LAST YEAR, on pilgrimage to Bardsey Island with St Bride’s Church, Liverpool, I led night prayer each evening based on the spiritual practice known as the Examen, created by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
From this came the request to offer this practice regularly at St Bride’s, in the form of a guided meditation to reflect on the week.
I use a beautifully simple version of this reflection, taken from a book called Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life by Dennis and Sheila Linn and Dennis’ brother, Fr. Matthew Linn S.J.
The book takes its title from this story:
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’
Like these children, we can benefit from holding our ‘daily bread’ while we sleep. The insights of a few minutes’ nightly reflection can nourish us and help strengthen us for the next day and all the days ahead.
The Examen is designed to be practiced daily. Ignatius of Loyola wrote The Spiritual Exercises, which have been a guide for people making spiritual retreats since the 16th Century. The Exercises begin by recommending that everyone be taught the Examen. Ignatius saw the Examen as the cornerstone of the spiritual life to the extent that when the Jesuits at the Council of Trent asked if they could skip their prayer exercises because they had no time, Ignatius told them to skip anything but the Examen.
Regular practice of the Examen can reveal a direction for our life – the Examen is what changed Ignatius from a wild soldier to a pilgrim walking barefoot to Jerusalem. He believed that, as we are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27), so by reflecting regularly on our desires, the Examen can help to put us in touch with the voice of God that is within each one of us.
He taught that God speaks through our deepest feelings and yearnings, what he called ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation.’ Consolation is whatever helps us connect with ourselves, others, God and the universe. Desolation is whatever disconnects us. Ignatius recommended returning to our deepest moments of consolation and desolation, as God is constantly revealing himself to us in our experience.
In its simplest form, the Examen means asking ourselves questions to help us identify the ‘consolations’ and ‘desolations’ in our lives – ‘the interior movements through which divine revelation unfolds.’ We learn to recognize those things which give us life and energy or which drag energy away from us, leaving us feeling drained and empty instead of renewed and encouraged.
The Examen can also help us identify patterns in our responses which might need our attention, such as a tendency to avoid conflict or to keep silent instead of speaking out about something important. Consistent attention to these interior movements can help us resolve problems and discern a way forward which will enable us to live out our unique way of giving and receiving love. As we learn to use this tool for spiritual growth, we become more able to discern God’s leading and to make life-giving decisions which enhance our humanity and our ministry.
The Examen is about asking ourselves two questions:
- For what am I most grateful?
- For what am I least grateful?
These questions can also be asked in other ways:
- When did I feel most alive today?
- When did I feel life draining out of me?
- What was today’s high point?
- What was today’s low point?
- What did I feel good about today?
- What was my biggest struggle today, or when did I feel sad, helpless or angry?
While daily practice is the ideal, in our busy lives it can be hard to maintain this discipline, but all the more important not to lose sight of where we can find God in our daily lives. I am offering this time to reflect on the week, to teach people the practice and invite them to use it for themselves as often as they are able. It’s an attitude more than a method, a time set aside for thankful reflection on where God is in our daily lives, and where we need God’s grace.
It’s at St Bride’s Liverpool every Friday evening for a trial period until the until the end of November. Doors open for optional refreshments from 5.30pm, guided meditation and sharing from 6.00pm for around half an hour.
If you can’t make it and would like to try the Examen yourself, you may like to follow the process as described in Sleeping With Bread which I’ve quoted below:
You may wish to light a candle. Do whatever helps you to experience unconditional love. For example, imagine yourself in a favorite place with someone whose love you trust, such as a friend, Jesus or God as your understand God.
Put your feet flat on the floor, take a few deep breaths from the bottom of your toes, up through your legs, your abdominal muscles and your chest. Breathe in that unconditional love, and when you breathe out, fill the space around you with it.
- Place your hand on your heart and ask Jesus or God as you understand God to bring to your heart the moment today for which you are most grateful. If you could relive one moment, which one would it be? When were you most able to give and receive love today? Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so special. Breathe in the gratitude you felt and receive life again from that moment.
- Ask God to bring to your heart the moment today for which you are least grateful. When were you least able to give and receive love? Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult. Be with whatever you feel without trying to change or fix it in any way. You may wish to take deep breaths and let God’s love fill you just as you are.
- Give thanks for whatever you have experienced. If possible, share as much as you wish of these two moments with a friend.