Many of us are familiar with the examination of conscience used to prepare for the sacrament of Reconciliation. Some versions are based off of the Ten Commandments, others the seven capital vices, but each includes the scrutiny of one’s thoughts and actions with the goal of making a list of one’s sins.
This said, the final tool I’d like to suggest for our journey of growing in friendship with God is the Examen prayer according to the Ignatian spirituality. Rather than an examination of “conscience”, it is a prayer of awareness. Instead of focusing on the moralistic evaluation of good or bad conduct, the Examen prayer is intended to be a tool for the discernment of spirits. The principal goal is not to find the sins and faults committed throughout the day. The aim of the discernment of spirits, and of the Examen prayer as a concrete exercise of discernment, is to discover how God is moving us interiorly. It is about becoming aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, attracting us towards God. At the same time, it helps us become aware of how our sinful nature is subtly luring us away from God. More than judging the morality of our actions, the Examen prayer helps us to increase and refine our attention to God moving in and through our interior life.
The huge risk of the examination of conscience is to focus our attention more on ourselves than on God. Even if its intention is to improve our relationship with God, many times it becomes more of a means of self-analysis with the goal of self-perfection. The Examen, instead, is an opportunity of encounter and dialogue with God. It is a moment of prayer. The Examen preserves its prayerful quality when we also practice daily meditation. The fruitfulness of the Examen depends on meditation because it is in the meditation of God’s Word that we begin to recognize His voice, and this familiarity with His voice allows us to find God in other moments of our day. In fact, the first goal of the Examen prayer is to become aware of God’s presence in concrete daily events.
St. Ignatius teaches the exercise of the Examen prayer in five steps. He advises to take fifteen minutes to do the prayer once or twice a day. Actually, towards the end of his life, Ignatius prayed the Examen almost continuously because he so much desired to be in unceasing relationship with God.
The Five Steps of the Examen Prayer
1. Give thanks
A spirit of gratitude is what makes the Examen prayer unique. The more we grow in our relationship with God, the more we recognize our poverty and His gratuitous love that we receive in every moment and in everything. Gratitude is the distinctive sign of a person who feels loved by God.
What are the concrete gifts I’ve received today from God?
What has given me joy, enthusiasm, peace, and understanding?
2. Ask for light
The Examen is not just about reviewing, with our memory, the events of the day. It is rather about asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten what we’ve experienced. We don’t need to force ourselves to remember every detail. We need only allow the Spirit to bring to our attention how God has concretely manifested his love to us this day.
Come Holy Spirit!
This step is the core of the discernment of spirits. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we try to recognize how God has been present in our life.
What event/encounter/situation struck me?
What did I feel?
- Consolation: love for God, compassion, growth in faith, hope and love, peace, joy.
- Desolation: darkness, discouragement, indifference, restlessness, sadness, self-centeredness.
What call do I perceive from God?
- Consolation is a sign of correspondence between my gaze and God’s; the invitation is to stay in it and listen to God’s voice.
- Desolation is a sign that my view is not the same as God’s; the invitation is to change my heart and gaze in order for it to be like God’s.
After having looked for God’s presence, action, and call throughout my day, I acknowledge my presence or absence, my collaboration or omission, my response or my silence.
I now express to God what I feel I need to:
Praise, thanksgiving, sorrow, need for forgiveness, need for help, desire to change, trust, etc.
5. Tomorrow, together
To conclude the prayer, I envision tomorrow and how I want to live it concretely together with God. If we’ve done well the previous four steps, our resolution for the future will have a different expression each time. If our resolution is always the same, it’s probably more of our own invention than a fruit of prayer given by God.
With hope and trust, I ask the Lord the grace necessary to live my resolution tomorrow, with Him.
I close my prayer with an Our Father and a Sign of the Cross.
Tonight before going to bed, I will follow the five steps of the Examen Prayer.
This month’s reflection is by Sr. Janel Olberding.