The Examen of St. Ignatius — a practical spiritual exercise, and it’s not just for Jesuits

Found while I was Googling spiritual direction — a daily prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola called the Examination of Conscience, or, more commonly, the Examen. It’s practical (something I hadn’t associated with prayer before!), and it helps me fall asleep at night. Here’s a simplified version on the Jesuits’ website on Ignatian Spirituality:

1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.
2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life.
3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.
4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?
5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific, and conclude with the “Our Father.”

Another website, put up by Xavier University in Cincinatti, defines the Examen as “an opportunity for peaceful daily reflective prayer. It invites us to find the movement of God in all the people and events of our day. The Examen is simply a set of introspective prompts for you to follow or adapt to your own character and spirit.”

Cool! But how does that help me get to sleep at night?

I hadn’t expected it to do that, but it seems to work. I’ve tried praying the Examen several times now — and I think if nothing else, it gives me something constructive to think about instead of rehashing the day’s indignities, wondering what President Trump is going to tweet about next or worrying about future events I have no control over.

It’s upbeat, too, and it’s oriented to action. Practical, is the word I’d use. An unsigned webpage on the Xavier University website suggests we begin with “aware[ness] that you are in the presence of the Holy.” And thanksgiving. “What am I especially grateful for in the past day[?]” As we review the day, it suggests these points:

Where have I felt true joy today?
What has troubled me today?
What has challenged me today?
Where and when did I pause today?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?

“In light of my review,” the Xavier webpage asks, “what is my response to the God of my life?” So far, so good. But that’s not all of it. A final prompt titled “A Look Ahead” asks:

As I look ahead, what comes to mind?
With what spirit do I want to enter tomorrow?

Like I said, this is practical stuff.

And upbeat. Even the part about troubles and challenges is oriented to doing better tomorrow.

In a post linked to his Facebook page, Father James Martin, editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America, summarizes the Examen and adds, “You may have sinned today or done something you regret. Express your sorrow to God and ask for forgiveness. If it’s a grave sin, pray about seeking forgiveness from the person offended, or the sacrament of reconciliation (confession).” Most non-Catholics don’t think of confession as a sacrament, but it isn’t specific to any one faith tradition or ethical system. Nor is forgiveness.

Anyone who has worked a 12-step recovery program will recognize the process at work in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. And Luther’s Small Catechism includes daily prayers asking God in the morning to “keep me this day also from sin and all evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee” and in the evening to “forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night.” The order is a little different, but I think it’s the same cycle of sin, sorrow and redemption.

In his Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), Father Martin says, “Reflecting on your sinfulness sounds like an unhealthy outgrowth of the stereotypical Catholic emphasis on guilt.” (89) Or Lutheran. Or a “bleeding deacon” in AA. But in fact, it’s anything but guilt-tripping.

Instead, the Examen of St. Ignatius is what they said it is at Xavier University, a “set of introspective prompts” designed to help us “find the movement of God in all the people and events of our day.”

Also, did I mention it’s practical?

I hadn’t realized this — my knowledge of the Catholic orders has been pretty much limited to the Ursuline sisters and the Dominicans — but Jesuits pride themselves on a “practical spirituality.” Father Martin repeats a joke:

… a Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit [are] celebrating Mass together when the lights suddenly go out in the church. The Franciscan praises the chance to live more simply. The Dominican gives a learned homily on how God brings light to the world. The Jesuit goes to the basement to fix the fuses. (2)

In this spirit, he quotes one of his theology professors. Sin, he says, is often “a failure to bother.” He adds:

This insight can help you see where you failed to respond to God’s invitation in your day. Where did you fail to bother? Where could you have been more loving? … You could have, but you didn’t — you failed to bother. This is a new way of meditating on what theologians call “sins of omission.” (89-90)

Coulda, shoulda, didn’t. I could have, but I didn’t — I failed to bother: That speaks to me. My main reason for seeking spiritual direction, remember, was because I was feeling stuck. Writer’s block, sloth, call it what you will. After just a few days, I don’t claim any deep knowledge of Jesuit spirituality, or the Examen, but I’m beginning to sense that over time it can develop into a valuable tool for getting unstuck.

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