For over 400 years it roamed freely, but sadly those days have come to an end. In the last couple decades it has been hunted, captured, killed, skinned and mounted on a variety of walls, its once piercing eyes replaced by dark colored marbles. In some cases it has not been killed but rather domesticated, eviscerated of all its untamed wildness and magnificent power. It now walks among us, declawed and muted, unable to lash out with a life- threatening swipe of one of its claws or shake us to the core by one of its eardrum popping roars. There is no longer trembling at the mere thought of it nor having one’s knees grow weak in its presence. Its soul shaking awe-fullness is a distant memory. As a result we have found our ability to know God, know ourselves (our sin, our forgiven status as the beloved of God) and discern the inner witness of the Spirit diminished. The “it” I am referring to is the prayer of Examen.
I have written on this prayer practice before, but I am now more convinced than ever that we need to restore this practice to its original form so that once again it is marked by the untamed wildness, magnificent power and status quo- threatening claws it once had. In many of its current iterations this prayer practice has been reduced to relatively tame questions such as “What has been life giving for you and what has been life draining for you?” These are wonderful questions but they lack the bite of the full Examen. The prayer of Examen, as penned by St Ignatius of Loyola, involves much more than a chat about what makes one happy or sad. For the prayer of Examen is an amplified adaption of Psalm 139:23-24;
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive (hurtful-NASB; wicked-KJV) way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
In this passage we see that there is a searching and a testing going on, and this is no superficial examination but one that will explore and expose the heart and mind of the individual. And it is not a private self-administered examination but one administered by the Lord God Almighty. St Ignatius, building on Psalm 139, designed the prayer of Examen to be a revealing and penetrating process that often feels invasive and takes sin seriously. It is no wonder we have wanted to rid ourselves of this beast of a prayer practice or at the very least domesticate it.
But there is more to the prayer of Examen than taking one’s sin seriously, much more. The prayer of Examen, as it was developed by St Ignatius, when practiced religiously transforms you into a person who:
a. knows God as one who loves you, is with you, and you come to experience yourself as the beloved of God.
b. senses and welcomes the convicting role of the Spirit so that you can turn from your sin (hurtful, wicked ways), embrace life and learn that there is no condemnation in Christ.
c. develops an awareness of the inner movements of your spirit toward God or away from God as well as recognizing the voice of Jesus – the Good Shepherd who calls you by name and leads us through life. You become a discerning person.
d. becomes aware and admits the wrong choices you have made, choices that lead to death, not life, and once admitted you experience God’s forgiveness, grace and love.
e. acknowledges and owns your inability to live this life by your own power and
affirms your ongoing need for the empowering of Jesus in your daily life.
As you practice the prayer of Examen you become a discerning person, developing the mind of Christ, one with a growing ability to determine good from evil (a sign of maturity Heb 5:11ff) and spot evil parading as an angel of light and wolves donned in sheep’s clothing.
The more I ponder this prayer, especially in light of the importance of the ongoing discernment needed to live a God-honoring life characterized by freedom to be who God created us to be and to love and serve others – the more I am convinced that this style of prayer needs to be a part of each person’s daily rhythm of life. The 5 steps of this prayer will be explained below.
Prayer of Examen (also called by some the Awareness Examen)
Step 1 – Being Grateful. The Bible reminds us that every good thing comes from heaven above (James 1:17) and this step invites you to recall to mind and heart the *particular good things you have experienced since your last Examen, good things that testify to the love, goodness and care of God in your life. This step helps you to see God’s grace in your life even during the tough times.
Step 2 – Being Searched. In this step the surgical claws of God come out. The swipes of these claws removing that which is unhealthy, freedom- denying and death- dealing. In this step you ask God to search your heart and mind in order to reveal those things in your life that are hurtful to you and to others. This step helps you to get in touch with the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. A work that helps you to recognize and turn from those things that lead to death so that you can embrace the fullness of life that is yours in Christ. Two things to know regarding Step 2:
a. You ask God to show you your hurtful ways – you are not to do this by reviewing your day (Ps 139:23-24). Oftentimes God will not show you anything at this step. Rather this step is expressing the desire of your heart to know, so that as you walk through your day the Holy Spirit will reveal your hurtful way in the moment.
b. This step is not about condemnation for there is no condemnation in Christ (Rom 8:1). The purpose of this step is to sensitize you to the convicting work of the Spirit and respond accordingly – turning away from the hurtful way and turning toward God and thus being free to more fully live into and out of who God created you to be.
Step 3 – Being Aware. In this step you look back over the time in between this and your previous Examen asking yourself, “Where” have the interactions and circumstances of my life been taking me; to God (volitional consolation) or away from God (volitional desolation)?” This step is not solely concerned with the what of your emotions, but rather the focus is on where your emotions are taking you - to God or somewhere else. This step helps you to notice the inner movements of your heart. This awareness gives you the opportunity to adjust as needed, as well as the opportunity to name and explore any **resistance, and/or the whys behind those things that took you away from God. This step also allows you to review your day, looking for the invitations and/or challenges that God presented to you and then exploring the what and why of your interplay with God during these times – saying yes to God, being unaware until now of any such encounters, resisting the invitation and/or challenges of God, or even refusing to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. It is in and through the regular practice of this step that you gradually become a discerning person - sensitive and aware of the subtle movements of the Spirit, able to discern the voice of Jesus amidst the constant clamor of your daily life. Becoming aware is the pathway to discernment.
Step 4 – Being Forgiven/Loved. In this step you hear the earth- shattering roar of God--but it is not a roar of displeasure or condemnation, for if you listen carefully from the deep places of your heart, you will hear that it is a high-spirited cry announcing God’s love for you, God’s grace extended to you and God’s everlasting forgiveness spoken in to you. In this step you ask God’s forgiveness for anything that came up in Steps 2 or 3 that you need to ask forgiveness for or feel like you need to acknowledge to God. Once again, as in Step 2, this is not about condemnation but about being released from guilt and replacing it with the experience of God’s grace and unconditional love.
Step 5 – Being Unified. In this step you simply acknowledge that you cannot live a God- honoring life alone but you need God’s abiding presence (John 15:5), and an ever deepening internalization of God’s love for you (Eph 3:17-19), faithfulness to you (Heb 13:5) and power within you (Eph 3:16).
This prayer practice is very transforming. It enables you to choose wisely throughout a day and a lifetime, for it teaches you to discern the movements of your heart (toward God or away form God – Step 3), it fosters a sensitivity to the Spirit (Step 2,3), reminds you that you cannot do it alone (Step 5) which is all built on a foundation of knowing that God is with you, for you, predisposed to shower you with love and grace (Step 1 and 4) and fill you with power to live in a way that honors and glorifies God, by freeing you to live in harmony with who God created you to be (Step 5).
Praying the Prayer of Examen
The suggested time of this prayer is 5-15 minutes and it is often prayed at the end of the day. Some people journal as part of this prayer practice while others do not. When beginning to use the Examen it is helpful to put the Step(s) on your smart phone, tablet, 3X5 card…so you can carry it with you to refresh your mind regarding the focus of each Step. Some people affix a piece of paper, sticky note, to their bathroom mirror so they can do the Examen while they brush their teeth.
Also I have found it extremely helpful, though also exceedingly difficult, to practice this prayer during noontime – somewhere between 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. The noontime Examen helps me to recalibrate my heart and keeps me from going through an entire day on a path leading away from God and contrary to who I most truly am in Christ. The difficulty of sustaining the rhythm of a noontime Examen is that it is hard for me to remember to do it. I get caught up into and carried by the stuff of my day and soon the day is over. One way to at least have the conscious choice to do or not to do the noontime Examen is setting an alarm on your phone to remind you of your desire to do this practice and then you can choose.
Making the Prayer of Examen a Part of Your Daily Life
Trying to remember the entire 5 steps of the prayer of Examen can be a tad overwhelming and thus discouraging. So as a strong proponent that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, as well as a huge promoter of baby-stepping, I suggest you begin small with Step 1 (giving gratitude – *particular gratitude) seeking to do it each day while remembering one day a week is better than no days a week, two days a week better than one day and so on. You can focus on Step 1 for a couple of weeks and then add Step 2, practicing Step 1 and 2 together for a couple of weeks and then adding Step 3, then Step 4 and finally Step 5. There is no rush to incorporating all 5 Steps. So take your time, ease into the practice embracing the freedom that comes with being a beginner and celebrating incremental growth.
Once you are quite comfortable with all 5 Steps and praying the Examen on a pretty regular basis I would invite you to begin to practice this prayer twice a day. This way you only ever go a few hours before you check the direction of your heart and mind (toward God/away from God), discern how God may be leading you throughout your day and reaffirm your ongoing need for God and the awareness of God’s love for you, delight in you and faithfulness to you.
As you embark on this journey to make the prayer of Examen a regular part of your daily spiritual rhythm, please remember to ease into the practice as suggested above. Also please take time to c-e-l-e-b-r-a-t-e incremental growth. Additionally, trust God and trust the process. You will probably not see wholesale changes right away, but I assure you that over time you will be more aware of and in tune with God throughout your day, your awareness of God’s love for you and presence with you will deepen and you will learn to hear and be predisposed to respond to the voice of Jesus.
* by particular good things I refer to those good things that speak specially to you. For me one such thing is finding a penny. Whenever I find a penny it reminds me of God’s grace toward me, presence with me, and ongoing provision for me. God and I have a history regarding pennies, so for me a penny is not a penny but a declaration of God’s particular grace extended to me. What are those things that speak uniquely to you regarding God’s grace and love for you ? – a sunset, the ocean, a hummingbird, butterfly, unexpected gift…those are the things you are to express thanksgiving and gratitude for in Step 1.
**resistance is a gift, something to unwrap and explore in order to learn more about yourself and your relationship with God. Whenever you encounter against internal resistance it is an indicator that something in your heart has become unsettled, gotten bumped into. It is a wonderful opportunity for deeper exploration into your heart. I like to say that resistance is a gift from God, a doorway to Divine and self-discovery. Please pay attention to resistance. It is a gift!
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