You delight to set your truth deep in my soul, teaching me wisdom even there. ~ Psalm 51:6
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.~ John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion ~
The Examen prayer is a wonderful way to prayerfully attend to the condition of our heart while looking at the events of our day. We do this in order to detect God’s presence and activity in our lives, to discover how we are responding, and to discern next steps. This type of prayer was practiced by the early church, and was formalized into five steps in the 16th century by St. Ignatius of Loyola.
The prayer is meant to be prayed as a whole, usually at the end of each day, but each step can also stand alone. Going into a particularly difficult meeting, for example, you may sense the need to examine your emotions and surrender them to God.
The steps below describe the traditional 5 steps of the examen prayer. Shorter variations of the prayer also exist. I find them very helpful. I include a sample shorter examen prayer at the end.
Step One: Become aware of the presence of God
Transition into prayer aware of God’s presence and love. Ask him to be with you during the prayer. Don’t skip this step. It may take a while to become aware of God’s love, and if this is all you are able to do, then stay here, in his love, with no compulsion to move on in the prayer.
A simple prayer of trust:
“LORD, according to your word it is your will that I know truth in my innermost being, and that it is this truth that will make me wise. Thank you that I need not fear your examination of my heart. Thank you too that I can trust you to use my thoughts and feelings about myself, and that you will use them to uncover things that I might not otherwise want to look at. Take, Lord, these next moments of quiet reflection. I give you my memory. I give you my mind and my heart. I give you my will. I give you my imagination. I give you my trust. Guide me into all truth by your Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Step Two: Review the day with gratitude
Gratitude is foundational to all true prayer. It positions us in God’s presence and prepares us to look into our hearts. Recall the events of your day, giving thanks for God’s gifts to you.
Step Three: Pay attention to my emotions
In the course of remembering your day, certain feelings will surface, feelings of both joy and sadness. Pay attention to them. Ignatius calls these consolations and desolations. Consolations are feelings of joy and peace that draw us closer to God. Desolations are feelings of sadness, restlessness and anxiety that push us away from God. Don’t censor your feelings. And don’t try to fix anything. God is revealing truth to you. He invites you to examine the emotions that go into your reasoning and planning. If you are uncertain about the values of this step, consider these scriptures:
- Psalm 51:6 You delight to set your truth deep in my soul, teaching me wisdom even there.
- Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. And see if there is any way of pain in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.
- Psalm 26:2 Examine me O Lord and try me. Test my mind and my heart.
Step Four: Choose one feature of the day and pray from it
So far in this prayer you have paid attention to your day and to your emotions. You may be tempted to be overwhelmed. Continue to stay in God’s love. Choose the one thing that most caught your attention. No matter what the accompanying emotion is — hurt, anger, joy — ask God to show you the nature of that emotion. Express spontaneously what surfaces as you attend to the source of that emotion: Thank you. I’m sorry. Help me. I love you. Be with me. Listen to what God says back to you. As you develop this practice you will be able to discern more and more the movements of your heart, whether the emotions are a temptation that push you away from God and others or a drawing that pulls you towards God and others.
Step Five: Look toward tomorrow with hopeful resolution
This is an important part of the prayer. Here you consider what you will and may encounter tomorrow. From new (or deepened) realization based on your prayer today, ask God for a particular grace or gift that will help you live tomorrow in accordance with God’s desire for you. Ask God for what you want, or wait for God to offer something: perhaps it’s strength, or courage, or a sense of humor. Talk with God about it as you would a friend. Say, “Be with me in _______ (name the situation, the emotion). I need from you _____ (name what you need).”
The most wonderful part of this step is that at the end of your day tomorrow you can review your day to see when and how God answered your request. If you asked for courage, notice the ways you were given courage. What did courage look like for you? How was it manifested? You will begin to see growth. Your faith will take a running leap forward.
Shorter Versions of the Examen Prayer
Lord, it’s been a full day. Would you help me to remember – what gave me life today?
As you remember, notice all you can. Describe what happened, or what you thought, silently to the Lord and then talk with Him about how you felt. Express your thanks to Him.
Lord, would you help me to remember – what drained me of life today?
Again, as you remember, notice all you can. Describe what happened, or what you thought, silently to the Lord and then talk with Him about how you felt. Receive His love for you.
Lord, thank you. I receive Your love. Amen.
Other possible questions to ask:
- When did I give and receive the most love today? When did I give and receive the least love today?
- When did I have the deepest sense of connection with God, others and myself? When did I have the least sense of connection?
More on the Prayer of Examen
Jim Manney’s book, A Simple Life Changing Prayer, introduces the prayer of examen and its impact on our spiritual transformation.
The Linn family’s book, Sleeping With Bread, opens with a story about World War II orphans. The Linns do a masterful job of drawing the implications of their story for the prayer of examen. Don’t let the cover fool you. It may look like it’s for children, but it is geared to adults.
Reimagining the Examen is a free phone app. This app includes the traditional 5 step prayer of examen and over 30 other daily examens that help us discern our thoughts and emotions. Here is a sample list: A Pending Decision. How I Treated Others Today. My Greatest Fear. Am I Choosing Life or Death? This is one of my favorite apps.