Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Notes on the Examen of Consciousness.

A while back, a reader asked me if I would post some detailed thoughts on the Examen of Consciousness. At the time I appreciated the suggestion and promised to have a post up on the subject within a few days. For a number of reasons, I failed in this objective. For one thing, I was humbled by the request and had a hard time summoning up reflections worthy of publication - here I am, a mere novice, called upon to give advice on weighty spiritual matters and predictably feeling inadequate to the task. Beyond that, I was also busy with any number of things and, I must confess, some laziness crept in as well. Maxima mea culpa. After the passage of nearly two months, however, I feel like I ought to offer something to the reader in question, so here goes.

For anyone reading this post who doesn't know what the Examen is, the article linked above by Phyllis Zagano offers an accessible and detailed introduction to this form of prayer. The reflections that follow assume a basic understanding of what the Examen is, and if you don't have one you may want to at least skim Zagano's piece before reading on. Speaking as a novice, I'll say that the Examen is the most important prayer I do each day. Ignatius himself regarded the Examen as an indispensable part of each Jesuit's prayer life: in fact, our founder went so far as to maintain that no Jesuit could ever omit his daily Examen, even if unable to do any other prayer during the day. Furthermore, the Constitutions recommend not one but two daily Examens, one at midday and another before bed. In practice, I'll admit that I'm often delinquent about the midday Examen; depending on one's schedule and circumstances, it's often hard to find the right time and environment to do it (perhaps for this reason it typically isn't as strongly insisted upon as the evening Examen). However, the evening Examen has been a key part of my prayer life for some time - not simply since I entered the Society, but as a layperson as well. Praying the Examen has helped me see where God is at work in the events of my daily life and has made me more mindful of where I have and haven't been faithful in my relationship with God. The Examen has also made me more attentive to my relationships with other people and has given me a greater awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses, helping me see both where I've done well and where I need to improve. That's basically my experience in a nutshell - I could go into more detail, but these humble reflections should at least convey the fact that the Examen of Consciousness has been a great help to me - not simply in my life as a Jesuit novice, but in my life as a Christian.

In addition to wanting to know more about my personal experience of the Examen, the reader comment referenced above also sought my advice on pastoral approaches for advancing the popular practice of the Examen. Again, I'm just a novice and my experience is quite limited, but I'll take my best stab at the question. The Examen is a form of prayer anyone can do - it requires no special equipment or training, nor does one need a great deal of practice to get "good" at it, whatever "good" means in this context. All one needs to do the Examen is a patient willingness to put in the time to do it, a quiet place to pray, and the raw material of one's daily experience to pray over. For many, the daily experience element may be a stumbling block - we may find our daily routine too banal or ordinary to provide much worth praying over, but speaking from experience I can say that this perception is a false one that is easily overcome. Great variety can hide behind the seeming monotony of routine; on the same token, it's important to recognize that the God who is present in all things speaks through monotony as well as through variety.

As I hope the above makes clear, it's fairly easy to integrate the Examen into one's prayer life. At the same time, however, I'll admit that promoting the Examen among the laity - especially at the parish level - presents something of a challenge. Though, as I've said, the Examen is easy to do, I think the emphasis on step-by-step processes often employed in explaining the prayer can make the Examen sound more complex than it is and thereby discourage potential practioners who may feel themselves too busy to give it a try. As a form of mental prayer, the Examen may also present a challenge to Catholics who are more accustomed to forms of prayer that emphasize the repetition of set formulas and the performance of physical actions - saying the rosary, for example. The Examen can work for busy people (it certainly did for me) and it can work for people who aren't used to mental prayer, but creative efforts are needed to promote it. In this regard, however, the simplicity of the Examen could be its finest attribute. Though spiritual direction is perhaps the best context within which to introduce the Examen, it can be brought to the faithful in other ways as well. I've heard priests (and not only Jesuits) use parish homilies to describe the Examen and encourage its use, and bulletin inserts and leaflets can also get the point across on different levels. Then there's the Internet; the Zagano article I linked to above is just one of many online resources touching on the Examen and other aspects of Ignatian spirituality. The Irish Jesuits' Sacred Space and Creighton University's Online Ministries are just two of many excellent sites offering resources in this area. Though the material is there for those looking for it, it remains the case that others who could benefit from practices like the Examen aren't looking. Consequently it falls to Catholics who have been nourished by their experience of the Examen to share the fruits of that experience with others and to encourage them to try it for themselves. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that word of mouth is the best kind of advertising. I'm doing my bit - why don't you do yours? AMDG.


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