The General Examen Prayer

In my last post I described the importance of discernment of spirits. The more we notice what is going on in our heart, the more quickly and effectively we can recognize the difference between the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the wiles of evil spirits, and the steady background noise of our own needs and wants.

We can talk all we want about discernment; the only way to become proficient is to engage in it on a regular basis. We may struggle at first, but consistent prayer will yield results, just like daily practice with a sport or a musical instrument.

We’ve already discussed Lectio Divina, which engages our hearts at a profound level. Prayed consistently and well, it will definitely deepen our discernment.

Today we discuss another highly effective prayer method: the Examen prayer taught by Ignatius of Loyola to his companions and his retreatants.

Examen means “examination” – in this case, an examination of our heart. Here we are not so much thinking up a laundry list of sins that need cleansing. That can lead to a spin-cycle of shame that keeps us stuck in our sins. Rather, it is an exercise of the sober-minded watchfulness we discussed last time.

There are two different approaches to the Examen prayer: general and particular. One involves an overall awareness and noticing of what is happening in our heart. The other allows a specific, in-depth focus on one specific area. Today’s post focuses on how to make a general Examen, with the next post describing how to make a particular one.

[BORING NOTE: In case you are a curious reader inclined to cautious self-study, please note that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are not meant to be read from cover to cover, like another book. They are, rather, a list of exercises that are meant to be, well, exercised. This best occurs in a serious retreat, under the ongoing guidance of a spiritual mentor, especially if one is undertaking all of the exercises. Today we are simply selecting one of those exercises, the General Examen, as an exercise that easily adapts itself to everyday Christian life].

Ignatius of Loyola identifies five basic steps for making a General Examen: (1) Thanksgiving; (2) Prayer for Light; (3) Examination of the day; (4) Examination of my response; (5) Hopeful resolve. Let us consider them one by one.

1) Recollection and Thanksgiving. Ignatius is a wise spiritual master. He understands how most of us may be disturbed or distracted. The first step is to allow our heart to be expanded in gratitude. Thanksgiving puts us in God’s presence and allows us to step into our watchtower. There we can calmly notice and discern. Nothing is so soothing or calming as a spirit of thanksgiving. We will notice everything in much greater detail if we are in a place of gratitude.

2) Prayer for Light. We should never try to fix ourselves. As Jeremiah says, “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).  Any examination of ourselves should always be a Spirit-led appreciation of the inner workings of our heart. We give God permission to show us our own heart.

3) Examination of the Day.  This is not so much trying to pile up a list of vices and virtues.  Rather, it involves a growing inner awareness of all the moods, feelings, thoughts, urges, and spiritual movements since our last prayer period.  We can ask ourselves, “What movements have most dominated my heart?”  We will always find one of three forces at work:

a) The Holy Spirit. He is always working within us, planting holy desires, calling us courageously or inviting us gently into deeper levels of holiness.

b) Our own spirit. So many of the movements in our own heart are simply our own human responses to the experiences of daily life.  We all have emotional and spiritual needs, in addition to more selfish wants. We should be especially attentive to negative feelings and to fantasy thinking – those thought patterns that urge us to escape the present moment. We need not judge – just notice. They happened. They were part of our story today. They need an intentional response. Sometimes they are a helpful reminder to pay closer attention to our emotional and spiritual needs. By contrast, if allowed to run wild, our fantasy thoughts will instead become windows for the devil to enter in, enticing us in the wrong direction. That is the beauty of the general examination. As we become more sober and aware, we simultaneously grow in our freedom. We begin to respond proactively to difficult situations – rather than reacting mindlessly.

c) The devil. He tempts us, often quite subtly. We all have wounds and negative emotions. In and of themselves, these are normal – Jesus had them as well, only without sin. These painful places of our heart can become breaches in the garden wall, through which the devil enters as he tries to sow lies about us or about God. He did no differently with Adam and Eve (successfully) or with Jesus in the desert (unsuccessfully).  The devil will bully us in the midst of our wounds, attacking us where we are weakest, predictably and relentlessly. If we resist firmly, he will flee. If we allow God and others to repair the breaches in our defenses, and if we bring our struggles to the light, he loses any power over us.

This “examination” step of the Examen may seem difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. As Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). We start to recognize the rotten fruits of the devil: discouragement, paralyzing fear, resentment, self-pity, rivalry, factions, self-indulgence, peevishness, etc. We start to recognize the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). And we become much more aware of ourselves along the way, gaining insight and freedom over our patterns of behavior.

4) Examination of my response. Only after fully appreciating all our interior movements of the day do we move to the next question: “How have I responded?”  When the Holy Spirit has invited me to take the more difficult path, have I done it?  When the evil one has used my daily experiences to lead me away from the Holy Spirit’s path, have I given in? We praise God for any positive response and spiritual growth we have had, and ask Him for grace to help us continue. We express sorrow and contrition for our hesitancy or refusal to respond to God’s invitation, or for the times we gave in to temptation.

5) Hopeful Resolve.  Our reflection and examination should give us a good idea of what challenges today and tomorrow will bring.  Here we invite the Lord to walk with us during the coming hours, and renew our confidence in His ability to win the victory in these daily struggles. We visualize how we can and will overcome – for He is with us to deliver us.

With practice, all 5 steps can be done in 10 minutes – probably even in 5 minutes. It can be done anytime, but evening is an especially good time. During those final hours of the day, many of us tend to be tired or fatigued and are looking for mindless escapes. What a difference to turn first to gratitude in God’s presence as we stay sober and watchful. From there we will much more fruitfully rest and recreate.

Again, consistency is the key. If we are daily and habitually engaging in these five steps – even better if we are talking about them with a trusted spiritual mentor or friend – we will definitely notice over time that we are much more attuned to what is going on in our heart. We will be much more equipped to say “yes” to God and “no” to the evil one, with ever fuller freedom.

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