In our efforts to respond to the call of prayer, we are greatly assisted by the Church’s spiritual treasury. Within such a vast collection of spiritual wisdom and resources, the Church offers us her various prayer methods.
Each of the prayer methods is in service to mental prayer, which is an open conversation with God. In mental prayer, we speak and listen to him. Such a way of prayer can be difficult, which is why the Church offers us various methods to help us.
The examen is an older prayer method. It was actively practiced by holy ones throughout salvation history. It was a popular method among the desert fathers and mothers in the early Church.
Although it has seen an evolution in different centuries, the purpose is always the same. In the examen, the believer goes deep into their own heart and prayerfully evaluates – examines – the experiences and interactions of their day (or week or month). The examen must be done well or it can quickly fall into a type of self-evaluation or self-worship.
The intention of the examen is to review our day in light of our relationship with God. The examen is about a conversation with God. It is allowing the Holy Spirit a free reign in our hearts so that he can indicate good areas and areas still in need of greater grace. It is not a self-evaluation, but a God-evaluation of our lives. The examen is about slowing down and letting God heal us and give us some direction.
The examen is similar to an examination of conscience but is more thorough and systematic.
The examen requires a place of peace and quiet. Our minds need to be focused on the task at hand. The examen can be done in any posture, although traditionally is would be done kneeling or sitting down (depending on the length of the examen). An examen can be five minutes, fifteen minutes, an hour, or longer depending on the time frame being examined and where our souls are in their relationship with God.
For example, if someone has recently begun to actively live the faith, there might be more time needed. If someone is currently fighting a grave sin, more time might be needed. On the other hand, if someone is living in a relative state of grace and taking their spiritual lives seriously, less time might be needed.
Although, when the Holy Spirit is allowed to work, we should never be surprised by what he does or how long it might take.
In more recent forms, the examen has taken on a five-step approach. These steps can be fluid and can be adjusted according to what a person needs.
The more popular movement of the examen begins with recognizing God’s presence and providence in our life and acknowledging his goodness throughout the day that we’re going to examine. The emphasis on God’s presence gives the prayer time its right focus and allows God to work and be praised in our life.
Our second step is one of gratitude and enlightenment. We thank God for the blessings and sufferings of our lives. After a time of gratitude, we ask God to give us the light we need to see our strengths and weaknesses. We ask him to show us things we might have missed, or are in denial about, or have repressed, rationalized, or justified in our own minds and hearts. We ask God to let his light shine through any barriers we’ve put up.
In the third step, we review our day. It can be done by moving through the hours of the day, or by specific virtues we’re working on and highlighting, or by the people we’ve interacted with throughout the day. It can take one or multiple forms. The task is to open ourselves and ask the Holy Spirit to show us, encourage us, correct us, and protect us. As we go through the review, we acknowledge both virtue and vice. The review is not solely about finding our faults. We also want to praise God for the victories of his grace.
In our fourth step, we ask God for mercy and assess the consolations and desolations of our day. We ask ourselves what made us happy and what caused us sorrow. It is important that we track our emotions so that we can recognize them, channel them rightly, and order them according to truth and goodness.
The examen concludes with a fifth step consisting of firm resolutions of amendment and praying for the graces of renewal.
These are the basic five steps of the examen. There is more to be said, but this is an initial introduction.