For this reason…we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. (Colossians 1:9)
Rose and Thorn…Yo and Woe…Crown and Frown…Ruby and Rock
Known by many modern names, the examen was first introduced by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius’ daily exercise taught his brothers to find God in all things, making them (and us) “aware of moments that at first we might easily pass by as insignificant, moments that ultimately can give direction for our lives.” (Dennis Linn)
Often referred to as the Examination of Consciousness, this small prayer can be practiced at the conclusion of a day, a week, a season, or a year. Ignatius described Consolations as those things which connect us with our true selves, God, and others. Desolations, on the other hand, are times when we feel most disconnected. Examen questions can include:
- For what am I most grateful? least grateful?
- When did I give and receive the most love? the least love?
- What was the most life-giving part of my day? the most draining?
- When did I have the deepest sense of connection with God, others, and myself? least?
Socrates said “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Practiced over a period of time, examen helps us to know who we are – and who we are not. It can free us from trying to be all things to all people. For example, when I recognized over time that what drained me most was bookkeeping and computer tasks, I hired an administrative assistant, freeing me to use my gifts in ministry more productively.
Examen can also be a useful tool for discernment. Several times when people have come for spiritual direction or counsel concerning a job change or a new vocation, I’ve suggested that they practice examen every day for a month, recording their responses in a simple journal. Their insights help identify what it is about their current situation that is holding them back and what they might be desiring in a new situation.
Examen can also be a useful way of reflecting with others on what God is saying to us through a project, a class, a service project, a relationship or conflict. Imagine the deeper conversation sparked by these questions, compared to “How was your day?” Teach your children the practice of finding God in their daily lives by playing “I Spy God.” At the dinner table, invite each family member to share their consolation/desolation (or “rose and thorn” from the day.)
Those with melancholic tendencies may find that while the day’s low points are obvious, the examen encourages them to look for life-giving moments that otherwise may have been missed in the midst of busyness or stress. Those naturally inclined to optimism may need the examen to help them face difficult issues they might prefer to ignore or avoid. Recognizing the things that bring us death and life, both low and high points, are invitations to prayer.
Prayerfully reflect on your activities of the previous day/week/year. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring to your mind those things which might provide insight or which need to be revisited for some reason. While it is true that God is present at each moment, you are seeking to notice those events, encounters, inner experiences, and activities in which the ever-present reality of God was especially real and apparent. Then ask yourself two questions:
- When/where/with whom did I experience love, grace, a sense of God’s presence? What gave me life and energy?
Thank God for these moments of grace.
We thank you, O God, for your great and wonderful blessings given to us so freely. We thank you for the world in which we live, for the tasks you have given us to perform, and especially for the people with whom you have surrounded us. Give us eyes to see your manifold blessings and hearts to rejoice in these great gifts. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ who is himself your greatest gift to us. Amen.
- When/where/with whom did I feel unloved, lacking a sense of God’s presence? What drained me of life-giving energy?
Look for those instances in which you failed to live up to your calling by what you did or by what you failed to do. If necessary, ask God and/or others for forgiveness.
Enter my heart, O Holy Spirit, come in blessed mercy and set me free. Throw open, O Lord, the locked doors of my mind; cleanse the chambers of my thought for thy dwelling: light these the fires of thine own holy brightness in new understandings of truth, O Holy Spirit, very God, whose presence is liberty, grant me the perfect freedom to be thy servant today, tomorrow, evermore. Amen*
- What did you discover about yourself?
- How can this self-awareness help you choose a healthier, God-directed life?
Suggested resources on examen:
Sleeping with Bread by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn is a simple but significant book that describes various ways in which the prayer of examen is helpful and practical in many situations. Highly recommended.
Another excellent resource is Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Calhoun.
*Prayers written by Eric Milner-Whte (1884-1964) from the Oxford Book of Prayer, p. 504.