The Examen

Ann Boyd

Each evening, sometime between turning off the kitchen lights and sinking my head into my pillow, I spend a few minutes with my journal, sifting through the events of the day: a lovely conversation with an old college friend, a frustrating encounter with my health insurance provider, an uncomfortable walk with an overloaded purse, an attack of the giggles over lunch. And though it may look like I’m merely writing down a few things while fighting off a haze of sleepiness, I’m actually practicing one of the only spiritual disciplines I can do faithfully at this point in my life: The Examen.

In the sixteenth century, Saint Ignatius wrote The Spiritual Exercises, instructing his readers in a series of activities to more deeply connect with God. The Examen was one of the most basic, and most important, in this series.

The Examen is a simple way to reflect on your day and become aware of God’s presence in your life. Ignatius expected that God would speak to us through our deepest feelings and longings, through what he called “consolation” and “desolation.” Consolation can be defined as whatever draws you close to God, fills you with life, and makes you feel that all is right in the world. Desolation is its opposite: these are things that pull you away from God, alienate you from yourself and others, and drain life from you. Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn’s classic book Sleeping with Bread offers a delightfully simple version of The Examen, centering the activity around two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?

When we take time to reflect on our days in this way, we increase our sensitivity to the workings of God in our lives. Ignatius believed that by attending to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit through reflection, we allow space for God to shape our souls and direct our lives. In Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality, Margaret Silf considers Saint Ingatius’ vision for his writings on prayer:

The Spiritual Exercises was to become a guide, based entirely on his own experience, on how to become increasingly sensitive to God’s action in our lives, how to discover and live true to the very deepest desires within us, how to make decisions that reflect God’s indwelling presence in the innermost freedom of our hearts, and how to join our lives consciously with the life of Jesus, God-made-man, through the living spirit of the gospel. (xxiii)

I’ve found that practicing the Examen regularly bears fruit in the form of life direction. After even a few weeks of this kind of prayerful reflection, patterns appear and God’s leading becomes clearer. For example, there was a whole season of my life when swimming was almost a daily consolation. Noticing this each day helped me to realize that I needed to keep swimming for soul as well as my body. Several years ago, I noticed that being less-than-adequately prepared for teaching was a consistent experience of desolation, and that gave me the encouragement to build more time in for preparation so that I could fully enjoy my teaching experience.

I appreciate the way practicing The Examen connects my seemingly irrational emotional life with the workings of God. Bringing my emotions before the Lord provides space for his Spirit to minister to me: healing wounded areas, rejoicing in full-of-life moments, and making sense of the path he has me on.

To be totally honest, I rarely look forward to practicing The Examen. I suppose this is why it is a spiritual discipline. The task of wrenching my focus away from washing up after dinner, responding to email, or escaping into a good novel always involves some discomfort. It is jarring to shift into a reflective mode, sifting through the events of the day to remember moments of desolation (like raging my way through traffic) and consolation (perhaps a moment of peaceful quiet while walking to the library). Although the transition to prayer is never easy, I do it anyway, because it is worthwhile. I like how Margaret Silf calls The Examen her “inner compass.” I agree — it is one of the most reliable ways to reorient myself with Jesus and remind myself about why I do all of the things I do.

To begin a practice of The Examen, follow these guidelines:

1. Sit quietly and relax. Light a candle if you’d like.

2. Think back over the last 24 hours and look for your moment of consolation. You can use one of these questions as a guide:

  • For what moment today am I most grateful?
  • What experience of the day felt most life-giving to me?
  • When today did I feel most contented, most like myself?
  • When did I sense God’s presence most fully today?

3. Think again through the last day and look for your moment of desolation. You can use one of these questions as a guide:

  • For what moment today am I least grateful?
  • What experience of the day drained life from me?
  • When today did I feel the most discontented, uncomfortable, and the least like myself?
  • When did God seem absent in my life today?

4. Spend a moment in prayer, thanking God for your consolation, and asking for help with the desolation.

May God bless you on your journey of practicing The Examen.

Ann has worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship since 1997, exploring her interests and gifts in music, teaching, and spiritual formation. She received her bachelor’s in music education from Northwestern University in 1997 and keeps on singing, even if it is just for joy at home. Ann spends free moments working on knitting projects, making homemade ice cream, and going on tandem-bike dates with her husband, Jon. Together, they homeschool their two daughters and write up as much as they can at their blogAnn is the managing editor of The Well.

5 comments

Mary, you ask a good question. It is challenging to find a good time for any spiritual discipline, including the examen. Lately, I have been doing the examen right after my children go to sleep, at about 8:00 pm -- it is nice to use my first minutes of my "free" evening time for this kind of reflection, although I often feel ready to work on some other pressing project instead. At various times in my life, I've done it right before bed (and sometimes I'm falling asleep while writing) or first thing in the morning (and, I agree, it is strange to reflect on the whole previous day in this way). I could imagine a person practicing the examen right after getting home from work, or during a lunch hour or afternoon coffee break. Often there is no ideal time for prayer, but in my experience, God's presence is more vibrant in my life when I commit to practicing the examen regularly -- even just for a few minutes at whatever time in the day is least awkward. God be with you!

Mar 1, 2010 11:50AM by Ann Boyd

This is as good an explanation of and invitation to the examen as I have seen. I find that I always neglect the examen if I leave it to the end of the day, and have no patience for looking backwards at the beginning of the day. Thus I am flummoxed. If any have suggestions, that would be most welcome.

Feb 28, 2010 1:38PM by Mary Keane

Eugenia and Joseph, I'm so encouraged to hear of other people using the Examen to connect with God. Blessings to you!

Feb 27, 2010 8:59PM by Ann Boyd

For the past 2-3 months I have been practicing a modified form of the Examen. Every night while I am in bed I talk with God about my day. I don't write my reflections in a notebook; I simply unload my burdens on God. I believe this practice contributes to a genuine or "real" relationship with Christ. Personally, I believe that it has allowed God to correct my flawed opinions and way of thinking/viewing various issues. It also keeps my spirit clean so that I am better equipped to hear from God and be led by His voice.

Feb 26, 2010 8:55AM by Joseph

Thank you, Ann. I practiced the Examen years ago, and it deepened my understanding of myself and my relationship with God. Your article tugs me back to this discipline.

Feb 24, 2010 2:34PM by Eugenia Brown

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