Updated: May 29, 2019
“The examen makes us aware of moments that at first we might easily pass by as insignificant, moments that ultimately can give direction for our lives.” ― Dennis Linn
A Quest for Presence In the Western society (and in heavily Westernized Eastern cities) there is a great buzz about the desire and need to fully live in the present moment. I wonder, if this is caused by simply the increased amount of distractions for “not being fully present in the here and now”. Whatever the cause is, mindfulness coaches’ offices, bookstores, and yoga studios are filled with people who are trying to learn how to be present. I will not exclude myself from the fellow “presence-seekers”. And as a follower of Jesus, besides wanting to learn to be fully present to myself and the world around me, I have an added desire, and perhaps even a stronger desire. I want to be present to God, who is ever-present to me, in ways that nurture my friendship with him and help me to follow him more closely.
Brother Lawrence (1617-91, France) discovered the treasure of enjoying God’s affectionate love and presence in and through all of his life. When people asked him how he managed to cultivate such a keen awareness of God’s presence with him, he wrote the following (his letters have later been collected and published under the title “the Practice of the Presence of God”),
“How can we pray to Him without being with Him? How can we be with Him but in thinking of Him often? And how can we often think of Him but by a holy habit which we should form of it? You will tell me that I am always saying the same thing. It is true, for this is the best and easiest method I know; and as I use no other, I advise the whole world to do it. We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”
However, often when I ask myself (and those whom I am honored to accompany through the practice of Spiritual Direction,) the question, “when did I (or you) know that God was with me (or you) today?” we struggle to sort through our crowded minds until we find a memory of a moment of awareness of his presence with us. Often times, the reality is that so many of our daily experiences simply go unnoticed by us without much of recognition, or attention to God’s activity, promptings and gifts to us.
Yet, it is possible to cultivate a prayerful way of being present to ourselves, God, and our surroundings in the midst of busy lives. Brother Lawrence, for instance, did not sit in a prayer chamber all of his days but rather developed a way of being with God wherever he was – in his rest, work, and conversations with others.
The Prayer of Examen
There are many practices that can help us to grow in our desire and ability to become more often aware of God’s loving presence with us throughout our day. I have found the Ignatian Prayer of Examen as one of the greatest tools for this.
Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556, Spain), a great Christian mystic, developed a prayer practice which is known as the prayer of examen. Ignatius believed that the time of examen prayer was the most important moment of the day, because it affected all the other moments. The prayer of examen awakens our consciousness to God’s nearness in the midst of our ordinary lives. It helps us to reflect on when we are most and least present to God’s love in our day. It is a beautiful and important prayer practice for those who desire to keep company with Jesus throughout their day.
Here are some ways how the examen prayer has been described:
“Praying backwards your day.“ “Watching with God your day played back to you like a film.” “Using memory in prayer to searching for something, like searching through purse to find keys, something we recognize once we find it because we are already familiar with it.” “Dusting for the fingerprints of God in our day.”
How Do You Pray the Examen?
There are countless ways and versions to pray the examen. However, in all of them the core remains the same, which is that with the help of God we listen closely to the data of our lives and notice the story God is writing with us in the midst of it all. Below, I will share one way that I have used the prayer of examen in my life.
Some Tips Before Your Prayer:
Let God to take the lead, and guide your time of prayer. Ask him to show you your day from his perspective. Ask for his eyes to see the details of your day, actions and heart’s responses with truth and compassion. By inviting God to examine our hearts with us, rather than doing it alone we avoid the danger of either justifying our actions or becoming depressed by the darkness of our hearts (and the world). Trust that God will show you what you need to see and when. The goal of Examen is to explore with God all the parts of your life, past, present and future, and not to get stuck on only focusing on past failures.
Orientate yourself to God by listening to his voice. Even if you don’t sense him saying anything, seek to see with the eyes of your heart how he is accompanying you during the prayer. Is he smiling with content and affirmation? Is he holding your hand for comfort and courage? Would he like to ask you a question? Is he attentively listening with a loving concern?
Make it a prayer instead of self-talk by consciously addressing God. E.g. “Jesus, help me forgive my mother her hurtful words” versus “I really need to forgive my mother”. Because of the structure of the prayer of examen, it can easily slip into a thought exercise if we don’t center ourselves to God and his voice.
Keep it short (around 15 minutes) and pray it regularly. It is much better to pray the examen once a day (or twice, like Ignatius of Loyola did, once during lunch and once before going to bed) and keep your prayer short, rather than try to review a whole week at once and spend a long time doing so in one sitting.
Gifts of the Examen Some of the gifts of practicing the prayer of the examen are:
Developing a greater awareness of God’s presence and involvement in the daily life (all of it matters to him and he has something to say about it all).
Noticing the “sacredness” of the ordinary moments and interactions.
Enjoying God’s companionship and experiencing his loving nearness more often.
Becoming more quickly aware of your desires and longings (what gives you life and what drains life out of you).
Growth in discerning God’s voice and guidance.
Learning to be better present to yourself, your emotions and responses to God and others.
Peace Beads Ebook
I have added to the host of other prayer guides that have been based on the examen prayer. I have designed Peace Beads, which is a tactile listening prayer tool that includes a prayer guide called “My Day in Beads”.
In my own prayer life, and listening to others, I have become aware of a need for prayer tools that are both reflective (such as the examen, and other contemplative prayer practices) and that engage all our senses, including our God-given imagination and creativity. Our experience of life, God, and ourselves is often too deep for words, and allowing us to engage with our whole self (which goes far beyond words) in prayer opens up meaningful new windows for an authentic encounter with God.
When using the My Day in Beads prayer guide with beads, I invite you to review your day with God through the lenses of 5 beads. You can deepen and enrich your prayer by selecting a unique bead that represents your desire, emotion or experience for each “step” of the examen prayer.
1. Peace Bead
Peace Bead might be the most important one, as it reminds us that we are in the presence of a loving God and invites us to become fully present to ourselves, body, mind and heart, and God in the moment. This is also the moment when we ask God for the grace to notice his gentle movement and voice in our life.
2. Joy Bead
Far too often and quickly our conversations with God move into the realm of needs. This bead calls us to notice all the small and big gifts that God has sprinkled all over our day. Taking time to name and treasure the good, true, kind, gracious, beautiful and enjoyable in our life can become one of the most profound practices that reveals and changes our hearts like nothing else. Don’t rush through this but make space for gratitude, and the joy of telling your Daddy God “thank you!”.
3. Sadness Bead
Grief is a strong emotion that can bubble up when we allow ourselves the time to be still. If we recognize our pain, allow ourselves to fully feel it, and express it to God, this often becomes the quickest and surest way right into the arms of the comforting God. God truly is with the brokenhearted and he never lets his children to suffer alone in silence. Often a host of other negative emotions such as disappointment, anger, frustration, annoyance, etc. might be just covering jackets for the deeper emotion of the sadness that is hiding underneath. Even bringing “the small sorrows” of our day to God offers an opportunity to be comforted, accompanied, and forgiven by God. (Sometimes our own sinfulness hurts us, and taking a moment to grieve and ask for forgiveness for our mistakes lifts up heavy burdens that are not for us to carry.)
4. Love Bead
The heart of the examen is to learn to become aware of God’s loving presence in our lives. Love Bead offers a chance to put our God-sensor over the data of our day and wait for it to start signaling and peeping. Of course we might go back to our memories of moments of joy and sadness and be reminded of how we knew God’s love for us then, but we might also be surprised by something that hadn't caught our attention earlier. When we seek to find experiences of love in our day, we gain deeper insights of how God has been showing his love to and through us all along the day through events, people, and places.
5. Trust Bead
Finally, we think about tomorrow. In the light of our prayer of examen, we will talk to God about our fears, concerns, desires, hopes, and commitments for the coming day. Trust Bead invites us to confess our faith and trust in God’s goodness to us today and tomorrow. It offers us a chance to ask for help and to release our needs and longings to God.
The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today by Timothy M. Gallagher Reimagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways to Pray from Your Day by Mark E. Thibodeaux Busy Lives & Restless Souls: How Prayer Can Help You Find the Missing Peace in Your Life by Becky Eldredge The Examen Journal: Finding God Everyday by Mary Williams The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard J. Foster
Pearls of Life: For the Personal Spiritual Journey by Martin Lönnebo
A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner's Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads by Kristen E. Vincent’s
Making Heart-bread by Dennis Linn, Matthew Linn, and Sheila Fabricant Linn
The World Is Awake: A Celebration of Everyday Blessings by Joseph Bottum and Linsey Davis
Maybe God Is Like That Too by Jennifer Grant and Benjamin Schipper Because Nothing Looks Like God by Lawrence Kushner, Karen Kushner and Dawn Majewski
Today I Feel... An Alphabet of Feelings by Madalena Moniz
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Geoff Stevenson
Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox and Stephanie Graegin
Online Guided Audio Examen Prayer by Pray-as-you-go