Thursday, February 15, 2007

Examen of Conscience

Anyone familiar with Ignatian spirituality knows that central to our daily prayer life is the Examen of Conscience. During an Instant Messenger conversation last night, a friend inquired about it. Sadly, I lost the conversation's transcripts (read: I closed the wrong window). But, as many of you know, I love writing about prayer so if this is helpful to anyone, I'm glad to offer this reflection.

At the end of each day, the Examen intends to offer a recap over the whole of the day. When we watch the news, we see how the Dow performed on a graph - at 9:00 am a stock opens at $4.00 a share, by noon it's selling for $16.00, and by the time the market closes, it's selling for $13.00. Now for those with no interested, the stock market report is just another thirty-second interval between the day's top stories and the weather. For those with a vested interest in the market, however, these "fluctuations" are terribly important.

What caused them? Why the great gain? How did it lose $3.00 between noon and the close of the day?

Well, in a sense the Examen probes these questions on a spiritual level. It goes beyond "I was feeling happy, then sad, and now I'm okay" to inquire into the reasons for the changes, the way our hearts have been moved and challenged throughout the day.

I can rehearse any of a number of descriptions for you, but it might be helpful if I tell you how I pray each night. If it doesn't work for you, I'd suggest buying "Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits" or reading something by William Barry.


I usually begin my prayer by listening to music. Something soft and soothing, usually without words, in order to relax my body and mind and make me more receptive. I'm an extrovert so I have to reverse my natural inclination to step out of myself and begin a process of interior exploration.

Since even in silent interiority I am still an extrovert, I imagine that Jesus and I are sitting in a garden. The consummate gentleman, he asks me about my day. And I begin to talk:

-I tell him what I felt when I woke up. If I was crabby, I spend time discussing why I was irritable. If I was in a good mood, I thank him for a good start to the day.

-I tell him about my morning: what I ate for breakfast, how my prayer was, what my workout was like. Some mornings I struggle to prayer, other mornings it comes naturally...so we discuss this. Some days I have very productive mornings and I am able to write and read a great deal, other mornings I have little inclination to do anything other than watch television. We discuss this, too.

-As we review the day together, I come to know more clearly where my heart was resting comfortably and where I felt unease. Maybe my impatience led me to say something curt or cutting, maybe my laziness kept me from doing something I should have done.

-Pulling the day together, I ask if today I had grown closer to the Lord. Some days, the answer is a resounding YES! Other days I'm not so sure!! Some days are tough and I have to drag myself to prayer, not wanting to see again a day I very much want to forget.

-After I have done a great deal of talking, after I have unpacked my heart and put it out before Jesus, I fall silent. I listen for a word of encouragement, of reproach, of love. I rest in this silence for several minutes, abiding in the silent and healing presence of the One who loves.

-And then I tell Jesus that it's time for me to go to bed (as if he didn't already know). I usually ask assistance for the next day and tell him that I'll see him in the morning.


I probably have more a childlike spirituality than some would expect. When I was a little boy, I used to imagine that each night I would take my blanky (a ratty yellow blanket my Grandma Duns gave me) and fall asleep in the fold of God's fingertip. I knew myself to be very little and God to be very big, so big that I only occupied a tiny spot in the fold of a fingertip. I've not lost this intimacy...I still see Jesus as an old friend who waits for me to visit and spend time together. When I walk into a chapel or church, my heart's inner voice usually says something like, "Hello there! I'm back!"


There is no great secret to prayer. I think children pray better than adults when they bring themselves at night to the foot of their beds and ask for what they most deeply desire. We should pray like children with the honesty that they take for granted: to name themselves as they are, to ask for what they desire, to know their limitedness in a very big and very scary world. Most of prayer is showing up, being dutiful to the discipline of allowing yourself to know and to be known by God and the healing love promised to us.

Recall from Star Wars IV that Obi-Wan tells Luke to "stretch out" with and trust his feelings. Yoda encourage the young Jedi to "feel, don't think" and to "trust your instincts." The daily Examen is just this: we think all day, so here we allow ourselves to be guided by our affect into learning how God has been working in our lives. We learn how the Holy Force moves within our lives, how it invites us deeper into its loving Mystery and how it challenges us to overcome the forces of darkness that assault us. In prayer we are guided by our hearts, guided into the human-divine encounter of the love that makes us most fully human and that expresses completely God's nature. To pray is to enter into a relationship, a dialogue with love itself. The Examen is, accordingly, a "grammar/spell check" function for the story of our lives, a daily way to ensure that we are writing our life stories in a way that does justice to the God who loves us into existence.


As I said, if this is helpful, great! I'd be grateful to anyone who'd post her/his tips and prayer styles - I think this is such a rich topic that many of us can contribute to the discussion.
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