There are many different approaches to praying the examen. St. Ignatius described his approach in the Spiritual Exercises and other spiritual directors have developed their own approaches and forms of presenting the examen in their work. Still others add their own personal or unique elements to praying the examen.
Below, I humbly offer my own approach to praying the examen that I’ve used in the past four months. I don’t claim to be an expert. I only offer what has worked for me in my own personal experience and what I’ve picked up from what books and websites. Likewise, you should find your own path to examining your day and finding God within it. I hope these suggestions will help you along the path to that discovery.
This version of the examen is based largely on the Ignatian Examen as it first appeared in the Spiritual Exercises. I use the word “movements” rather than “steps” because I feel that this prayer is more effective when it is seen as something fluid rather than mechanical. Ignatius called them “points” suggesting this idea of movement through this exercise. Each movement contains a powerful habit that should fill up each part of our day and does when we let it.
Preparing to Pray the Examen
- Sit down.
- Find a quiet spot for reflecting.
- Grab a journal if you like to write.
- Take a few deep breaths and get ready to pray.
How to Pray the Examen
- Movement 1: Thanksgiving
- Movement 2: Guidance
- Movement 3: Review
- Movement 4: Grace
- Movement 5: Resolution
Movement 1: Give Thanks to God
We begin the daily examen by giving thanks to God for the gifts he has given us. The recognition of what God has done for us is a crucial element and the ultimate cause for all prayer. It helps us to see our proper place in the world and recognize that God is with us.
We have a tendancy to spend most of our time in prayer asking for things. We have certain needs and petitions that we bring to God for answers and help. But giving thanks first helps to orient ourselves toward faith.
When we give thanks we recognize that God does really care. He does answer prayers. He is already with us throughout the day. He knows our needs and he addresses them.
This act of thanksgiving also puts us in a better position to review our days. If we look for things to be thankful for even on the bad days, the review becomes much more productive. The more we focus on the bad, the less we will be able to see God’s true presence in our lives throughout the day.
How to give thanks:
I usually write down 3-4 bullet points of things–specific or general–that I am thankful for. Often these are things that happened in a particular day, but they can also be thanksgiving for the people in my life or the opportunity to live my life in a certain way whether it be through a career, a home, a relationship, etc.
Movement 2: Ask the Holy Spirit for Guidance
One of the most powerful parts of the examen is the reliance on God rather than our own ability to review the day. Before spending the time recalling the events of your day, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance to recall the moments that you need to remember the most. Ask for help in seeing God’s presence in your day.
When I first started to pray the examen, I sometimes forgot this step. I rushed to the review (movement 3) excited to think about and journal through my day. But the whole point of the examen is to allow God to reveal things to you, not to just remember the moments of your day you think were most interesting.
When you ask for God’s help, he will show you the events of the day that have the most significance for now. His vision of the day will be much more effective in prayer than ours. After all, the purpose of the examen is to understand God’s will in our lives, not celebrate our own preoccupation with our desires.
Movement 3: Review Your Day
When most people think of the Prayer of Examen, they think of the review. After all, it is called an “examination” and it is the day that we examine, right?
This is mostly true. The events of the day are exactly what we focus on in the examen, but this powerful form of prayer is not meant to be just a recap of the day.
Like most guys, I love ESPN’s SportCenter. In one hour, you get all the best highlights and analysis of the previous day’s sporting events. For all the major match-ups, we get to see the best and most significant plays, points, and scores.
Don’t make the examen a highlight reel of your day. The Holy Spirit will guide you to remember and meditate upon some of the seemingly most inconsequential events of your day. Remember that in the second movement you asked for the Spirit’s guidance. Don’t try to ignore that request!
If waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit sounds complex or if it scares you, you’re thinking too hard. St. Ignatius instructed us to ask for an “account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period.” You’ll find your mind latching on to key events, conversations, thoughts, and feelings that you may or may not have seen to be significant at the time. Although it came from your mind, this is the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Let yourself be led.
Don’t forget that as similar as it may be to personal reflection, simply reflecting on events is not the goal of the examen. The examen is not a beefed-up version of reflective journaling. During this prayer, we ask for God’s guidance. We ask for revelation, not reflection. We ask for God to be with us as we review our day and show us where we might have missed him.
This movement is a practice of receiving, not reflecting. We receive God’s vision of the day.
The best part is, we don’t have to force it. Our will to review the day and our request for God’s guidance will lead us to receive his revelation. These revelations may be simple and less than profound thoughts. That is the beauty of revelation. That is the beauty of the incarnation.
How to Review the Day:
And if you are like me, you need to write these things down. Use a journal if it helps you.
Find the themes and connections. You’ll start to see certain themes and messages in your day. Consistent feelings come up in a given day. You’ll be able to make connections between your work in the morning and a conversation with your spouse. These are the areas that need grace. These are the weaknesses that need to be filled by God’s grace. These are the areas we need to work on with God in the movements ahead.
Movement 4: Ask for God’s Grace and Forgiveness
Having encountered God in our day, how else should we respond but to ask for a further outpouring of his grace to live out his will in the time ahead. This is a turning point. We have recieved God’s gifts and thanked him. We have examined our day and our internal encounter with the world around us and God’s presence in it. He has shown us himself in our days.
Now we look forward. Now we ask for his presence in our lives in the time ahead. We ask for the grace of forgiveness and mercy for the wrongs we have done. We seek God’s protection from the evils before us. We recognize that a life lived without him is a life not worth living at all.
Movement 5: Resolution
Finally, with God’s guidance and grace we make a commitement to change. We make an about-turn in our lives with the firm resolution to change what has just been pardoned. We look to the future and we commit to a life of Christ.
Having looked back on our day, God has shown us areas for growth. We can now look ahead with the assurance of his help and commit to a new way of living.
Now that we have seen the parts of our day that God wants us to remember. We push forward into the days ahead. We look for change in the way we live our lives to make God’s will united with our own will. With the help of God’s grace, we can embrace and push through our weaknesses and cultivate our strengths.