This is the third in a series of four posts on ancient ways Christians have sought God. The path described in this post turns the focus to our lives. Of course, we need to read the Scriptures to grasp how God works, but this path invites us to read our lives to see how He is working there. We often think of God's work as dramatic and miraculous, and sometimes it is. His quick work here is hard to miss, but His slow work often is. The subtle whispers, the quiet providences, the shifting desires — we can blow through these and miss them. This path asks us to stop and notice by examining our lives. It's aptly called the Examen.
The Examen dates from the 1500's and originated with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Of all the spiritual exercises he created, he considered this one the most important. The idea of it is simple. It's praying backwards through your last 24 hours, noticing what happened, what you felt, and bringing all of that to God, the good and the bad. Over time, you develop an internal navigational system, helping you participate in what God is doing in your life. Your self-awareness triggers increasing God-awareness. The currents of desire ebb and flow, but now you can see the currents and better choose the wholesome and enduring ones.
Ignatius categorized two basic motions of the heart, the two that make up the Examen:
- Consolation deals with movements we make toward God. These always entail an increase in faith, hope, and love. As such, they can also yield a growing sense of God's presence and peace along with an expanding of noble desires and humble transparency.
- Desolation is of course the opposite, movements away from God. Here faith, hope, and love are replaced by unbelief, anxiety, and shame. The disconnection from God engenders apathy or restlessness. All of this combines to make us secretive and afraid.
The differences seem obvious, but it is easy to confuse the two. Consolation is not just feeling good and desolation feeling bad. Sometimes grief or anger can be moving us toward God while excitement or comfort can be carrying us away from Him. Discerning the two is all part of the adventure of the Examen. Your own life becomes a never-ending source of wonder as you peer into it and find God ever at work.
As to practicalities, many like to do the Examen in the morning, thinking about the previous day. Some, however, like to do it at the end of that day. As you reflect on the day's events and your responses, you notice both consolations and desolations. These can then lead you to thanks, praise, or confession. You are, in a sense, praying your day back to God. Some also find it helpful to journal the Examen as they do it. As far as length, it's always best to start small (5 minutes or so) and increase as you desire.
God is always at work in our lives. The Examen helps us to see that and respond to Him more faithfully. The best way to see it is to try it yourself.