The Particular Examen

Much has been written in recent years about the General Examen prayer taught by Ignatius of Loyola. Far less has been written about the Particular Examen – a practice he recommended with equal enthusiasm.

I suspect that many modern authors, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, came to the conclusion that focusing on one fault in a particular way, more than once a day, was unhealthy and unhelpful. Perhaps they were leery of Ignatius’ suggestion to keep tally marks for the number of times one committed that fault throughout the day. Shouldn’t we accentuate the positive?

No doubt, there are potential pitfalls. Those prone to vanity or rivalry can become self-absorbed and proud of their progress. Those prone to scrupulosity or low self-esteem can plunge into a cycle of shame, discouragement, or despair.

Actually, Ignatius struggled mightily with all those things, especially in the early years of his conversion.  If you’d like to hear that story told in a gripping way, I would highly recommend the chapter on Ignatius in Colleen Carroll Campbell’s recent book The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught me to Trade my Dream of Perfect for God’s.

The remarkable fact is that, even after he began breaking free from his perfectionism, fear, shame, and discouragement, Ignatius still placed a high value on making a daily Particular Examen.  His early Jesuits (the members of the Society that he co-established) quickly became engaged in missionary work in the New World. It was sometimes challenging for them to pray the entire Divine Office. Ignatius was willing to dispense them from their Office, but much more reluctant to dispense them from their daily examinations (particular and general). He saw those exercises as too important in their spiritual lives. Could it be that, in abandoning the idea of a Particular Examen, modern authors have thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

I think the key is to see this examination not as a self-guided effort of rooting out faults, but as a response to grace. The Particular Examen should begin with a holy desire, one that is clearly from God. Ignatius is assuming that our daily Lectio Divina and our daily General Examen are deepening our awareness of what God is doing. As we become aware of a prompting from God, the Particular Examen can become a means of freely and actively cooperating with God’s initiative.

What does it look like? One way or another, it involves returning once or twice a day to the same desire and allowing ourselves to be refocused and recommitted. It’s a quick check-in and a reminder that God and others are cheering us on. It could take any number of forms, and it may help to brainstorm a bit about what will work best for us. One way or another, it will hopefully provide daily and consistent accountability around that one area we deeply desire to grow in at the moment. Perhaps we write these things down in a daily journal or diary. Perhaps we ask others to help us as accountability partners, checking in regularly.

Such  practices are quite common (and effective) today in areas such as exercise or dieting. The same pitfalls are there: competition, envy, discouragement, or shame. But anyone who has made serious and lasting change in those areas will tell you that it helped to be intentional, highly specific, and accountable.

Personally, I have been keeping a paper calendar for about five years now. I make various notations each day to keep track of my priorities. It includes things like prayer and spiritual reading and exercise. One by one, I have also added those particular areas God is leading me to grow in. Indeed, one of those goals is making a daily Particular Examen morning and evening. For me, this examination includes drawing close to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, allowing myself to be calm and grateful, calling on their love and their help, and imagining how God’s grace, given through their tender love for me, is helping me overcome the areas of particular struggle right now.

In some regards, this exercise is parallel to the “visualization” exercises that are popular in recent decades – whether among athletes or among those seeking to break free from addictions and bad habits. Experiments in brain research have documented astounding results. A musician or athlete who “practices” in her imagination by visualizing her routine gains almost the same proficiency and confidence as when physically practicing. Some experiments even show similar effect for one who visualizes a weight lifting routine. Even without touching the weights, an intense and detailed visualizing of a usual routine begins increasing muscle strength. Truly, what the mind can conceive the body can achieve.

God hardwired our brains to grow through daily doses of encouragement and renewed confidence. Growth happens gradually, as success builds upon success. Think of the little child learning new and scary things. She doesn’t learn them all at once. Rather, she takes baby steps (quite literally) – and rejoices in the progress along the way. By receiving steady encouragement when frustrated and by celebrating the victories (no matter how small), she keeps learning and growing. Scientists will tell you that healthy releases of dopamine in her brain are reinforcing the process. This is true not only for little children, but for all God’s children at any age in life!

However, there is one exceedingly important difference from the secular versions of visualization and the practice of the Particular Examen – namely, that our efforts are to be utterly God-centered and not self-centered. All the pitfalls that we considered earlier are the result of focusing too much on ourselves. We have a fallen human tendency to vacillate between two extremes. When “succeeding” we get puffed up with pride and vanity. When “failing” we plunge into shame and discouragement. But staying God-centered changes everything.  When we notice slips or shortcomings, we can let ourselves consoled and encouraged by him. When we notice success, we can rejoice and praise him as the source and completion of every blessing in us. This is the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Magnificat prayer (Luke 1:46-55). She never minimizes or denies the good God is doing in her – nor does she ever puff up with pride or self-reliance. She is filled with the Holy Spirit, abiding in faith and humility.

One can hopefully see why Ignatius of Loyola and so many other spiritual masters over the centuries encouraged daily accountability in the form of a particular examination. There are so many benefits: intentionality, accountability, sober watchfulness, encouragement, celebration of progress, and increased skill in discernment. Typically, our steady growth and awareness in one area leads us into another area of growth. What we thought was “the problem” was only one symptom of a deeper problem (or a deeper holy desire). Step by step, God leads us ever more deeply into the mystery of his love.

Holy desires are the seeds God plants in us, intending them to grow and bear fruit. All too often, those seeds get snatched away (like the seed on the path) or prevented from ever taking root (like the seed on rocky ground that gets scorched by persecution). The Particular Examen is a highly practical and effective way of abiding in the graces, until they come to full growth and fruition.

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