What Is the Examen?
For many years now, I’ve believed that most churches—particularly those in mainline denominations—have many untapped spiritual resources at their disposal that have gone ignored or dismissed for a variety of reasons. This could include but is not limited to an overemphasis on intellectual faculties, minimization of the role emotions play in religious experience, and a conscious decision to prioritize mission, service, and social justice over personal spiritual development.
I certainly would not say that the use of reason and pursuing justice are not important. Quite the opposite, in fact. I would say, however, that many are not able to recognize the role that spiritual practices both classic and modern could play in strengthening and empowering one’s awareness of God’s presence in these activities, and the potential that they have to help ground people of faith in a sense that what they are doing is not for its own sake but because God is calling them.
So I have decided that, rather than complain about this (which I have done here and elsewhere quite extensively, including in my book), I would provide an introduction to such practices with an invitation to the reader to consider taking one or more on for themselves.
Today, we focus on the Ignatian Examen.
Ignatius of Loyola developed the Examen of Conscience for his Spiritual Exercises. Out of the four “Weeks,” that is, phases, of his Exercises, the Examen is introduced early, during the First Week when the focus is on one’s own sinfulness and need for God’s love.
There are actually two versions of the Examen, called the Particular Examen and General Examen. The Particular is meant to address a certain sin that the observer is aware of and wants to correct, and Ignatius proposes a set of steps whereby he or she practices it several times during a given day in order to address it.
The General Examen might be more well-known and widely practiced. Ignatius originally meant it to be observed prior to making Confession and receiving Communion, but it is often adapted as a standalone exercise.
There are five steps to the General Examen:
1. Thanksgiving – Expressing gratefulness to God for benefits, gifts, and blessings received. This could include ongoing experiences of fortune such as one’s family or job, or specific happenings during a particular day such as help from a friend. This step is to recognize the goodness in one’s life and to take time to be thankful.
2. Confession – Asking God for an awareness of sinful thoughts or behavior, and for the strength and help to reject them. This may include a negative attitude toward someone or certain acts of commission or omission. This is a time to name one’s imperfections and own up to moments of ignoring God’s presence and activity.
3. Review – Taking time to remember the events of a given period of time, beginning with thoughts, then words, then deeds. One gives an account to God and to oneself how he or she interacted with the world. This step usually assumes that the Examen is being observed at the end of a day, though it isn’t required.
4. Forgiveness – Having confessed sins in Step 2 and remembered the day’s events in Step 3, the observer asks God for forgiveness for wrongs committed, remembering that one ultimately is beloved by God.
5. Resolution – Having confessed and asked for forgiveness, the observer resolves to take on new habits and attitudes with God’s help to correct past thoughts and behaviors for the future.
Several things here must be acknowledged and clarified.
First, some readers may react to how “Catholic” some of this sounds, which is often a convenient way for many non-Catholic Christians to dismiss spiritual practice. Many of the classic practices did originate in Catholic traditions, as Christianity did in fact exist prior to the Protestant Reformation. These practices are ancient, well-grounded, and deeply rooted in time-tested tradition and have many benefits for Christians of any persuasion so long as they are open to the process.
Second, readers may bristle at the prevalence of sin language in this practice. The Classical Liberal theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries moved toward rejecting such terminology in favor of viewing humanity as basically good, and such thought continues to prevail in certain corners of Christianity. A quick internet search or a half-hour’s worth of cable news shows us a world steeped in violence, discrimination, misunderstanding, and selfishness, which incriminates individuals, groups, and systems alike. “Sin” still serves as a powerful and useful theological word in such a reality. Why mince words with God or oneself?
As mentioned, the Examen may be best observed in the evening as a way to review the day’s events; to give thanks for the good and to fess up to the bad, and to discern how God was a part of it all. It also helps us to consider how God may show up in the day to come, and how God may best be served given what may be possible.
This last point is how one may begin to integrate such a practice into one’s dedication to mission and social justice; to ground that dedication in one’s faith. And it may inspire the observer to use one’s God-given gift of reason both in reviewing and considering the day ahead. This is how such such practices help assimilate the spiritual self into the rest of one’s life, centering it in God’s presence.