Discovering the Examen
So I saw him and sought him; and I had him and wanted him. And it seems to me that this is how it is and how it should be in this life.
— Julian of Norwich
A journey of thirty years
I first learned of the examen thirty years ago, early in my seminary training. During the novitiate, a year dedicated to special formation in the spiritual life, we studied our spiritual tradition and the different ways of praying it offers us, such as meditation on the Scriptures, liturgical prayer, and spiritual reading. Among these forms of prayer was the examen.
We learned that there were five steps in the prayer of examen: we would thank God for the blessings of the day just lived, ask for the grace to see and overcome our failings, review the day to see our spiritual experience throughout it, seek God's forgiveness where necessary, and then plan spiritually for the coming day. The five steps seemed well-ordered, and this prayer made sense to me. I wanted to learn to pray. I wanted a faithful and growing life of prayer. And so I was willing to pray the examen as part of my life of prayer.
Still, as I look back, I do not recall that the examen made any notable impression upon me at that time. While I accepted it, other forms of prayer seemed clearly more central, especially prayer with Scripture and liturgical prayer: the Mass and the Psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours. I accepted the examen as a normal part of a faithful life of prayer. I found it neither particularly burdensome nor especially important in my spiritual life.
During my years in the seminary, I read Fr. George Aschenbrenner's well-known article on the examen and, like so many others, was impressed by it. When I think back to that time, I recognize that I was not equipped then to understand fully what he wrote. But I liked what I read. The article presented an attractive vision of the examen as an aid toward finding God throughout the day. The examen was, Fr. Aschenbrenner wrote, "a daily intensive exercise of discernment in a person's life." In those years the reality signified by "discernment" was largely beyond my training and experience.
Four years later I made the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. The retreat was a powerful experience. Those weeks of abundant prayer under the guidance of a retreat director were a wonderful time of further learning about the spiritual life. Again the examen was presented to me. Again, for me, the experience was essentially the same. The prayer of examen seemed spiritually reasonable. I was willing to pray it and did try to pray it. The examen continued to be a part — but still a marginal part — of my overall life of prayer.
I finished my seminary years and began my active ministry. A pattern developed in my practice of the examen that would recur for many years. For some months I would pray the examen in the evening, at least for a few minutes. Then, at some point and for varying lengths of time, I would weaken in this practice. On occasion I would raise the issue of the examen with my spiritual director. In times of retreat I would generally renew my resolve to pray it. I would begin again, and the pattern would repeat. While I could have wished for a more fruitful practice of the examen, life was busy and this was not a major concern.
When I made that first Ignatian retreat, I immediately loved the richness of the Spiritual Exercises. I began working during my studies and after to learn all that I could about them. Not much later I was asked to guide Ignatian retreats, and requests continued to come. Quickly I realized that I could not accept these commitments responsibly without learning much more about discernment than I then knew. I began to study Ignatian discernment seriously. After a time I began, somewhat hesitantly, to speak about discernment with retreatants.
The response impressed me. The retreatants seemed to find that Ignatius explained their own spiritual experiences and that his practical counsels were of immense value for spiritual growth. For the first time I realized the power in Ignatius's teaching on discernment: noticing, understanding, and responding to the different spiritual stirrings of our hearts in a way that leads solidly toward God in daily living. I watched these guidelines give new hope and new freedom to retreatants. Often I would meet former retreatants who would tell me of the continuing blessings and hope that they found in Ignatius's teaching on discernment.
This led to something unexpected for me regarding the examen. If the examen was indeed, as Fr. Aschenbrenner had written years earlier, "a daily intensive exercise of discernment in a person's life," I suddenly realized how useful and even vital the examen is in the spiritual life; it was the way of bringing into daily life the spiritual power of Ignatian discernment that I was witnessing in the lives of retreatants. For the first time, I became profoundly interested in the examen.
I began speaking in retreats about the examen as the way to live Ignatian discernment beyond the retreats, in daily life. Eventually these talks developed into workshops for groups outside the setting of retreats. But I was never entirely at ease with the way things were developing. Though I was speaking with conviction and sincerity about the importance of the examen, I still struggled in my personal practice of it.
I now truly desired to pray the examen and hoped for the fruits it seemed to promise — growing daily awareness of and communion with God. And something really was changing. Generally I would dedicate a few minutes, sometimes more, to the examen at the end of the day. What had changed for me was the discovery of the examen's first step: looking for the Lord's gifts in the day and then expressing gratitude for them. I found that I could do this, and that it made a difference. Recognizing, at the end of the day, God's gifts to me during that day would often gently lift my heart.
Gradually I found that I could pray the fifth step as well, looking to the next day and planning with the Lord how I would live it. I began to find this helpful, especially when I needed to give structure to the following day. The fifth point gave me a clearer sense of what the Lord seemed to want of me and how to arrange my priorities and my time for the coming day to meet that desire. I regularly shied away, however, from the intervening three points: asking for light and strength, reviewing the day, and seeking forgiveness. Something had grown, but something was still missing in my practice of the examen.
Daily fidelity to the examen remained an effort, even as I enthusiastically taught others of its importance. At one point, after reviewing this situation yet again in a retreat, I asked my spiritual director if we could discuss the examen in each of our monthly meetings. During that year and beyond, we did so. Slowly I was learning something else about the examen, something I now believe to be key: that we need another or others to walk with us spiritually in the prayer of the examen.
This had become my situation with respect to the examen: deepened understanding of its spiritual richness, real desire for it, some growth in praying it — but still many of the same old struggles. I felt the distance between what I was saying to others and what I was actually experiencing.
In those years I met a man whom I knew to be praying the examen faithfully and with spiritual depth. He seemed close to God, and the authenticity of his life of service was beyond doubt. His witness remained with me and showed me that a fruitful practice of the examen was truly possible. Still, he seemed to me a rare exception to the more common struggles with the examen. For most of us, I thought, some growth in the examen was possible; however, his deep daily communion with God through the prayer of examen seemed beyond reach.
But something else would occasionally happen. At times, when I was not looking for it, the examen would, in a sense, "find me." These were simply gifts of God's grace. A woman religious who had ceased praying the examen writes: "The interesting thing is that a few years ago I began to realize that each evening I was making an informal review of the day, going over it with God. The examen found me! And this tells me that the examen is an integral part of growth in the spiritual life." She is right.
One evening I went to a service of song and prayer in a university chapel. Friends had insisted that I go, and I went, partly to please them and partly out of curiosity. This evening of prayer came at a particularly dark moment in my life. At the time, I held a position of responsibility, and my work was going well. But I was withering inside. The toll on my energies had been heavy, and I did not know how to overcome the exhaustion, depression, and spiritual desolation that I was feeling all too frequently. This physical and interior heaviness had been developing for several years and, more than I realized, I was on the verge of collapse. I knew, though, that I was in serious trouble. I had tried every means I knew to resolve the physical, emotional, and spiritual darkness — more faithful exercise, ongoing prayer, times of rest away from work — and I had failed to find a way.
We entered the chapel at the university. It was packed with six to seven hundred people, mostly students, seated, standing, overflowing into every corner of the church and into its vestibule. The service lasted two and a half hours. I was quickly humbled as I witnessed the sincere and profound prayer of many in the church. Their prayerfulness was contagious, and I could not help but begin to pray as well.
Two and a half hours is a long time when, suddenly, you are not involved in responding to an urgent problem, not working hard on the task at hand, not answering a phone call, not typing at the computer, not involved in a conversation or preparing under pressure for the next commitment. For the first time in a long time, I was simply brought to a stop. As those hours passed in that crowded church, I had no choice but to surrender to the prayer that surrounded me.
I was both closely bound to the others surrounding me and, at the same time, deeply alone with the Lord. I begged the Lord for help, for light to see, for strength to act. And during those hours I did see, for the first time and with great clarity, the nature of my situation. I had to face my own inability to resolve my struggle. I also saw clearly the steps I needed to take to make a change. Most basically, I needed to let myself be helped. I needed to share openly with certain persons, people of competence and wisdom who knew me and knew what I was experiencing, and to allow myself to be led.
When I returned home I went to the chapel. I sat there, journal in hand, and wrote down what I had understood during the service. The next day I began to put it into practice. That evening of grace was a turning point for me in many ways, and my gratitude for it only grows as the years pass. I think now that that gift of grace and all that has flowed from it touched the deepest reason for my remaining resistance to the examen. I think that the examen becomes most profoundly possible when I accept my own helplessness and my need to be led by the Lord. Then I deeply desire to see and to follow that leading every day; then I know that I need a daily prayer of examen that will help me to see that leading.
That evening was a time when the examen "found me." Those two and a half hours were a prayer of the examen. For the sake of what we will explore in the rest of this book, I will describe that evening in terms of the five steps of the Ignatian examen, those steps that I had learned so many years earlier without fully understanding their richness.
As I prayed in the university church, I begged the Lord for light and strength (step two). I reviewed in prayer my situation of the moment and the related stirrings in my heart (step three). I planned with the Lord the steps I needed to take the next day (step five). Gratitude (step one) was already present in the initial peace that came with clarity. That gratitude is increasingly present to me as I look back on that evening, now with the awareness of the many blessings that have flowed from it. The fourth step (forgiveness) was not in my mind and heart that evening. Perhaps it was still too soon. Probably, at least in part, I still struggled to accept God's loving forgiveness for the respect-filled and restoring embrace that it is, rather than the further immersion in failure that I could all too easily feel it to be.
Experiences such as this also teach me that the examen is God's gift, that it really is a work of grace and not merely the fruit of human effort. They teach me that the examen is truly prayer, something we ask God to do, and not human achievement.
As time goes by I see more and more clearly why Ignatius so warmly recommends daily examen. Examen is our way of being regularly available to God so that divine light and love can heal our darkness and point the way toward spiritual growth. So much can change when I am open every day to hearing God's voice in this way.
The deepest desire of the human heart
I realize too why this specific form of prayer matters so deeply. Certainly the examen cannot stand alone as a form of prayer. Desire for the examen is born of a deeper desire. That more fundamental desire is expressed, for example, in the words of Julian of Norwich quoted at the beginning of this chapter, and it is repeated throughout the Scriptures:
O God, you are my God,
for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
— Ps. 63:1
Loving desire for communion of life with the God who loves us is the root desire. Prayer with Scripture, liturgical prayer, spiritual reading, and the other forms of prayer feed this desire. But the prayer of examen is the specific searching every day to find where God's love is active this day, where God's love is leading today, to discern what within me may be resisting that leading, and to discover the growth to which God is calling me tomorrow so that this deepest desire can be increasingly fulfilled. Nothing in the spiritual life can replace a prayer that seeks this awareness of God's daily leading in our lives.
A woman told me of a practice of prayer that she began when she was five years old. No one taught her to do this; she simply began it on her own. God and the love of God for her were very real. Every night before going to bed, she would kneel at the window of her room and pray an Our Father. Then she would choose a specific teaching, something that her mother had said during the day — for example, "Avoid talking badly of others." And she would ask God: "Did I do that today?" If she saw that she had not spoken badly of others that day, she would be glad. If she found that she had done so, she would be saddened and would ask God's forgiveness. Then she would end her day, her heart in close communion with the God whose love she knew so surely.
She recalls one day when she and her friends had been outdoors running together. One girl could not keep up, and they had left her behind. She had seen the sadness on this girl's face. She says: "When I prayed at the window that night, God told me that we should never use our strength and our gifts to hurt others, but always to help them." She has never forgotten what God said to her that night. The memory of and the desire to live that word of God still move her to tears today as she speaks of this.
That nightly practice of prayer, she says, was natural, spontaneous, and unself-conscious. It was just talking with the Lord.
She prayed that way every evening of her life into her twenties. And when in her thirties she first learned of Ignatian spirituality and of the examen, she found herself saying: "Lord, this is a home-coming. I have been doing this all my life, since I was a child of five. The word 'examen' is just a label for something I have always done."
The examen had "found" this woman too.
I think that the examen finds us because whenever a heart cries out, "O God, you are my God, / for you I long; / for you my soul is thirsting," this deepest desire awakens another desire: the desire to hear God's voice throughout the day and to respond as fully as our strength, our souls, our minds, and our hearts are able (Mark 12:30). This kind of heart wants to "stay awake" (Matt. 25:13), wants always to be watchful and alert (Mark 13:33) to discern the coming of the Lord it loves. This kind of heart desires to encounter the God who is Emmanuel (Matt. 1:23), who is with us always, hour by hour, every day of our lives (Matt. 28:20). Such a heart desires the prayer that Ignatius, in our spiritual tradition, calls the examen.