TO GET TO MY MISSION territory, I only have to walk down the hall from where I live in a college dorm. St. Isaac Jogues had to paddle the rivers of present-day Canada and New York to get to his mission lands, but in many ways, I think it is more difficult to get into and be noticed in the territory to which I am sent: the minds, hearts, and imaginations of young adults. Overseeing university ministries at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, I and other campus ministers must search for ways to get today’s 18- to 21-yearolds’ souls open to God’s action in their lives. One canoe that may get us there is a short spiritual exercise made famous by St. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises: the Examen.
Practice Makes Perspective
The Examen involves a review of one’s day, listening for where God was present and active in the past 12 to 24 hours. From international service trips to weekly Thursday night meetings, University of Scranton students are finding the 10- to 15-minute Examen doable, transformative, and comprehensible. St. Ignatius championed this form of prayer and counseled this was the one spiritual exercise that should never be left aside. In order to make this prayer even more accessible, I offer this description of the traditional five steps of the Examen: 1) the prayer to the Spirit for inspiration, 2) thanksgiving, 3) examination of consciousness, 4) firm resolve to improve, and 5) trust and hope for the future.
As Michael Sacco, director of the Center for Student Formation at Boston College, noted in a presentation to campus ministers from Jesuit universities and colleges across the country, what we ask students to do (slow down, be attentive, be reflective, and be conscious about their choices) is quite alien to the culture in which they are immersed. Constant texting and tweeting, flashing images, and video games militate against the deep human need to pause, think, pray, and choose wisely and well. The Examen can serve as an antidote to the spiritual maladies of our age.
Paralleling St. Ignatius’ five steps, I have developed the five “P”s of the Examen—presence, praise, process, penance, promise—in order to make this prayer even more accessible.
Stop. Breathe. Be here now. Let the sense of the nearness of God settle into your consciousness. We spend so much of our thoughts on worries and plans for what comes next that just to stop the rush of 21stcentury living for a minute or two is refreshing, relaxing, and rejuvenating. Being aware of God’s presence settles us. We know once again that God loves us and is near and with us. God is interested and concerned with who we are and how we are doing. God gives us all we have, all we are, all we ever will have, and all we ever will be. Realizing and relishing this loving God’s presence fills us with peace and a subtle, all-pervasive joy that can be accessed despite any trials and tribulations of the day.
This calling to awareness of who God is and how God is there for us ushers forth in praise. I emphasize praise over thanks. You praise someone who does something significant for you, not just simply thank him or her. If someone pulls you from a burning building, you say more than thanks. You tell everyone you know what a brave and wonderful person the firefighter is. Too often we all can take for granted the gifts God gives us: life, health, talents and abilities, family and friends, decent work, and, most important, time.
Just taking time once or twice a day to praise the God who makes our lives possible and pleasant is a practice that maintains sanity and perspective.
What’s going on in your consciousness? What have you been thinking about these past 12 or 24 hours since you last made an Examen? Just note and track your thoughts and emotions: What insights, worries, joys, fears, hopes, imaginings are running around in your head? How do you feel?
Are you obsessing about things that really don’t matter or over which you have no control? Stop! Freely and consciously, take a minute and ask: What do I want to think about this day? What am I thinking about today? Instead of running over and over in your head what you should have said to that person in some trivial argument yesterday, consciously choose to think about what is real and meaningful in your life. Father Rick Curry, SJ, bakes bread in the evening and makes his Examen as he kneads the dough. As he folds and presses the mass of flour, water, and yeast, he says, “I ask myself, where have I been part of the solution, and where have I been part of the problem?”
How’s your relationship with yourself? Are you doing what you want to be doing in ways both small (getting exercise, eating right) and large (How are my spouse and kids? How do I feel about my work? How am I spending my time?)?
Most important, ask, “What do I really desire?” If you find yourself constantly daydreaming about opening a school in the inner city or starting a small business to employ people in your town or moving back home to help an elderly parent, maybe you are being led by the Spirit of God to pursue those paths.
The Examen opens us to the transformative grace of God. Thomas Aquinas taught that grace is the ability to do what one could not do before. During the Examen we root around in our stream of consciousness and find where lurks the desire to smoke or drink too much or to act out sexually or overspend, and we can strategize on how to choose what we really want and not what we find ourselves falling into (see Rom 7:21–25).
The remedy to addictive and compulsive tendencies is to open our hearts to the freedom with which God wants to grace us. Richard Rohr, in his book Everything Belongs, says freedom isn’t doing whatever we want; real freedom is deeply desiring to do what we should and need to do.
Freedom comes as we begin charting the desolations and consolations of our daily existence. Consolation is what is moving me toward God, toward living happy and healthy and holy and free. We know we are in consolation when we realize what fills us with energy and enthusiasm, joy, and justice. Desolation is what worries, frustrates, and diverts us from the goal of transformation in Christ. We know we are in desolation when there is a certain restlessness, listlessness, an “Is this all there is to life?” tone and texture in our soul.
Desolation may be caused by our not living up to the demands of discipleship. Desolation is not always disagreeable, and consolation is not always comfortable. Parents doing the hard work of disciplining and loving a recalcitrant teenager may not seem to be at peace, but they are in consolation.
To know true consolation, we need to know our deepest, truest desires. The Examen can become the habitual work of discernment, paying attention to where we are moving and what is moving us in our relationship to God, others, and our deepest, truest selves.
Ask God to reveal to you if there is anything that needs tweaking in your life or if there are major roadblocks that need to be worked on and removed. And then take one aspect of life that is a bit offtrack and strategize on how to rectify direction in the next 12 or 24 hours. Really doing something is the goal here. Do I need to reconcile with someone? Resolve to write a letter in the next 24 hours. Am I watching too much TV? Plan a trip to the library to get a good book. Not getting to prayer each day? Resolve at least to make the Examen!
Doing penance frees up the frozen corners of our souls. Actually doing some small thing can set in motion larger, positive dynamics. Something as simple as getting to bed on time and getting the rest we need can make us calmer, happier, and saner. Penance is not an exercise in beating up on ourselves for all our faults and failures. Real repentance is like coaching. Corrections help us play the game better.
Life rushes along at warp speed. “Don’t just do something; stand there” should be the mantra of those who make the Examen. We need to stop and “name and claim” what is happening in our lives. God’s promise is that we will have life and have it to the full.
How is life today, at this moment? We can name what God is doing for us and claim the movement toward God in our lives: I am less annoyed with a certain person than I was last week. I really have gotten to writing that novel I’ve always dreamed about. I am getting to daily Mass in Lent. We can trust God’s promise that such small, seemingly insignificant choices snowball into the meaning and transformation of our lives.
Ask for God to give you what you need. St. Ignatius said we should demand the graces we desire from God. Asking for the grace makes us more open to our actually appropriating the power of God’s love and justice in our lives.
It’s Your Choice
Ignatian spirituality is a method of weighing and making choices: What am I choosing today and why? Am I growing in freedom in what I choose? Do my choices leave me satisfied and joyful or anxious and distraught? It’s not a deal of “choose or lose.” To not choose is a choice. The Examen is taking time to really think about and ask for the help of God’s grace in our choices.
There is no “proper” way to practice the Examen. Some people like to sit in a chapel. Some turn off the radio and pray the Examen as they drive home from work. Some people pray the Examen in the shower. Some make the Examen before going to sleep. However and wherever you pray the Examen, God will find you and guide you.
On an international service trip to Guyana, University of Scranton student leaders Cara Brindley and Rob Gadomski reflected on their daily experiences using the age-old Jesuit method of the Examen. Returning to campus, with the help of Sister Carol Tropiano, RSM, they organized a weekly gathering of students who desired to live more according to the spirituality of St. Ignatius. At 9:45 p.m., students gather in a small chapel to let God show them who they are and where they are going. Some of them shared the benefits this practice has had on them.
“I look forward to the Examen every week because in spending that quiet 20 minutes alone with God, I begin to see more clearly how God has been influencing my life throughout the past week, and I become more aware of his plans for me in the future.”—Cara Brindley
“The Examen for me is a time to relax and unwind from the craziness of daily life. I often forget to take time during the week, excluding Sunday Mass, to just stop and think and also hold a conversation with God. The Examen helps me do this, and I feel refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to tackle the rest of the week, after I have finished. I would tell other college students that even if you aren’t the most religious person, the Examen still gives you the time to think about yourself as a person. There is so much going on in college life, and it is important to take a step back to recognize where we are and where we hope to go.”—Charlie Magee
“I pray the Examen because ever since I was little, my mom was telling me ‘to see the flowers in the vase and not the dust on the table,’ which basically means to try and find the good in everything. I didn’t understand until I was older that seeing goodness was also seeing God. By praying the Examen, I can reflect on where I saw God that day and thank him for presenting himself to me in my life.”—Ali Holden
“I pray the Examen because it allows me to become a witness to the immeasurable ways in which God showers his grace and love on me throughout the day. I become aware of my true self with all its faults and yearnings, and I continually strive to be more than what I am now.”—Danny Satterfield
“The Examen has helped me to find gratitude in many aspects of the day. Although each day in itself is different, it points me to specific areas that are either wonderful in their nature or are in need of a change or second look. Many times I have come before the Lord in guilt that I did not use my gifts to the best of my ability throughout the day, but in contemplating the Examen, the positives become clearer. The presence of God also becomes clearer in the memories of the day. I understand that grace is a gift, but I do believe that the Examen can be looked at as a form of grace. To me it is there to stay close and grateful to our Lord.”—John Mayer