A few years ago I started to pray using the Examen of St. Ignatius Loyola. Everything changed for me. Prayer took on a new, refreshing character. I became an evangelist for the Examen.
I buttonholed friends, wrote blog posts and a book, and recorded guided Examens on the Internet. I did everything I could to spread the news about this way of praying.
All of this almost didn’t happen. For years I had occasionally heard people talk about the Examen as a good way to pray. But I wasn’t interested, because I thought they were talking about the examination of conscience.
This is the inventory of sins that I was taught to do as a boy in Catholic schools in the 1960s. The examination of conscience is very useful, but I never liked it very much. I certainly didn’t think of it as “prayer,” in the sense of a practice that would help me connect with God. When people talked about the Examen, this is what I thought they meant. I wasn’t interested.
Then I learned that the Examen is not the old examination of conscience. Quite the opposite. The Examen is a prayer that focuses on God’s presence in the real world. It looks to a God who is near, present in my world, and active in my life. It told me to approach prayer with gratitude, not guilt. It helped me find God in my life as I lived it, not in some heavenly realm beyond space and time. The Examen had me take myself seriously, as I am, not as I wished I was or thought I could be someday if I worked hard enough.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Examen changed everything. It might change things for you, too.
God in everyday events
There’s nothing complicated or mysterious about making the Examen part of your life. The subject matter of the Examen is your life — specifically the day you have just lived through. The Examen looks for signs of God’s presence in the events of the day — lunch with a friend, a walk in the park, a kind word from a colleague, a challenge met, a duty discharged. The Examen likes the humdrum. God is present in transcendent “spiritual” moments, but he’s also there when you cook dinner, write a memo, answer email and run errands.
The Examen looks at your conscious experience. The ebb and flow of your moods and feelings are full of spiritual meaning. Nothing is so trivial that it’s meaningless. What do you think about while sitting in traffic or waiting in a long line at the grocery store? What’s your frame of mind while doing boring and repetitive chores? You’ll be surprised at how significant such moments can be when you really look at them.
I was surprised. But then, on reflection, the Examen made intuitive sense. I am God’s creature living in God’s world; of course, God would be present in my everyday experience. If prayer is making a connection with God, it makes perfect sense to spend some time finding God in my conscious experience of daily life.
Five hundred years ago, St. Ignatius Loyola designed the Examen to sustain and extend the intense experience of conversion to the cause of Christ that’s advanced in his book “The Spiritual Exercises.” He saw the Examen as a way to develop a reflective habit of mind that is constantly attuned to God’s presence and responsive to God’s leading.
Questions and an answer
I told my friends about my discovery. It wasn’t long before one of them injected a skeptical note. “Why is sifting through our memories of the past 24 hours a sound way to pray?” she asked. Our memories aren’t reliable. She told me a story about discovering that something she remembered very vividly never happened at all. She pointed out that we all filter our memories through our preconceptions and desires. She thought the Examen sounded very self-centered. What’s to keep it from becoming a play starring myself as the hero of a one-person show?
Good questions. The “theological” answer is that God really is present in our world. He is here, not up there. God’s project of saving our world involves God becoming personally caught up in the lives his creatures lead. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation — the fact that the God who created men and women is personally involved in their lives because he is human as well as divine.
Personal is the key word. God is a community of three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and the relationship we have with God is a personal one as well. The word for it is friendship, says the Jesuit spiritual director William Barry. Nothing in our lives is so insignificant that it doesn’t deserve God’s attention. In fact, the mundane and the humdrum parts of our lives give depth and texture to the relationship with God. The Examen focuses on God as present in our human experience. This is part of our relationship with God. It’s not the whole of it, but it’s a vital part of it.
The other argument for the Examen is a practical one. This is what sold me. The Examen helped solve some problems that I was having with prayer, problems that aren’t uncommon. Here are several:
Where is God? Often God seemed remote. That changed when I started praying the Examen and found God present in my everyday experience.
What do I pray about? I would grow tired of praying about the same things over and over. I’d try to meditate, but I’d draw a big mental blank, what Frank Sheed called “drifting in a pious coma.” To the question, “What do I pray about?” the Examen answers, “Everything.” Every encounter, every challenge, every disappointment, every delight is a place where God can be found.
Let’s pretend. This is the most insidious problem — the inclination to put on a good face when we pray. For years I prayed when I felt virtuous; I avoided it when I felt guilty or ashamed or defeated, which meant that I didn’t pray very much for long stretches.
The Examen is a excellent way to be honest in prayer. We review our day in the loving light of Christ precisely to strip away facades and correct self-delusions. It helps us say, “Here I am, Lord, warts and all.”
‘The Christian problem’
How are Christians different? A friend of mine, writer Chris Lowney, calls this “the Christian problem.” Our lives look pretty much the same as everyone else’s. We bob along on a river of emails, meetings, housework, errands, commuting and to-do lists. Believers of other faiths usually have outward signs of religious identity. Christians have few of these, because Jesus was more interested in the conditions of our hearts than in external signs of piety.
The answer to the Christian problem is to find God in all things — to see God in what we think, do and feel; in life with family, friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances; in our busyness and our rest. That’s what the Examen does. That’s why I call it the prayer that changes everything.
Jim Manney is the author of “The Prayer that Changes Everything: Discovering the Power of St. Ignatius Loyola's Examen” (Loyola Press, $9.95). He lives in Michigan.