I was on retreat the first time I heard of the Examen prayer. Leave it up to God to work through others!
I was given a cute little prayer card listing the five traditional steps: 1) Gratitude 2) Petition 3) Review 4) Forgiveness, and 5) Renewal.
If I remember correctly, there were one-line prompts for each step. I thought, “well isn’t this sweet. It will offer an extra accompaniment for the next 24 hours”. Not thinking it would add something significant to my prayer life in the long run. After all, I had my prayer life down; Morning Prayer, Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, Night Prayer. Bamb. I’m good. No need to go deeper; I was deep enough. But not so fast… We all have the capacity to go deeper, to allow God to take us deeper, and the Examen is truly a means for that.
Years after the retreat, I wanted to learn more about the Examen and how to pray it. So, with the Holy Spirit nudging, I dug deeper. With the help of Father Timothy Gallagher’s book, “The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today” here are a few introductory thoughts on incorporating this age-old tradition into your daily prayer.
The Heart of the Examen
I have found the Examen brings about a sensitivity to what God is doing in the present moment. It reveals God’s activity, how he is leading, and guiding you. It also reveals how you accept his nudges and guidance; and how you don’t!
The Examen takes work and time. It is a daily exercise of focused prayer and discernment that will truly teach you how to discern larger things in your life.
“…the root of the practice of the Examen will always be desire: a desire that is an awareness of the immense love of the God who is ever close to us, a desire enkindled within us when we wish to respond daily, a moment by moment, to God’s love, and a desire that is, finally, a gift to be sought in humble and trusting prayer to the God who promises that searching hearts will find their desire (Luke 11:9) (Gallagher).”
How to Pray the Examen
It’s a process, even if you have 10 minutes – get in your focused-place and take it step-by-step and reflect on the activities and dispositions of your heart in the last 24 hours, or the day you’re in.
First Step: Gratitude
“I note the gifts that God’s love has given me this day, and I give thanks to God for them (Gallagher)”
The foundation of the first step is that God is a giving God. He abundantly pours out his love on us. He wants to give us good things. St. Ignatius captures God’s generosity and our inability to receive all of it in his famous quote: “We will much sooner tire of receiving his gifts than he giving them.”
In this step, we contemplate a God who greatly desires to give himself to us. We reflect on God’s generosity and the gifts he has extended recently: what moments, events, answered prayers have blessed you today? We then give thanks to God for everything he has given. By reflecting on all the gifts, we see that it’s actually God giving of himself and his deep love constantly.
Fruits that can come from this step are a realization of how much God loves you and that he is close to you throughout your entire day. He is always present with you and he is always extending gifts. These gifts reflect his overflowing love.
Second Step: Petition
“I ask God for an insight and a strength that will make the Examen a work of grace, fruitful beyond my human capacity alone (Gallagher)”
The second step of the Examen is impacted by our gratitude (first step) and comes out as a petition. We ask God for greater insight into how God is working/worked in our day, particularly in our interior movements. We ask especially for light to know him and strength to respond to him.
More practically, ask God – then wait, in silence as God brings a word, a memory, an insight to mind that points his presence to you.
Fruits that come from this step include acknowledgement of our dependence on God and spiritual insight and clarity.
Third Step: Review
“With my God, I review the day. I look for the stirrings in my heart and the thoughts that God has given me this day. I look also for those that have not been of God. I review my choices in response to both, and throughout the day in general (Gallagher).”
This step has everything to do with being attentive to what happened in your own interior experience throughout the day, i.e., When did you have interior heaviness? When did you have energizing joy? All with the purpose of aligning your heart with the desires of God’s heart.
This step is especially significant because over time you can begin to pinpoint how the Lord works in your life. Based on past experiences you learn to decipher when something is due to a good spirit – God – or bad spirit – satan. Then you move forward based on the promptings of the good spirit and reject the promptings of the bad spirit.
Fourth Step: Forgiveness
“I ask for the healing touch of the forgiveness of God who, with love and respect for me, removes my heart’s burdens (Gallagher).”
This fourth step is a great reminder each day how loved we are and especially how merciful the Father truly is. Even in your time of faults, God loves you more than you love yourself. In this step, you invite God into those places you may have initially rejected him, and ask God for forgiveness.
This step frees us to understand more completely God’s love for us and makes us more available for the deepest of encounters with him.
Fifth Step: Renewal
“I look to the following day and, with God, plan concretely how to live it in accord with God’s loving desire for my life (Gallagher).”
Through the Examen, Saint Ignatius teaches us that we must look back on our lives in order to look forward, particularly by looking back on the movements of the day. You do this solely with the future in mind. In doing this, you see how God’s love was at work in your day and how you did or didn’t respond and how you can do better the following day. So, the final step is all about how we can be more fully in relationship with God tomorrow based on how you did today.
Consider this an Encouragement to go Deeper
They say the Examen will find you. I hope today is the day it officially found you. It is truly an integral part of growth in the spiritual life.
The Examen prayer is completely about your relationship with God. Him revealing his love for you tangibly throughout your day, and you actively receiving him and his presence. Both he and you seeking to reveal your love for one another.
The Examen is our way of being regularly available to God – to hear God’s voice every day. So much can change, so much can be healed. And as this daily journey starts to bear fruit, and cultivate an even greater desire to know God and hear his voice – consider sharing these reflections with a spiritual director as you seek to see these patterns in a broader timeline of your life, or in specific events.