The Examen: Practicing an attitude of gratitude

As part of St Bride’s Liverpool‘s Lent reflection series on ‘Holy Habits’, I shared my experience of the Examen, an invitation to daily thankfulness:

In St Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3: 12-17), he tells the church in Colossae to

‘Always be thankful’

in everything they say or do, giving thanks to God in the name of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Luke (17:11-19), we heard how Jesus healed ten people, but only one turned back to give thanks – a Samaritan, a foreigner, the outsider Jesus least expected to show such gratitude and faith.  Jesus didn’t hold back the grace, the free gift, of healing, from any of them, but he affirmed the one who gave thanks for that gift:

‘Your faith has saved you.’

Seeking to be grateful to God for the smallest graces or gifts in our lives each day can help us to heal and liberate us from fears which hold us back.

So, I have chosen as my ‘holy habit’ for this Lent reflection the spiritual practice known as the Examen, created by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit religious order in the 16th Century, which encourages us to review each day with gratitude, to seek God’s presence and discern God’s direction for us. It is a holy habit because it connects us to our whole self, and draws us closer to the source of life from which we came and to which we return.

Five years ago, on a pilgrimage to Bardsey Island with folk from the parish, I led night prayer each evening based on this practice. 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, which we did for a few months later that year. Personally, I have used a variation of the Examen to help me make some important decisions, such as whether to move on from one job to another, whether to make a commitment to a significant relationship, and where to go to church. If it weren’t for the Examen, I probably wouldn’t be part of the community at St Bride’s! As a community, we used this approach to help us discern whether to leave this church building behind or commit to re-imagining this place for the 21st century.

Like many things that are good for us, the Examen works best if kept as a regular routine, and this is an area in which I need to practice what I preach! But at key moments when I have been able to use this spiritual practice, I have found it immensely helpful and insightful. This simple technique can make a difference to how we appreciate our daily lives and begin to see the image of God at work within ourselves and others.

I use a beautifully simple version of this reflection, taken from a book called Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. 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. When times are tough, it is helpful to hold onto what gives us energy, hope and fulfilment.

The Examen (a Latin word which might best be explained as ‘examination of consciousness’ is designed to be practiced daily. Ignatius of Loyola wrote The Spiritual Exercises, which has been a guide for retreats and spiritual guidance 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 deepest 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, which 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’ (which draw out the fullness of our life and energy, leaving us feeling renewed and encouraged), and ‘desolations’ (which drive life and energy from us, leaving us feeling drained and empty). The authors of Sleeping With Bread describe these as

‘the interior movements through which divine revelation unfolds.’

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 witness to our faith.

The Examen is about asking ourselves two questions:

  • For what am I most grateful?
  • For what am I least grateful?

We can also ask these questions in other ways:

  • What was today’s high point?
  • When did I feel most alive today?
  • What did I feel good about today?
  • What was today’s low point?
  • When did I feel life draining out of me?
  • What was my biggest struggle today?

While daily practice is the ideal, in our busy lives it can be hard to maintain this habit, but all the more important not to lose sight of where we can find God in our daily lives. 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, or gift of healing.

Some find it helpful to keep a notebook handy to record reflections – looking back can help to notice any patterns or changes over time. It can also help to talk reflections and insights through with a trusted friend or spiritual guide. There are even Examen apps to guide you on your digital devices!

In its simplest form, it can be a way to ‘count your blessings’ – the little things each day we are grateful for. In my part-time role as chaplain for Liverpool YMCA, supporting people with a history of homelessness, alcohol and drug dependency, domestic violence and mental distress, I share with them a variation called ‘A Handful Of Hope’. I invite them to take a few minutes at night or in the morning to cast their minds back over the past day and count up to five things for which they are grateful, or things which gave them hope, energy, life. With this group, I tend to focus only on gratitude, as they need to experience this more than the feelings of negativity that come more easily to them.

Research has shown that if you focus on gratitude each day for 21 days it has long-term benefits for the way we see ourselves and our future, and respond to the daily challenges we face. Even weekly reflection on this simple practice has been shown to be beneficial.

I invite you to try it with me – to allow me to guide you through the process, as it is described in the Sleeping With Bread book:

  • Take a moment to be – here – now – in the presence of God, around us, within us, in the relationships between us.
  • Now, think of one word to sum up your week.
  • Focus on a candle, or close your eyes.
  • Sit comfortably, feet flat on the floor. Feel the floor grounding you, the chair supporting you.
  • Notice the sounds around you – let them go, don’t let them disturb your peace.
  • Focus on your breath – let it slow, let it relax you, let it fill you with peace.
  • Take a moment to recall an experience of unconditional love.
  • Picture yourself in a favourite place, of safety, warmth, trust. Imagine God as you understand God, with you in this place now.
  • Breathe deeply, from the bottom of your toes, up through your legs, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, hands.
  • Breathe in that unconditional love – as you breathe out, fill the space around you with it.
  • Gently cast your mind back over the last seven days – let memories emerge, go where they take you.
  • Ask God to bring to your heart the moment 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?
  • 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 for which you are least grateful.
  • Be with whatever you feel without trying to change or fix it in any way.
  • When were you least able to give and receive love?
  • What was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult.
  • Take deep breaths and let God’s love fill you just as you are.
  • Now in silence give thanks for whatever you have experienced, any insight you have gained. Remember, as all comes from God, so we restore it to God with gratitude.
  • If you could sum up your week with one word now, what would it be?
  • Has this spiritual practice changed your perspective of your week?

If you found this reflection helpful, this leaflet may help you to try this as a daily practice for yourselves. Thank you for allowing me to guide you in this holy habit of gratitude.

If you would like to hear my reflection at St Bride’s on Sunday 25th February, you can listen here:

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