The Examen of Consciousness
Have you ever come to the end of the day and wondered where the time went? Or have you ever come to the end of the day, and felt burdened by regret over the way you handled a situation or treated someone? Have you ever received good news, or felt relieved by something in your day, and yet rarely had time to celebrate and live from the joy and freedom such news inspired? If you are like me, there is often such a flurry of activity, responsibility and busyness in the day, that the act of daily living can become a blur defined by events rather than the daily experience of living life richly.
St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, knew this about us as human beings. He knew that we can become distracted by and attached to many things in life. He also knew that, while some of our distractions can be life-giving, most tend to lead away from our best sense of ourselves and God, and can actually interfere in our deepening relationship with God. Ignatius had the wisdom and insight to see that God, as creator of all, exists in all and that in the very human midst of our distracted living, we may miss the love, power, teaching and substance of God in our day.
To help us become more present and disciplined to the experience of God in everyday living, and to encourage us to live more consciously in and of the presence of God in our daily lives, Ignatius gifted us with what he called “the most important prayer” that we could do, the daily Examination of Consciousness or the daily Examen. In the Examen, we have an opportunity to spend a few moments reviewing our day, paying special attention to the moments we most felt God’s presence with us, and conversely, becoming aware of the times when we felt separated from God. The Examen further invites us to practice living in gratitude as we are asked to remember those people, situations and events in our day for which we are most grateful, and also to ask special blessing and prayer for those hopes and concerns in our hearts. Lastly, the Examen reminds us that each day we may ask forgiveness for any and all transgressions in which we feel we did not follow the best path that God offers to us in our words, thoughts or deeds. By recognizing our need for forgiveness and God’s desire to forgive us through this daily examination of consciousness, the power and freedom of living in ongoing redemption becomes possible. Our spiritual path becomes a dynamic experience of conscious living based on our relationship with God.
While there are many wonderful contemporary articles and writings suggesting various methods for proceeding with the Examen, I find it most effective for me to keep the method inclusive of a simple 5 steps, and I keep the discipline of time and place for the Examen structured every day. I like to do my daily Examen at night when I first go to bed. I take a few deep breaths and begin to review my day from the morning to the evening. First, I bring to mind all of the events, people, relationships and circumstances of this day for which I am most grateful, and I praise God for God’s generous goodness in my life. I then spend a few moments remembering different periods of grace or circumstance when I was aware of God’s consoling presence in the day, whether through an insight gained or creative problem-solving achieved or the presence of a cherished friend or needed conversation. I next review my day with an eye towards places that I felt separated from God, places of desolation in my spirit. These remembrances for me often consist of times and circumstances during the day in which I felt anxious or I felt a need to be in control. Additionally, times of desolation for me may include circumstances within the day in which I led from my own ego needs and drives rather than praying for and allowing the power and surprise of the Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts and actions. I then take this knowledge to God in prayer and ask forgiveness for those ways in which I separated myself from God, and those ways in which I did not act, speak or think in a manner that is consistent with my Christian call or in a manner that is indicative of my own personal values. Lastly, I ask God to bless all those concerns, people and desires of my heart, and I ask God to help me to be the person that God calls me to be in the day to come.
For me, the daily Examen provides a prayer structure that enables me to remember that my relationship with God needs intention, time and attention each day, and that the experiences of my daily life direct me to know the ways that God calls me and forms me in my life as a Catholic Christian. Through the conscious practice and discipline of this prayer, I can better learn to recognize God’s presence in my life, and I can be more discerning and responsible in my ability to respond to God each day.