in your emotional responses?
Step Four: Choose one feature of the year and pray from it.
While you are lingering with your memories and emotions, settle on one feature. Perhaps it is a single event, or maybe it’s a pattern of your own behavior that has come to mind as you reviewed the year. Whatever it is that has emerged, allow it to fuel your prayer. Don’t worry about the many other aspects of the year that you could think about right now; stay with the one thing that has come to you with the most power and pray from those thoughts and emotions.
Step Five: Look toward the new year.
Imagine what challenges and blessings might await you in the coming year. Think of important relationships, major (and minor) decisions to be made, skills to learn, habits to build, healing to seek, good work to accomplish. Make a simple list of highlights—matters that you expect to take prominence in your life in the new year. Bring them to God now, and ask for the graces you will need.
End your prayer, thanking God for love and life and holy possibilities.
I’ve shared before different versions of a daily Examen.
Louis Savary’s The New Spiritual Exercises in the Spirit of Pierre Teillhard de Chardin includes a Thanksgiving Examen. The Examen, which is meant to be done at the end of each day (though it can be done more frequently) has five steps. Here is how Savary lays them out:
1. To give thanks in general to God our Lord for the benefits received in your life, in others, and in the world today.
2. To ask for grace to recognize all those particular things that happened to you and others that you should personally be grateful for.
3. To take account of your day from the hour that you arose up to the present time, hour by hour, or period by period: first your good thoughts, ideas, and intentions; then your good words spoken and heard; and then good acts, your actions and those of others, small or large, that positively touched your life or the life of someone else. Record these in your journal.
4. To praise and thank Go our Lord for all the opportunities you had to make a difference in the world today and to inspire you to recognize more and more such opportunities in the future.
5. To thank God for all God has done for you, and to ask yourself: What can I envision doing that would lead me to be even more deeply grateful? Close with an Our Father.
Whether or not your daily prayer currently includes an Examen, you might consider giving this one a try.
This morning I expanded my daily Examen to spend some time looking back over this past year, which seemed fitting on this New Year’s Eve. I also spent time considering the year ahead.
My prayer reminded me that last year on this day I posted a year-end examen invitation. Here it is again:
Tomorrow we begin a new year. Even if your daily prayer includes some form of Examen, it is worthwhile to take some time today to reflect back on the events and experiences of this past year. Here are some questions to prompt your reflection:
What have been the most grace-filled moments over the last year? What were the experiences for which you are most grateful?
What have been some of the challenges or causes of tension for you this past year? How good a job did you do facing those challenges?
What is on the horizon that you think requires some particular care and attention?
Pay attention to the feelings that arise in your heart as you review the events of this past year. Perhaps your review of this period has led you to remember an encounter with a colleague or a friend that led you to feel joy or consolation in the recognition that you were in the right place at the right time. Or perhaps you find yourself remembering a conversation or event that left you angry or frustrated. Maybe you experience pain as you remember a messy situation you didn’t handle as well as you might have.
As you review the feelings that surface in your heart during the review of these months: try to identify which of those feelings most catch your attention or stirs your heart most deeply, and ask what is it about the incident that creates such strong feelings. As you reflect on the experience, simply speak the prayer that arises in your heart.
We are all familiar with Paul’s claim in Galatians that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” It is one of those line that expresses simply and beautifully my aspiration, and so I was touched the other day when someone posted this piece from Max Lucado, Next Door Savior. It gives beautiful content to Paul’s line:
To have my voice, but Him speaking
My Steps, but Christ leading
My heart, but His love beating
in me, through me, with me
What’s it like to have Christ on the inside?
To tap His strength when mine expires
or feel the force of heaven’s fires
raging, purging wrong desires
Could Christ become my entire self?
So much Him, so little me
that in my eyes it’s Him they see
What’s it like to a Mary be?
No longer I, but Christ in me.
The lines offer both a nice reflection on aspiration and a tool for an examen as we look back over this past week and consider where I have and have not been “so much Him, so little me.”
We know that God is always in conscious relationship with us, constantly communicating with us through the daily experiences of our lives. Yet, although we encounter God in every moment of our existence, we are not always aware of that encounter.
Today I offered a mini-retreat for our incoming law students, as part of our Orientation Week. The topic was Finding God in All Things. I talked about ways of becoming more aware of the presence of God in our lives and developing our conscious relationship with this self-communicating God. I shared two prayer forms with them (although the second only briefly) and led them in a guided meditation – a form of the Examen.
Our goal is to become “contemplatives in action,” people who are alert to God’s presence in all of our daily activities – even in the midst of a hectic law school schedule. My hope is that by incorporating a daily examen into their prayers, my students will be able to do exactly that.
You can access a recording of my reflection here or stream it from the icon below. It includes a guided meditation on a shortened version of an examen. (The podcast runs for 29:43.)
Like many stepped in the Ignatian tradition, my daily prayer includes an Examen, a means of prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence.
I don’t know if George Eliot prayed the Examen, but her poem, Count That Day Lost offers a simple examination of our day.
If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.
But if, through all the livelong day,
You’ve cheered no heart, by yea or nay —
If, through it all
You’ve nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face —
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost —
Then count that day as worse than lost.
I pray we may all sit down at the end of today and count the day well spent.
As I’ve said before, part of my daily prayer is the Examen, a way of prayerfully reflecting on the events of one’s day in order to detect God’s presence.
One of the important parts of the examen is to review one’s day in thanksgiving, to, as Dennis Hamm, S.J. explains it, “[w]alk through the past 24 hours, from hour to hour, from place to place, task to task, person to person, thanking the Lord for every gift you encounter.”
When I was first taught the examen, it was suggested to me that Ignatius encouraged us to be quite specific in articulating those things for which we are grateful. The idea is to give thanks for all of the blessings of the day….down to very little things like a cool breeze on a hot day, or the taste of jam on our toast.
Parts of my hike yesterday, particularly those where I was in the sun, were really hot. It didn’t take long before my t-shirt was quite wet from the sweat. It was the kind of heat that makes breathing difficult.
But then at one point, I turned into a shaded area and it was as though I had stepped into an air conditioned room. Cool air bathed my body and I stood there with my eyes closed enjoying the respite from the heat.
I gave thanks for many things yesterday. Gorgeous vistas. The singing of the birds. The feel of pine needles beneath my feet. The water jets against my muscles in the hot tub of the B&B in which we are staying. A good meal and a nice glass of wine at the end of a long day. And last, but certainly not least, a cool breeze on a hot day. Thank you, God!
Yesterday was the beginning of 2012. Although many of us engage in a daily examen, many look upon the beginning of the new year as a time to reflect on the past. A time to take stock of where we’ve been and to reflect on what changes we might like to see in ourselves.
This can be a superficial exercise. We can vow to lose those extra pounds…a vow we’re sure to forget before January if half over. We can vow to go to the gym more frequently. And certainly eating better and getting more exercise are valuable things.
But we can also reflect on a much deeper level. I shared once before some questions someone gave me that had been prepared for Elul, the time in the Jewish calendar that is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I share them here again because they offer a valuable tool for both reflecting back over the past year and thinking about what we want the new year to look like.
What have been the happiest and most gratifying parts of this past year? In what areas have I acted as my best self? Which of my current habits or behaviors to I want to bring with me into the coming year?
What have been the most painful or difficult moments of the past year? When have been the times that I have not acted as I would have hoped? Which of my current habits or behaviors would I like to modify or leave behind in the years to come?
What are the relationships in my life of which I am most proud? The ones that feel most painful? What would it take to create change in these relationships in the coming year? Who are the people that I most need to ask for forgiveness?
You can think of many other questions to add, but hopefully this gives you a good start. Whatever particular questions you use, spend some time reflecting on particular things that did or did not go as well with respect to your relationship with others, with God and with yourself. And out of that reflection will doubtless come one or two concrete directions for change that you might want to ask God’s grace in effectuating during the coming year.
Part of my daily prayer is to engage in an examen of consciousness, a prayer in which we try to find the movement of the Spirit in our daily lives. This was a prayer that was very important to St. Ignatius and he encouraged all of his followers to make it a part of their daily prayer. (In fact, he asked his Jesuit companions to pray it twice each day.)
I have been including this as part of my daily prayer for at least eight years. There are many methods of doing this prayer; the one I generally do is the one described in this article by Dennis Hamm, S.J., which originally appeared in America magazine. I find it a very helpful part of my day.
During the closing liturgy of a day of retreat and reflection I gave the other day, the priest explained to us a short form of the examen that he uses with his high school students. They do this just before lunch each day. I share it because it seems to me that whether or not one includes a longer examen at the end of each day, this would be a worthwhile exercise to engage in during a break in the middle of our day. His short-form examen has three parts:
Step 1: How do you feel right now? Get in touch with what the feeling is and give it a number from 1-10.
Step 2: Why do you feel that way? What are one or two things that are contributing to the way you are feeling right now? The priest described this as “putting flesh on the number” given in step 1.
Step 3: P&P – praise and petition, or simply – prayer. Pray whatever prayer seems right, whatever you want to say to God given what came up in Steps 1 and 2. Perhaps gratitude…perhaps a plea for some help. Whatever it is, share with God what is going on in you and what you need.
That’s quick and easy enough to work into a mid-day break. Try it.