Photo by Wilson Au
“Bluntly, to serve God well we must think straight; and crooked thinking, unintentional or not, always favors evil.” Dallas Willard 1
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates
“The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster… between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” Deuteronomy 30:14, 15, 19, NLT
Remembering to Remember
My memory is terrible. I forget what I’m doing all the time. I forget to follow up on commitments. I forget important details of conversations with my husband. Yet I acutely remember hurtful words from others, people who have let me down, and sins I’m ashamed of. My memory seems to do what I don’t want it to do and not what I want it to do.
When it comes to my relationship with God, I also have short-term memory loss. I forget lessons he has taught me and the truth from God’s word. I forget who God says I am and what he has asked me to do. In short, I need tools that will help me remember. Dallas Willard brilliantly describes a goal that you and I might want to adopt when it comes to thinking differently: “My patterns of thinking will conform to the truths of scriptural revelation, and I will extend and apply those truths, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, to all of the details of my daily life.” [[Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 109.]]
I bet that Ignatius of Loyola needed reminders, too, because in the 1400s, this historic saint began practicing a personal prayer rhythm in hopes of deepening his connection with God, and he led his community into the practice that became known as the Examen of Consciousness. St. Ignatius taught that the key to a healthy spirituality was twofold: find God in all things, and constantly work to gain freedom to cooperate with God’s will. Following the first article in this series on rest, this resource is meant to give you a practical tool from six centuries ago to help you remember to find God in your daily rhythm.
Examen of Consciousness
St. Ignatius practiced the Examen twice daily. Typical of my own forgetfulness, I’m simply practicing the Examen when I remember. This simple, 5-step guide can take only 10-30 minutes, yet produces rich intimacy with God who is the Giver of Life and Author of Truth. This rich intimacy is something that you can experience by doing the Examen on your own, or with a close friend, or even a small group of students or adults. Whether I’m alone or with others, I find that when I practice the Examen, something extraordinary shifts in my soul and service: “The abundant life Jesus promised comes when we know ourselves and serve others from the truest parts of who we are.” [[Mindy Caliguire, Soul Searching (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 8.]] So, how can we experience more of Jesus’ abundant life through the Examen?
To set the stage for this holy time, I recommend getting into a quiet space, free from distractions to connect with God. Turn off your cell phone. Grab your journal and Bible and take a minute to still your body, heart, and mind as you enter the Examen. Depending on where you are as you read this article, you might even want to practice the Examen right now.
1. Recall you are in the presence of God.
“I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence…you are there.” Psalm 139:7,8, NLT
The first step of the Examen reminds us of a foundational truth: God has never left us; we just forget God is there. Stop for a few minutes and remember God’s presence around you, in your circumstances, and acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s work within you. Before you move on, write down any thoughts, feelings, or observations as you reconnect to God’s presence.
2. Look at your day with gratitude.
“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.” Psalm 139:14, NLT
Most of the time it’s easier to remember what is not going right, what we don’t have, who’s not “for” us, and how we have let God down. This step in the review is a reminder to pull our eyes off what is not to remember who is. You can spend as long as necessary on this step, simply raising your eyes and hearts to the God who has blessed you beyond measure. The point of this step is to shift the focus off yourself as the false center of the universe and redirect your heart toward the true God of the Universe.
3. Ask for help from the Holy Spirit.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” Psalm 139:23, NLT
While this step may only take a minute, it is critical for us to intentionally invite the Holy Spirit to guide this time. Too often our own voices and vices guide our thoughts and decisions. This vital step orients our spirit toward the Spirit of light and truth. It acknowledges our dependence on God to instruct, guide, correct, and speak to us.
4. Review your day.
“How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!” Psalm 139:17, NLT
“Test yourselves to see whether you are living in faith; examine yourselves. Perhaps you yourselves do not realize that Christ Jesus is in you.” 2 Corinthians 13:5, NASB
This is the portion of the review that will take the most time. Approach this step like you are watching a movie of your day. Scene by scene, hour by hour reflect on the truth and reality of your day. Remember the sights, sounds, smells, conversations, internal thoughts, and intimate feelings of the moments from your day. The Examen offers questions to discern your actions and awareness of God throughout your day. [[ Mindy Caliguire, Soul Searching (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 48.]]
- What were the highs—what was most life-giving?
- What were the lows—what was most life-depleting?
- When did I fail?
- When did I love?
- Do I observe any habits or life patterns?
- When did I see evidence of God’s presence?
Remember to review your day by listening to the whispers of truth and love from the Spirit.
5. Reconcile and resolve.
“Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Psalm 139:24, NLT
This final step brings closure to the Examen through focusing on the future. It points us to course correction, righting wrongs, and a fresh start. It points us back to the abundant life Jesus came to offer. And this step reminds us that God’s love for us will never run out; it brings us back into right relationship with the Giver of Life. Take some time to consider where you might need to reconcile with God or another person and resolve to make it right as quickly as possible.
St. Ignatius always ended the Examen with the Lord’s Prayer. This simple guide is so beautiful because it invites us to remember God and the life God has given us. It brings us full circle back to David’s Psalm of praise and remembrance: “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.” Psalm 139:1, NLT
Becoming a Saint
I don’t consider myself a saint like Ignatius of Loyola. You probably don’t either. But the Examen moves me toward grace in an intentional way that I generally do not receive through the hurry and hustle of my everyday. And perhaps practicing the Examen moves me toward sainthood in unexpected ways. As Dallas Willard has noted, “The greatest saints are not those who need less grace, but those who consume the most grace, who indeed are most in need of grace – those who are saturated by grace in every dimension of their being. Grace to them is like breath.” [Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 93-94.]
Today, breathe in the presence of God in new ways and receive his new yoke of freedom and lightness.
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
Matthew 11: 28-30
- What step in the review was most natural for you? What step was most difficult? Why do you think that’s true for you right now?
- Were there any unexpected emotions or realizations while you were going through the Examen?
- What are three “thoughts” that have occupied your mind this week? Why those thoughts, and not some others? What have been their effects on your life? How could you reframe those thoughts according to the previously quoted goal of Dallas Willard’s: “My patterns of thinking will conform to the truths of scriptural revelation, and I will extend and apply those truths, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, to all of the details of my daily life.” [[Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 109, 116.]]
- Practice the Examen every day for the next week. Do you notice any differences in your work or personal life?
If this approach to prayer is new to you, you may want to access some of the following resources for more background and ideas:
- Dennis Linn, Sheila Linn, and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (New York: Paulist, 1995).
- “Examen of Consciousness: Finding God in All Things”, Phyllis Zagano
- “Adrenalin Our Secret Addiction”, Kara Powell and Jude Tiersma Watson, 2008
- Really any online search for “prayer of examen” is going to give you ideas—it’s widely practiced in and outside of the Jesuit tradition.
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