The prayer of the Examen, or examination of consciousness, is a practice intended to bring us into a deeper awareness of the presence and leading of God in our everyday. We are reminded in the Examen that God is concerned with the minutia of our lives: the big events and small, our thoughts and activities, what we do to others and what is done to us, and all our emotions. The Examen acknowledges God’s willingness to use all of these to lead us into deeper relationship with him and greater partnership in his kingdom.
Practicing the prayer of the Examen is a way of reviewing our day with God. We can ask a number of questions to facilitate this review, but the heart of the Examen is sharing our day with Jesus and engaging a particular moment in prayer to seek discernment and direction. The faithful practice of the Examen will cultivate a deeper awareness of God’s presence and his voice in our everyday lives.
History of the examen
Christians have been practicing the prayer of the Examen for nearly 500 years. St. Ignatius of Loyola introduced it to the church in the early sixteenth century. Ignatius was a Spanish soldier who experienced a conversion while recovering from the wounds of battle. After feeling God’s call on his life, he helped found the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order.
The foundation of Ignatian spirituality is an understanding of God’s constant presence. Ignatius taught us to speak to Jesus as we would a close friend, and he commissioned the Jesuits to go into the world and “find God in all things.” There is a heavy emphasis on discerning God’s presence in Ignatian spirituality, but this awareness is seen as a beginning, not an end.
In Protestant circles, we often highlight the contemplative angle of Ignatian spirituality, but this is an incomplete picture of Ignatius’ teaching. The end result of contemplation according to Ignatius is God’s active direction in our lives. Our goal is not simply to know God’s presence but to act accordingly. He called the Jesuits to be “contemplatives in action.”
Spiritual Exercises is the primary written work of Saint Ignatius. The exercises are a four week guided reflection with the purpose of directing the participant into greater awareness of the presence and direction of Jesus in his or her life. Each week has a specific focus. It begins with meditations on sin and then the life, passion and resurrection of Jesus.
It is in the Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius introduced the concepts he is know for. He describes consolation and desolation as the feeling of God’s presence and absence. Ignatius challenges us to be aware of these feelings and to ask where they come from and what they are leading us to do. Discerning the spirits of consolation and desolation and the direction they lead is best done under the guidance of an experienced spiritual director.
Ignatius also introduced the Prayer of the Examen, or the examination of consciousness, in the Spiritual Exercises. This is not to be confused with an examination of conscience. The examination of conscience is a reflection on sin. Where have I sinned in what I have done or what I have failed to do? But the prayer of the Examen is an examination of consciousness. It is a focused reflection on the presence and movement of God in our lives. Ignatius believed the prayer of the Examen was a gift from God to be shared as widely as possible.
What is the prayer of the Examen?
Ignatius reminds us God is constantly present and at work in our lives and the world. The daily Examen is a way of reviewing each day with God and cultivating a greater awareness of his presence in our everyday. It helps us recognize God’s presence and discern his direction with gratitude and openness.
One Jesuit calls the Examen “rummaging for God.” It is like “going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be in there somewhere.” We know God is present and active in the ordinary moments of our everyday, and the Examen helps us discern his presence and activity.
Ignatius taught the Examen should be practiced twice a day, during the noon hour and in the evening before bed. But many of us today will find this too difficult, so a single daily practice is sufficient. It can be practiced at any time of the day. As with any discipline, the right time to practice it is whatever time you are able to practice it consistently.
The Examen doesn’t require a long time to pray, no more than fifteen minutes. Ignatius was clear we don’t need to draw it out to an overly long time. If fifteen minutes only get us through a couple steps of the Examen, Ignatius taught it was still valuable.
The Examen as a practice cannot be separated from discernment. “Consciousness Examen,” an article by George Aschenbrenner, S.J., is widely considered a modern classic. He writes,
We are talking about an experience in faith of growing sensitivity to the unique, intimately special ways that God’s Spirit has of approaching and calling us. Obviously it takes time for this growth. But in this sense Examen is a daily renewal and growth in our spiritual identity as unique flesh-spirit persons loved and called by God in the inner intimacy of our affective world. It is not possible for us to make an Examen without confronting our own unique identity in imitation of Christ before God.
As is the case with most disciplines, the fruit of the Examen is not realized if we do not commit to a regular faithful practice.
How to practice the examen
The Examen is a prayer composed of five parts:
Become aware of and rest in the presence of God.
Review the day with gratitude.
Reflect on the events of the day with attention fixed on the presence of God.
Choose and respond to one moment from the day.
Look forward to the following day.
Becoming aware of and resting in God’s presence
The Prayer of the Examen begins with the reminder of God’s constant presence. As he says in Jeremiah 23:24, “Can anyone hide from me in a secret place? Am I not everywhere in all the heavens and earth?” God’s presence is like the air we breathe or water to a fish. It is all around us. Whether we recognize it or not, we are swimming in God’s presence. We don’t need to ask for him to be with us. He already is! We continue the Examen asking the Holy Spirit for guidance as we review our day.
Review your day with gratitude
I once heard someone say if nothing else, our breath is evidence of God’s grace in our lives. In this part of the Examen we review our day paying particular attention to God’s gifts and identifying specific things for which we are thankful. We spend these moments reminding ourselves of God’s goodness and his unfailing love.
We all face times when this can be difficult, when the pain of life is pressing all around us. In these seasons, the prayer of the Examen can be especially helpful. We need a reminder that despite our circumstances God is for us. He is with us. He loves us, and he longs to see us become the people he created us to be.
It is in this step we find God’s loving grace. When you think about your day, what do you have to be thankful for? How has God blessed you in your day? In this step we name God’s gifts, the big ones and the small ones.
Review the day for God’s presence
You have probably heard it said, “the devil is in the details,” but I disagree. I believe God is in the details. We often think of God’s presence as a thundercloud or an earthquake. His presence is big. His presence is obvious. It is true there are times God’s presence manifests in a mighty way. He led the Israelites as a towering cloud and a giant fire. He appeared to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai as a thunderstorm and a consuming fire. But his meeting with Elijah was different.
In 1 Kings 19, God sent Elijah to Mount Horeb. “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord,” God told him. Then Elijah watched as a mighty wind, an incredible earthquake, and a consuming fire passed by. But God wasn’t in these bold manifestations. Then Elijah heard a gentle whisper, and he immediately and reverently covered his face. God was in the whisper.
There are times when God’s glory manifests in an incredible way. But more often than not God is present in the small things, in the ordinary, even in the silence. God is present in the details of your day. He is present in your senses. He is present in your emotions. In this part of the Examen, we look for an awareness of God’s presence in our day. We don’t ask when he is present, because we know God always is. But we seek to become more aware of his presence.
There are various questions we can ask during this time. We can simply ask when we were aware of God’s presence. At what time during the day were you aware of God’s nearness? At what time did God seem far away? We can review our actions. When did I move toward God, and when did I move away? We can review our attentiveness to his voice. When did God speak to me? When did he seem silent?
I prefer to review the day through the lens of emotion. Ignatius taught us to find the Holy Spirit in the rise and fall of our emotions. We often dismiss emotion in the spiritual life, but our emotions are gifts from God. When we engage them in the Examen, we honor them as a part of who God created us to be. Our emotions can also be a door into something deeper percolating under the surface beyond our conscious awareness.
When we use our emotions to lead us in through the Examen, we ask:
“When did I feel strong emotions today?”
“What brought me joy?”
“When did I feel a sense of sorrow, anger, or disappointment?”
“When did I feel great love?”
When we review our day, we are looking for God. We are looking for his presence and activity. Don’t rush to the application. Take the time to fully explore the day, and then move on to the fourth step of the Examen.
Pray through one of the moments of your day
At this point we will choose one moment to pray about. It may be a significant moment, or it may seem comparatively insignificant. Pay attention to God’s direction here. Is there one moment that seems to stand out, one event or emotion God is inviting you to pray about?
Spend a moment reliving the moment. Invite the Holy Spirit into it with you. What is the Spirit saying? Is it directing you in some particular way or reminding you of some truth?
What does a sense of deep joy say about the person God created you to be? Were you concerned about someone or remembering a friend you lost touch with? Is God leading you to reach out to this person? Your emotions may also reveal sin and struggle. Identify this, but look for the deeper direction. Snapping at my children for something minor should be repented of, but what does it say about my expectations or my selfishness? Is God calling me to focus on loving unconditionally or being more willing to die to self?
Pray in whatever way feels natural in the moment. It may be praise or confession, a request for healing or further direction. Remember the Examen is not self-serving. Its purpose is not warm and fuzzy feelings. It will impact our everyday lives.
The final step of the examination of consciousness is looking forward. What is coming in the next twenty-four hours? What meetings, tasks, or interactions are coming up? If it helps, review your calendar or to-do list. Look at the day and seek God’s presence in it. Be attentive to your feelings. What are you excited about, and what makes you anxious? Where to you need God to be especially present? Pray for your day ahead.
Other Examen Resources
Rummaging for God: Praying Backward through your day by Dennis Hamm, SJ
Consciousness Examen by George Aschenbrenner, SJ