Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Examen

I'm going to try to piece this post together from my faulty memory. I like to tell people that I have a steel-trap mind, shaped like a sieve. Last Sunday I gave a talk at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Glenview, IL, a suburb of Chicago. The talk was part of a monthly series on the topic of discernment, and my talk was on finding God in the details of the day. Unfortunately, I misplaced my folder with notes and materials for my talk, and friends are now joining me in prayers to St. Anthony to find it for me.

From 1984 to 1988 I was the vocation director for the Jesuits of the Wisconsin Province, a seven state area in the upper Midwest. You could call it the "W Province" because it stretches from Wisconsin in the east to Wyoming in the west. As vocation director I helped people discern their vocations. In some cases that led to men applying to and being accepted into the Jesuits. In other cases, just as much "success stories," I helped young men discern that God was calling them to other vocations, including marriage. In fact, a couple years ago at a parish in Minnesota, I met a woman who told her two daughters that I was responsible for their birth! I had helped her husband discern that God was calling him to marriage and in following that call he was given a wonderful wife and beautiful daughters. One of the things I highly recommended to people discerning their vocations was the practice of the Daily Examen or what we at the Apostleship of Prayer like to call the Evening Review.

The idea is this: we don't discern in a vacuum. In order to make a major decision, in order to discern God's will in regard to a vocation, it's important to develop the habit of looking for signs of God's presence and activity every day. This helps us to have a discerning heart, one that is tuned into God's wavelength and better able to see the directions that God is giving us every day.

But before we can do this, it's important to become more familiar with how God operates. We have a record of that, a record of God's activity in the lives of individuals and nations. It's the Bible. Thus, to develop a discerning heart it's important to spend a little time every day prayerfully reading the Bible. In this way we will become familiar with the ways that God works. By trying to enter into the mind and heart of Jesus in the Gospels--what He was thinking and feeling, how He acted--we can receive direction for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of Luke, which will be the focus for the Sunday Gospels in the coming year, we see that Jesus often spent time alone at night in prayer. I think that part of that prayer involved looking back on His day and seeing how God the Father was present, walking with Him and speaking to Him. Just look at the parables that Jesus told. They were drawn from every day events. He drew lessons from watching a farmer sowing seed in the field and seeing it fall on different types of soil. He saw the Kingdom of God in a woman baking bread and using a little yeast to make a large amount of dough rise. He saw the Provident care of His Heavenly Father in the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He heard the news of the day--a tower falling on some laborers and killing them--and used this experience to teach. Yes, Jesus certainly must have gone over the events and people of His day, finding in them the presence and love and direction of His Father and ours.

From this basis, then, we can commit ourselves to reading the Bible of our lives. God didn't stop speaking to us when the last page of Scripture was written and the books of the Bible were officially approved. The God who spoke throughout history, whose activities and words are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and who spoke definitively through His Word made flesh, His only-begotten Son, continues to speak to us through the events and people of our lives. Sometimes the word He speaks is an affirming word. Sometimes it's challenging. Either way, we won't hear it unless we take some time each day to listen, to look back on the events of the day in order to discern what God was trying to tell us through them.

So the first thing to do, in the words of a commercial, is to "just do it!" Schedule time every day for a review of the day. St. Ignatius Loyola felt this was so important to the members of the order he founded, the Jesuits, that he told them that apart from the Eucharist and the required prayers of the ordained, this is the one devotion or prayer that they ought never omit. Through the daily examen they would be able to seek and find God in all things.

There is no magic in when the examen is to be done. I find that in the evening I am often too tired or too distracted to do it and so I make it part of my morning prayer. With a cup of coffee at my side I look back on the previous day and I write. I find writing helps me to focus. Others may find taking a walk after supper and reflecting on the day helps them to not not only exercise the body but also the spirit. At the Apostleship of Prayer we have an Evening Review CD that people pop into their car on their way home from work and this leads them through a prayerful review of their day.

Is this the Examination of Conscience? I've heard that the word that we translate as "conscience" has various meanings in other languages. Strictly speaking, an examination of conscience focuses on our weakness and sins, what we've done wrong, what we are sorry for. We make such an examination when we prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But this examination or examen is broader and so it has been called the "Awareness Examen" or the "Examen of Consciousness." Fr. George Aschenbrenner, S.J., in a 1972 article, popularized this approach. A condensed version of that article can be found on a web site that's sponsored by Loyola Press.

There is also no magic in how the examen is to be done. Different individuals and groups offer different approaches or steps. The following is one five step method:

1. Spend a moment slowing down and being aware that you are in God's presence. St. Paul, quoting a Greek poet, said that in God we live and move and have our being. God is always present to us, but we are not always present to God. We are often distracted and so we begin our brief period of prayer pausing to reflect on God's presence.

2. Spend a brief period of time in thanksgiving. What are you thankful for at this very moment? This prayer of gratitude puts you in a positive frame of mind that allows you to be more open to God's presence in your day. It "primes the pump" for your review.

3. Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to see yourself as God sees you. Most people tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. If I tell someone nine very positive things about him or herself and one negative or critical thing, that person will tend to go away thinking only about the one negative thing. You need the Holy Spirit to have perspective, to see yourself with honesty and also with love, unlike the one whom Scripture calls "the Accuser" who loves to disturb you by leading you to focus only on what is negative.

4. Review your day. Imagine you are watching a video of your day, seated on a couch with Jesus. Some parts you may fast-forward through, but other parts you will pause at in order to savor or reflect upon: what was God telling you through that event or person? How did you feel? What do those feelings tell you? Was God affirming you or challenging you through that moment of your day? You may want to fast-forward through some parts but Jesus may want you to pause so that with the help of the Holy Spirit at that moment He can teach and guide you. This part is the core of the examen.

5. Have a heart-to-Heart talk with Jesus. What comes to your mind as you finish your review? How do you feel and what do you want to say to Jesus? Are you sorry for anything? Are you grateful? Are there any signs in your day that point in a specific direction for the major decision you are making? You might write those down and keep an ongoing record of them to share with a spiritual or vocation director. Finish your prayer with a resolution or act of faith, hope, or love, committing yourself to following the Lord as best you can in the next day that God is giving you.

At the Apostleship of Prayer we encourage people to not only make an offering of their day with a Morning Offering, but, when the day is over, to review the offering that one has made. Doing this will help you to be more sensitive to God's presence and direction in your daily life. It will make you more aware of the many opportunities to renew your offering during the day and to seek God's will in the events of your life.


  1. This is excellent! I'm so glad that you were able to remember most of it with your steel trap mind like a sieve! My favorite line, one that I will continue to reflect upon, is this: "Commit ourselves to reading the bible of our lives."

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. I enjoyed the suggestion to examine my conscience in the morning, when I am sharpest. Why didn't I think of that?