Learn Saint Ignatius’ daily prayer practice and how it can help you to become aware of God’s presence in ordinary moments.
A couple of weeks ago, we had the privilege of leading a few folks from another local church through praying the Examen, and we wanted to share this beautiful prayer practice with you. Praying the Examen has become a regular rhythm in both of our prayer lives at various times, and we’ve also found it to be a wonderful practice to share with one another. We’ve loved getting to lead others through the Examen in small group settings, and we have friends who have taught it to their kids and prayed it as a family.
The Examen originated with Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the Spanish monk and founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. As a young man, Ignatius was a bit wild, known for his pursuit of ladies, gambling, and brawling with neighboring families. However, God quickly grabbed a hold of his heart, and his sudden conversion led to Ignatius abandoning the allure and romance of a life at court in pursuit of a life dedicated to knowing and serving Jesus. His rich prayer life and desire to share it with others led to the creation of his Spiritual Exercises, founded on the notion that God is present and at work in the stuff of ordinary life. The prayer of Examen was written as a daily practice to help notice God’s Spirit throughout our days. (Ignatius led a fascinating life, and I highly recommend reading up on his biography.)
The outline below is our own adaptation including short verses from the Psalms or Lamentations, and based on Timothy Gallagher’s The Examen Prayer. You’ll also find some helpful thoughts on praying the Examen on your own and with others.
An Outline of the Examen
Take a moment to sit quietly in God’s love as you prepare your heart.
Step One: Gratitude.
Note what you are grateful for. It can be as menial as a fresh cup of coffee, as grandiose as God’s great love, or anything in between.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! (Psalm 100:4)
Step Two: Illumination.
Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you afresh and illuminate your heart as you review your day.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 139:7-8)
Step Three: Review.
With God, review the day. Note the moments when you felt most connected to God (consolation) and most disconnected from God (desolation). Review your choices in response to both, and throughout the day in general.
If your thoughts wander a bit, that’s okay! Sometimes we need to simply let those thoughts pass by, like boats on a river. Sometimes they help us to discern why a particular moment from the day is standing out. Sometimes they shed light on our emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual state.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2)
Step Four: Forgiveness.
Ask for the healing touch of the forgiving God, particularly in areas of brokenness, sin, or times you missed His presence.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
Step Five: Renewal.
Look toward tomorrow. Anticipate His presence in the day to come, and plan to live in accordance with His guidance.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Linger in God’s presence as you end this prayer of Examen.
Adapted from Timothy Gallagher, The Examen Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006), p. 25.
How to Pray the Examen
The brilliance of the Examen is in its simplicity and flexibility, leaving tons of room for experimenting. Sometimes, I skip the first few steps and just pray Step Three, reviewing my day and noticing the moments of consolation and desolation (see below for some helpful questions to guide you through this movement!). Sometimes I need to linger on Step One and take time to thank God for the gifts of the day. More often than not, I don’t walk through every step in the outline above, and God is faithful to meet me however I may come to Him.
When to Pray the Examen
Typically, Examen is prayed in the evening, while the events of the past 24 hours are still fresh. However, I’ve found it useful as a morning practice as well, reflecting upon the day or even the week before. It’s also a wonderful annual practice and a way to review your previous year. The great news is that every movement doesn’t have to be followed to the letter — it’s meant to draw you into awareness of God’s presence, not make you feel guilty for not spending enough time in each movement. Experiment with it, and you’ll begin to notice God’s presence in unexpected ways!
Consolation and Desolation
In its simplest form, praying the Examen can simply be reviewing your day, moment by moment, and noticing the times when you felt near to (consolation) or distant from (desolation) God. We go through countless such moments each and every day, whether we are aware of it or not. This process is more than just dwelling on our sin or patting ourselves on the back when we did something good—it’s meant to develop awareness of God’s presence, His voice, and His Spirit’s constant movement and invitation to communion with Him.
For some guidance in reviewing moments of consolation and desolation, the following questions can be helpful. Again, no need to answer every question; it’s most important to pay attention to what surfaces and to bring those moments to the Lord, asking Him to shed light on their significance.
What gave me life today?
When did I give and receive the most love?
When did I feel the most alive today?
For what do I feel most grateful?
Where did I most encounter, sense, or see God?
When did I feel most myself?
Who did I take time to listen to today?
When did I notice beauty today?
What drained life from me?
When did I give and receive the least love, or even withhold it?
For what am I least grateful?
Where did I miss God’s presence, or feel far from Him?
Whom did I neglect? When did I neglect myself?
What did I avoid today?
Tips on Practicing the Examen on Your Own or With Others
Pray through the Examen in the evening, reviewing your last 24 hours. Or give it a try in the morning, when your mind is fresh. Just find a time and place in which you can devote 15-20 minutes to the prayer, whenever that may be!
Pray the Examen weekly, reviewing the events and experiences of the past week.
Pray the Examen annually, devoting a little extra time to reviewing significant moments and experiences from the past year. The moments that surface may surprise you!
Remember: there is no need to follow every movement exactly, nor is it meant to be a spiritual box to check off. Experiment and find freedom in praying the Examen in a way that suits you, your current season, and your relationship with Jesus.
Pray it alone, with your spouse, or with your kids around the dinner table or before going to sleep. Simply share moments of consolation/desolation (just like sharing daily highs/lows), or what you’re all grateful for.
Pray the Examen in your small group or bible study, giving moments of silence between each movement and allowing others to share their experience.
Download the apps “Reimagining the Examen” or “Pray as You Go” for guided Examen experiences.
Once you learn the rhythm, use this prayer anywhere and anytime!
Over the last several years, the Examen has been a prayer practice that I keep coming back to again and again. When I’m tired of the typical “quiet time” routine, or when I simply need something to draw me into a prayerful space, I pray the Examen. It’s probably become my very favorite spiritual practice, and I feel as though the Lord has used it to draw me into deeper, simpler intimacy with Him.
May you be as richly blessed by the Examen as we have, and feel free to share your experience with it in the comments!