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Sitting in the Side Pew: Conference
The Examen Prayer
- The Benefits of a Daily Examen
- First Step: Thank for Blessings
- Second Step: Ask for Light
- Third Step: Look Over the Day
- Fourth Step: Ask for Forgiveness
- Fifth Step: Renew Commitment
- Conclusion: Practical Tips
The Examen Prayer
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton loved to write. Up until the very end of her short life, she spent her nights at her writing desk, with paper and pen and the flickering light of a candle.
In fact, she bequeathed to the Church and the world thousands of pages of writings. But unlike so many other saintly authors, these writings are not treatises or books. Instead, they are personal writings. Almost all of them are either journals or letters.
As such, they are all first drafts — they weren’t written and edited and re-written. Rather, they flowed from her heart into her head through her fingers and directly onto the paper. In their content, they reveal her many natural qualities and supernatural virtues — her sense of humor, her sensitivity to beauty, her prudence, her faith.
But in their style, they reveal something else, something that was a characteristic not only of her personality, but also of the time in which she lived, a period free from the relentless noise of our own age.
She lived and died before radio, TV, movies, and Internet. She lived before the 24-hour news cycle, before texting and smartphones and earbuds and social media. She even lived before the automobile and the phonograph and the electric light. It is difficult for us to imagine what life must have been like without all those things.
From the point of view of spiritual growth, the biggest difference might have been the silence and the time for reflection. Nowadays, we have to fight to create space for silence in our lives. But healthy silence in the early nineteenth century was as natural an element of life as sunlight and moonlight.
While working or walking or traveling, you had no choice but to be alone with your thoughts, or to contemplate the world around you, or to listen to the natural sounds of a society necessarily more in tune with the rhythms of God’s creation than ours today.
And for someone like Elizabeth Seton, someone graced with spiritual sensitivity, this atmosphere of silence provided ample opportunity for reflection — deep reflection. And that is what shines forth in the style of her many personal writings.
After all, taking an hour to write a personal letter by hand is a very different experience than taking an hour to read and answer dozens of emails, tweets, and posts. The former is quiet and sensitive and deep; the latter is fast and noisy and necessarily superficial.
Mother Seton was a woman who thought deeply, who pondered the meaning of things, and the fruits of this deep interior richness flow spontaneously from her pen whenever she writes.
She expresses herself with elegance, thoughtfulness, subtlety, and vitality, as is shown so clearly by the examples we have seen in our meditations, and her writing style was the fruit of a life-style.
This rich but spontaneous eloquence of her personal writings flow from an interior reservoir of wisdom gathered through years of deep personal reflection, reflection that was encouraged and enabled by a culture in which silence had its proper place.
Much of her spiritual growth would have been stunted without this habit of deep interior reflection so evident in her personal writings.
The Benefits of a Daily Examen
This is one of the firm principles of spiritual growth: it requires frequent and deep personal reflection. If we want to continue to grow spiritually, we have to create space for this to happen. In our world — so much noisier, and louder, and superficial than Elizabeth’s — it won’t happen by accident.
The lava flow of information, advertising, and superficial chatter congeals to form a hard crust around our minds — like the hardened dirt path that Our Lord spoke about in his parable of the sower. When the seeds of grace fall on that hard surface, they can’t penetrate into the soil; they can’t take root and grow. And so the birds of the air come and eat them up.
By creating space for healthy silence in our lives, space for deep personal reflection, we can break through that hard crust and loosen up the soil of our minds, so that God’s Word can penetrate and take root and grow.
One of the spiritual practices that helps us do that is the daily examination of conscience. This daily examen, as it’s sometimes called, is simple enough for anyone to do, and powerful enough to revolutionize our interior life. It’s an ancient practice that has taken many forms over the centuries.
And in the sixteenth century St. Ignatius of Loyola developed a practical method for the examen that could be adopted by anyone — from monks to matrons, from priests to politicians.
In this conference, we’ll go over the basics of this method, so as to provide or to simply help polish up a tried and tested tool for cultivating a deeper interior life.
First Step: Thank for Blessings
St. Ignatius identifies five steps in the daily examen.
They flow naturally one into the other, but it will be worthwhile to talk about each one separately, to get an overview. Once we have gone over all five, we will make a few practical recommendations that may help you get started.
The first step in the daily examen is to thank God for the blessings he has given you throughout the day. This is the most important step, because the daily examen
is first and foremost a prayer. It is not some kind of self-help technique. It is a time of quiet communion and conversation with the Lord, who dwells in our hearts.
By turning our minds to the good things that we have experienced throughout the day, we immediately exercise our faith, and our hope, and our love for God, our Creator and Savior. And even in the very worst days, God is still loving us and guiding us, so there will be something that we can thank him for — even if it’s just for granting us the grace to survive!
We can thank God for little things or big things, for
a tasty meal or a beautiful sunset. We can thank him
for our friends and for our faith, for our conquests and for our crosses — for any and all of the innumerable blessings that the good Lord showers upon us every single moment of our lives. It has been said that gratitude is the shortcut to holiness, because gratitude is the antidote to self-absorption.
This first step of the examen widens our gaze and keeps things in perspective. It’s like hiking up a tall mountain. As you climb higher and higher you start breathing hard, and you become absorbed by the path — looking for where you are going to put your next step, how you are going to keep moving.
In the midst of the climb, it’s easy to lose site of the progress that you are making, unless you pause every once in a while to look up and out, to see the view from the mountainside, to see how far you have come.
That’s what this first step does for us, spiritually: it reminds us of the bigger picture, of all that God is doing in our lives, even while we are in the midst of a hard journey.
Second Step: Ask for Light
After thanking God for the blessings of the day, we move on to the second step in the daily examen: Ask for light. This too is crucial.
In the end, we can’t make ourselves holy. We can’t turn ourselves into saints. Christianity is not just a glorified self-help program. We actually need the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who leads us to spiritual maturity. He knows what we need in every moment.
By pausing in this second step to ask for light, for guidance, for help, we are exercising the crucial virtue of humility and intentionally opening ourselves to God’s action in our soul. We are acknowledging that we are just children, spiritually, and that the Lord truly is our shepherd. In a sense, we are declaring to the Lord that we recognize ourselves as “poor in spirit” — the very first beatitude.
This petition for help can be short and simple — it doesn’t have to be complicated. We can simply say, for example: “Lord, help me to see what you want me to see, so that I can follow you more closely.”
Skipping this second step is foolish, but it’s also an expression of arrogance. Imagine a young athlete training for the Olympics who has been given the best coach in the world. Now imagine that when he arrives for his training session, he decides that he can do it all by himself.
So, instead of checking in with the coach, he sets his own training schedule and agenda and activities. A fool, yes, but also an arrogant fool.
Well, the Holy Spirit is our personal trainer, our coach — with a proven track record: all the saints in the history of the Church, the spiritual gold medalists. He is ready and willing to help, but he won’t force himself on us.
That’s why the second step in the daily examen is always to ask for light, for help, for guidance as we look to grow in our spiritual life.
Third Step: Look Over the Day
The third step in the daily examen is simply to look over the day. This is where, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we engage in deep reflection. In this step, we simply review the events and the activities of the day, looking for two things.
First, we want to try and see how God was at work in those events and activities. What was God doing in my life today? What was he asking of me? What was he hoping for from me?
We know that God is always thinking of us, always wanting to use the normal activities of the day to give us a chance to grow spiritually, to exercise Christ- like virtue, to learn more about God and his wisdom, to experience and share his glory. This is what the Catechism teaches us in its very first number:
… at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength…
– CCC 1
The more aware we are of God’s action throughout our normal activities, the better chance we will have of collaborating with that action, and that’s how we grow spiritually.
So that’s the first thing we are looking for: What was God showing me, teaching me, giving me, asking of me in today’s events and activities?
The second thing we want to look at is how we responded to God’s action. Was I oblivious? Was I generous? Was I selfish, or sensitive, or afraid, or courageous?
As Christians, we are called to make a difference in the world — to show forth God’s goodness in our example, our words, and our works. And when we do that, we move along on the path of true and lasting happiness. But our fallen nature often resists this call, this mission.
By taking time to reflect on how we’re doing, we become more intentional in our relationships and our responsibilities, we create more interior depth. And that is essential for spiritual growth.
In this third step of the examen, we don’t have to be exhaustive. Usually, one or two things will jump out at us right away. For example, we may remember a conversation where we gossiped or exaggerated in order to win the praise of other people.
Or we may remember a moment when we felt an invitation in our conscience to go out of our way to help or encourage a colleague or family member — and even though it was inconvenient, we accepted that invitation and reached out to the person in need.
Or we may see clearly that, once again, we allowed the hustle and bustle of semi-important things to crowd out the time we had set aside for prayer in the morning.
By giving ourselves time to reflect on our behavior, on our choices and reactions, we also give the Holy Spirit a chance to teach us, to instruct us, to guide us.
What was God asking of me today, and how did I respond?
This is the essential question of the third step: looking over the day.
Fourth Step: Ask for Forgiveness
The fourth step flows naturally from the third. Since the daily examen is a prayer, a quiet conversation with the Lord, if I find that I have been selfish in my relationship with him, I will naturally want to ask for forgiveness.
That’s the fourth step: asking for forgiveness. It’s
the most enjoyable step of the daily examen. It’s the moment of reconciliation, when we turn to the one we know loves us and ask him to show us, once again, how deep that love really is. Our Lord once revealed to St. Margaret Mary that even if we had committed all the sins in the world, in comparison with his infinite mercy they would be like a drop of water thrown into a blazing furnace.
God’s goodness, and his love, and his mercy, are infinitely greater than our spasms of self-centeredness and greed and lust and vanity. This is why we should never be afraid to go to him to ask for forgiveness — he will never fail to give it to us. But if we don’t bring our misery to him, it will just fester, like a spiritual infection, distancing us from God and impeding our spiritual growth.
In the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis encouraged a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square to keep this in mind. He said:
[God] never gets tired of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness. Let us never get tired
of it, let us never get tired of it! He is the loving Father who always pardons, who has that heart of mercy for us all.
– Angelus, 17 March 2013
This is the fourth step — to ask for forgiveness, to look up into the smiling face of our Lord and to say: “Lord, do you see how much I still need your grace? Please have mercy on me!” And to let him wrap his arms around us and give us a fresh start.
That’s his greatest joy, by the way, to put to use all the graces he won for us by dying on the cross — to give us a fresh start.
Fifth Step: Renew Commitment
Finally, at the end of the daily examen, we take the
fifth step: we renew our commitment to Christ and his Kingdom. This too can be done simply — maybe just with the sign of the cross, or by praying the Our Father, or simply by giving him a warm smile.
Sometimes, though, this renewal of our friendship
with God will take a more concrete form. We may be moved, for example, to make a specific commitment
to do something that he has put on our hearts — like apologizing to someone we offended, or reaching out to someone in need, or giving some more time to prayer the next day.
Whether general or specific, this fifth step is the best way to conclude our daily examen, because it gives us faith-filled closure. It keeps us from getting stuck in the past, in our weaknesses, in our failures.
It is the renewal of our love for God that flows from having experienced anew, through the examen prayer, God’s love for us. That’s why the best motto for our daily examen is St. Paul’s famous phrase: “The love of Christ impels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Conclusion: Practical Tips
Those are the five steps of the daily examination of conscience: TALAR
Thank God for His Blessings Ask for Light
Look Over the Day
Ask for Forgiveness
Renew Our Commitment to Christ and His Kingdom
Those are the basic elements, but since it’s a prayer, we need to be flexible and docile to however the Holy Spirit wants to arrange those elements. For example, there may be days or seasons in our spiritual life when we spend most of the examen giving thanks, and very little on the other steps. That’s okay. That may be exactly what our soul needs.
As regards the length of the examen, there may be
days when we can only spend 2 or 3 minutes doing the examen prayer — that’s okay, that’s better than nothing. But the most common recommendation is to dedicate ten minutes to this prayer every day.
That’s how we form the habit of personal reflection; that’s how we till the soil of our minds and resist the numbing effect of the relentless noise of our post-modern culture.
If you are just starting to use this prayer, you may find it useful to do it in writing. Get a nice prayer journal and use it to write down your thoughts for each step. The act of writing can help you stay focused and avoid distractions.
It’s also helpful to do this prayer in a quiet place, when possible, like a chapel, or a prayer corner — although I have known people who do it on the train ride home from work.
Most spiritual writers advise doing the daily examen at the end of the day, before going to bed. But sometimes that’s a difficult moment — whether because of tiredness or family matters. A good alternative time can be in the evening, before dinner. But it can also be done in the morning — looking over the day before, and renewing your commitment for the coming day.
All these specifics can change, and we can experiment with them to find what works best in our personal situation.
The important thing is simply to do it, to make this tried and true prayer into part of our daily spiritual exercises, to give ourselves and the Holy Spirit a little bit of silence, a little bit of deep reflection, which God’s grace will be able to transform into a lot of interior depth, just as it did with Mother Seton.
Take some time now to reflect on the 10 questions in the personal questionnaire.
They are designed to help you start or improve your daily examen prayer.
1. What role does silence play in my life? What role would I like it to play?
2. How much deep personal reflection do I engage in on a regular basis?
3. If I have used the daily examen prayer in the past, what benefits did it bring me?
￼￼￼￼￼4. If I have used the daily examen prayer in the past, what factors made it useful or not useful, easy or difficult?
5. What recreational activities (video games, web surfing, sports, etc.) do I regularly engage in? Which of these actually help refresh my spirit, and which tend to drain it?
6. How do I react to the idea of keeping a spiritual journal? If I have done this in the past, what benefits did it have for me?
￼7. What time of day would be best for me to use the daily examen prayer, and where would I do it?
8. Try to explain in my own words the five steps of the daily examen prayer. Which step do I understand least? Go back over the explanation of that step.
9. If I were more faithful to the daily examen prayer, what difference do I think it might make in my life?
10. Take some time right now to do the daily examen prayer, following the five steps and looking over the last 24 hours of my life.