An examen practice can assist in finding and interpreting the thread of spirituality that is always in your life.
In his poem “The Way It Is,” William Stafford describes the spiritual journey as a thread we follow as it weaves through our lives—sometimes more visible than other times, but always there. We must never let go of the thread, he urges.
But how exactly do we keep track of it? St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Catholic Jesuit order, developed a practice called the “examen of conscience”—or just “examen”—that can help. Examen is a simple, easily incorporated mode of mindfulness that packs surprising power to illuminate the movement of the divine in our lives. St. Ignatius included it as a key part of his Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations and prayers for discerning God’s will, that he published in 1548.
Many consider St. Ignatius to be Catholicism’s first spiritual director. He intended participants to carry out the Exercises over the course of a month-long retreat—although he also described a way to complete them over a longer period without seclusion. Now many Christian communities, both Catholic and Protestant, offer the Exercises and an examen practice today, tailoring them to a world in which most people work throughout the week and may not necessarily have time for an extended period away.
The Ignatian Exercises explore themes like our brokenness and God’s mercy, Jesus’s life experiences, and his passion and resurrection. One of the main tools of the Exercises is the examen practice. Although rooted in Catholic history, it can be used within the context of whatever faith tradition is meaningful to the practitioner.
In fact, when I participated in the Ignatian Exercises in 2005, I was at a time in my life when I had been a practicing Christian for many years but was disillusioned. It felt validating to be with other people tracking the movement of the Spirit in our lives with what seemed like a very practical tool, and I found meetings with my spiritual director Mary, who accompanied me during the Exercises, to be a safe way to explore what came up. For me, the fact that what came up was that I wanted to leave the Christian faith—or at least the institution—showed the flexibility and range of the examen process, as well as Mary’s ability to hold space for me to explore this urging without judgment, even though she was firmly established in the Methodist tradition and church that was offering the Exercises.
In their book Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn write that Ignatius “expected that God would speak through our deepest feelings and yearnings, what he called ‘consolation‘ and ‘desolation,’ describing consolation as ‘whatever helps us connect with ourselves, others, God and the universe’ and desolation as ‘whatever disconnects us.’”
It may feel difficult to become aware of desolation, but we can relax and let it tell its story, according to the Linns: “Often what your desolation most wants to say to you is, ‘I need you to do more of what consistently brings you the most consolation.’ Thus, the answer to what your desolation is trying to say may be found right within your consolation.”
So how exactly do we do the examen? For the examen practice, we take spiritual stock of the past 24 hours, noticing the ebb and flow of connection and disconnection the Linns describe by asking ourselves questions like: For what am I most/least grateful? When did I feel the most/least ease? When did I give and receive the most/least love? When did I feel most/least alive? When did I have the greatest/least sense of belonging? The Jesuits also suggest that the examen process can be applied to issues that both include and go beyond the personal, such as climate justice, antiracism, or crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
To conduct an examen practice, try something like this at the end of the day:
- Find a safe and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Get centered: Light a candle and invite Spirit to be present. Settle in your chair. Notice your body. Count your breaths.
- Ask Spirit for help reviewing the day, starting with gratitude rather than looking for “sin” or failure.
- Pay attention to what arises: moments of consolation or desolation, body sensations, emotions.
- Consider one of these insights and let it settle. Respond to Spirit/Creator/Higher Power/God with gratitude, prayer, praise.
- Release the day to the Spirit; look toward tomorrow.
St. Ignatius designed this simple spiritual self-review as a way to live out a contemplative life in our day-to-day experience and to “follow the thread,” as Stafford describes it. This following is deeply satisfying, as it connects us to our inner wisdom, according to Ignatius: “For it is not knowing much, but realizing and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”
Keep reading about spiritual direction: “What Is Spiritual Direction?”