Practicing the Ignatian Examen
Edmund Lo, S.J.
As Christians, we try to align our lives with the commandments of God, to live in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. That being said, what we desire may or may not be what God desires; God may or may not be at work when things go our way. God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Hence the quality of our lives and our inherent desires should not be gauged by worldly standards, but that of the Lord’s. Fair enough; but how do these translate into concrete, daily life matters?
Here I would like to share with you a reflection prayer that should provide some answers to this question in a concrete manner. It is the Examen prayer by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of a Catholic religious order called the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. The Examen prayer is a prayerful reflection, in which we examine our lived experience of the day and try to determine whether they have been the works of the Holy Spirit or the evil spirit. Based on the data generated from this reflection, we will have concrete points to focus on in terms of improving our lives as Christians. There are three major parts in this prayer that I would like to highlight: petitioning the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the reflection, and asking for specific graces afterwards. I will now describe each of them in more detail.
The role of the Holy Spirit
An unwavering trust in the working of the Holy Spirit is necessary in the Examen prayer. What does that mean? We know that being reflective of our experiences is good, but we can do this with or without a religious perspective. That being said, does it not make sense for a Christian to ask the Spirit of God to guide us in every actions, including our reflections? Many other factors can be at play during a reflection, ones which can act as hindrances. For example, psychological defensive mechanisms or our own imperfections such as subconscious pride may prevent us from seeing what was really happening in our actions. Furthermore, there is the evil spirit that will try to draw us away from the Lord. Hence it is pertinent that we ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we see what the Lord wants us to see, and understand what the Lord wants us to understand through the Examen.
The Reflection itself
The reflection itself, guided by the Holy Spirit, is not simply a review of the day to see what we did well, and what we did not do well. It is to see whether our actions bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit and bring us peace, and if so, for what reasons. This is the litmus test of our daily activities. We are not to quickly go through our activities of the day, but to go through them prayerfully. There are times when the works of the Holy Spirit are very apparent; sometimes not. There are also times when something clearly stands out as material for a more in-depth reflection in the Examen. Sometimes our Holy Spirit-led reflection would lead us to examine an unexpected event of the day.
More specifically, we are to examine our innermost feelings in such an event. What kind of emotions did it stir up? Did it bring me peace? Was it the kind of peace that lasts for a short while but ultimately leaves me in a state of emptiness, or was it the long-lasting kind that leaves me feeling edified? Or did it bring me a sense of happiness? If so, why was I happy about it? Perhaps it disturbed me; but in what way? Here we are examining the underlying movements of our actions. It can be that our seemingly good actions are indeed coupled with good intentions; sometimes they are not. It can also be that some events may seem difficult to undergo on the surface, but they are accompanied by good fruits. For example,there are times when difficult decisions have to be made despite the unpopularity factor. However, if they bring forth a peace, a lasting peace that the world cannot give, then it is indicative of something good, because only God can give us this kind of peace.
Speaking of good fruits, another component to be mindful of is the presence or absence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). When we see that our actions have borne good fruits, be it externally to others or internally in ourselves, it is a good indication that the Holy Spirit was with us. If our actions actually bore bad fruits despite being accompanied by positive emotions, then red flags should be popping up in our minds: no works led by the Holy Spirit will bear bad fruits. If so, the positive emotions here are façades put up by the evil spirit, something that initially tastes sweet but ends up turning bitter.
Asking for the grace
What I am interested in here is describing the Ignatian understanding of “asking for the grace”. This is very specific, because we have already seen where the Spirit of the Lord had and had not been with us in our daily activities through the Examen. Where the Lord had been with us, we want to continue; where the evil spirit loomed and caused havoc, we want to avoid and make amends. The Examen provides in vivo, concrete examples in which we can pinpoint the problems and accordingly ask the Lord for the specific grace that is required. It also highlights the fact that we do not become better Christians by our own workman-like efforts, but rather by cooperating with the grace of God that is given to us. This is an example of another characteristic of the Ignatian spiritual tradition, the </spanMagis (“more” in Latin). Everyday, every action, we seek the “more” – not more for ourselves, but more for the Lord, for the greater gloryof God.
Reference points for the future
The specific structure of the Examen prayer also allows us to do something unique: those situations where we were misled by the evil spirit (and thus bore bad fruits either in our actions or within ourselves) will certainly return in the future; but having prayed for specific graces according to these events, we can “check” in our future Examens to see whether we have been cooperating with God’s grace. For example, the next time when we examine a situation where we previously had been too proud of ourselves, we can check to see whether the specific grace that we petitioned for has been received. Sometimes it has, and this in a very concrete way improves us, helping us to live a better Christian life. Sometimes the grace has not been received for whatever reasons, and we repeat the same mistake. Perhaps we had a late night, and the lack of rest played a part. Or it may unearth further issues within myself, and consequently I need to ask the Lord for more graces to combat them. When we are faithful in doing the Examen prayer, it is as if we have a long series of data points from which we can track how we have progressed or regressed in our spiritual lives as manifested in our daily lives.
How is the Examen prayer relevant to our lives, in particular in our political, economic and social engagements? My humble opinion is as follows: we have different dispositions, likings, political bends and whatnot. By and large, diversity within these aforementioned criteria is not hindrances to live an authentic Christian life. All facets of our society are in dire need of strong witnesses to Christ, so that they may better reflect the Kingdom of God, that it be “…not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). The authentic Christian lives in the broad spectrum of life and can only help to further realize this. Hence methinks it is not so much a question of what we do but how we do it; we need to ensure that good intentions are appropriately manifested, that they are indeed bearing good fruits and are bringing us closer to the Lord.
The Examen serves as the ideal tool for a prayerful assessment of our daily lives. Are we doing these things for the right reasons? Better yet, do these reasons only reside in our heads, or do they lead us to just and virtuous lives? For example, winning a theological argument is fine and dandy, but what if my inner (if not hidden) motivation was to simply defeat the other person because I need to feel affirmed by my victory and I subconsciously crave that fleeting feeling of importance? Success, things panning out within our expectations or happiness simply cannot be considered as reliable guides to whether our lives are aligned to what the Lord wills. They may, but they very well may not. We need something that can better serve as a gauge to whether our actions are truly bearing good fruits. This is particularly important to those who engage in social advocacy work, as there is a temptation to succumb to a do-er mentality and completely exert oneself into advocating for good and just causes without regularly stepping back in a prayerful manner to examine the fruits that have come out of it. In short, the Examen prayer is the prayerful re-calibration tool that can help us to be more in tune with how our lives have been in consonance or dissonance with God, and we may subsequently make adjustments to our lives so that it may better reflect our innermost desire as Christians: to be in union with God in every moment.
Edmund Lo is a Jesuit seminarian who is studying philosophy in the University of Toronto. He is currently active in ministering to the Chinese Catholics in Toronto. Prior to becoming a Jesuit, Edmund was a scientist, obtaining a graduate degree in neuroscience from the University of British Columbia.