The key to living the spiritual life is the awareness we have of God's (the Blessed Trinity's) action in our lives. The daily reckoning of what, how, when, and perhaps why God acts in such way for, with and through us is essential for us because the journey of faith is not static but dynamic. Saint Ignatius of Loyola believed that we advance in the spiritual life by asking for the grace of insight into our lived experience and to interpret that experience light of the Incarnation. Father Hamm provides me (us) with a good primer on the Examen. His emphasis is on feelings but I think Hamm stands in good company especially when you read that Saint Augustine speak of zeroing-in on one's feelings because God is right there.
About 20 years ago, at breakfast and during the few hours
that followed, I had a small revelation. This happened while I was living in a
small community of five Jesuits, all graduate students in New Haven,
Connecticut. I was alone in the kitchen, with my cereal and the New York Times,
when another Jesuit came in and said: "I had the weirdest dream just before I
woke up. It was a liturgical dream. The lector had just read the first reading
and proceeded to announce, 'The responsorial refrain today is, If at first you
don't succeed, try, try again.' Whereupon the entire congregation soberly
repeated, 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.'" We both thought
this enormously funny. At first, I wasn't sure just why this was so humorous.
After all, almost everyone would assent to the courageous truth of the maxim,
"If at first..." It has to be a cross-cultural truism ("Keep on truckin'!"). Why,
then, would these words sound so incongruous in a liturgy?*A little later in
the day, I stumbled onto a clue. Another, similar phrase popped into my mind:
"If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Psalm 95). It struck me
that that sentence has exactly the same rhythm and the same syntax as: "If at
first you don't succeed, try, try again." Both begin with an if clause and end
in an imperative. Both have seven beats. Maybe that was one of the unconscious
sources of the humor.
The try-try-again statement sounds like the
harden-not-your-hearts refrain, yet what a contrast! The latter is clearly
biblical, a paraphrase of a verse from a psalm, one frequently used as a
responsorial refrain at the Eucharist. The former, you know instinctively, is
probably not in the Bible, not even in Proverbs. It is true enough, as far as
it goes, but it does not go far enough. There is nothing of faith in it, no
sense of God. The sentiment of the line from Psalm 95, however, expresses a
conviction central to Hebrew and Christian faith, that we live a life in dialogue
with God. The contrast between those two seven-beat lines has, ever since, been
for me a paradigm illustrating that truth.
Yet how do we hear the voice of God?
Our Christian tradition has at least four answers to that question. First,
along with the faithful of most religions, we perceive the divine in what God
has made, creation itself (that insight sits at the heart of Christian moral
thinking). Second, we hear God's voice in the Scriptures, which we even call
"the word of God." Third, we hear God in the authoritative teaching of the
church, the living tradition of our believing community. Finally, we hear God
by attending to our experience, and interpreting it in the light of all those
other ways of hearing the divine voice-the structures of creation, the Bible,
the living tradition of the community.
The phrase, "If today you hear his
voice," implies that the divine voice must somehow be accessible in our daily
experience, for we are creatures who live one day at a time. If God wants to
communicate with us, it has to happen in the course of a 24-hour day, for we
live in no other time. And how do we go about this kind of listening? Long
tradition has provided a helpful tool, which we call the "examination of
consciousness" today. "Rummaging for God" is an expression that suggests going
through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you
are sure must be in there somewhere. I think that image catches some of the
feel of what is classically known in church language as the prayer of
The examen, or examination, of conscience is an ancient practice in
the church. In fact, even before Christianity, the Pythagoreans and the Stoics
promoted a version of the practice. It is what most of us Catholics were taught
to do to prepare for confession. In that form, the examen was a matter of
examining one's life in terms of the Ten Commandments to see how daily behavior
stacked up against those divine criteria. St. Ignatius includes it as one of
the exercises in his manual The Spiritual Exercises.
It is still a salutary
thing to do but wears thin as a lifelong, daily practice. It is hard to
motivate yourself to keep searching your experience for how you sinned. In
recent decades, spiritual writers have worked with the implication that
conscience in Romance languages like French (conscience) and Spanish
(conciencia) means more than our English word conscience, in the sense of moral
awareness and judgment; it also means "consciousness."
Now prayer that deals
with the full contents of your consciousness lets you cast your net much more
broadly than prayer that limits itself to the contents of conscience, or moral
awareness. A number of people-most famously, George Aschenbrenner, SJ, in an
article in Review for Religious (1971)-have developed this idea in profoundly
practical ways. Recently, the Institute of Jesuit Sources in St. Louis
published a fascinating reflection by Joseph Tetlow, SJ, called The Most
Postmodern Prayer: American Jesuit Identity and the Examen of Conscience,
What I am proposing here is a way of doing the examen that
works for me. It puts a special emphasis on feelings, for reasons that I hope
will become apparent. First, I describe the format. Second, I invite you to
spend a few minutes actually doing it. Third, I describe some of the
consequences that I have discovered to flow from this kind of prayer.
1. Pray for light. Since we are not simply daydreaming or
reminiscing but rather looking for some sense of how the Spirit of God is
leading us, it only makes sense to pray for some illumination. The goal is not
simply memory but graced understanding. That's a gift from God devoutly to be
begged. "Lord, help me understand this blooming, buzzing confusion."
the day in thanksgiving. Note how different this is from looking immediately
for your sins. Nobody likes to poke around in the memory bank to uncover
smallness, weakness, lack of generosity. But everybody likes beautiful gifts,
and that is precisely what the past 24 hours contain-gifts of existence, work,
relationships, food, challenges. Gratitude is the foundation of our whole
relationship with God. So use whatever cues help you to walk through the day
from the moment of awakening-even the dreams you recall upon awakening. Walk through
the past 24 hours, from hour to hour, from place to place, task to task, person
to person, thanking the Lord for every gift you encounter.
3. Review the
feelings that surface in the replay of the day. Our feelings, positive and
negative, the painful and the pleasing, are clear signals of where the action
was during the day. Simply pay attention to any and all of those feelings as
they surface, the whole range: delight, boredom, fear, anticipation,
resentment, anger, peace, contentment, impatience, desire, hope, regret, shame,
uncertainty, compassion, disgust, gratitude, pride, rage, doubt,
confidence, admiration, shyness-whatever was there. Some of us may be hesitant
to focus on feelings in this over-psychologized age, but I believe that these
feelings are the liveliest index to what is happening in our lives. This leads
us to the fourth moment:
4. Choose one of those feelings (positive or negative)
and pray from it. That is, choose the remembered feeling that most caught your
attention. The feeling is a sign that something important was going on. Now
simply express spontaneously the prayer that surfaces as you attend to the
source of the feeling-praise, petition, contrition, cry for help or healing,
5. Look toward tomorrow. Using your appointment calendar if that
helps, face your immediate future. What feelings surface as you look at the
tasks, meetings, and appointments that face you? Fear? Delighted anticipation?
Self-doubt? Temptation to procrastinate? Zestful planning? Regret? Weakness?
Whatever it is, turn it into prayer-for help, for healing, whatever comes
spontaneously. To round off the examen, say the Lord's Prayer.*A mnemonic for
recalling the five points: LT3F (light, thanks, feelings, focus, future).
Take a few minutes to pray through the past 24 hours,
and toward the next 24 hours, with that five-point format.
are some of the consequences flowing from this kind of prayer:
1. There is
always something to pray about. For a person who does this kind of prayer at least
once a day, there is never the question: What should I talk to God about? Until
you die, you always have a past 24 hours, and you always have some feelings
about what's next.
2. The gratitude moment is worthwhile in itself. "Dedicate
yourselves to gratitude," Paul tells the Colossians. Even if we drift off into
slumber after reviewing the gifts of the day, we have praised the Lord.
learn to face the Lord where we are, as we are. There is no other way to be
present to God, of course, but we often fool ourselves into thinking that we
have to "put on our best face" before we address our God.
4. We learn to
respect our feelings. Feelings count. They are morally neutral until we make
some choice about acting upon or dealing with them. But if we don't attend to
them, we miss what they have to tell us about the quality of our lives.
Praying from feelings, we are liberated from them. An unattended emotion can
dominate and manipulate us. Attending to and praying from and about the persons
and situations that give rise to the emotions helps us to cease being unwitting
slaves of our emotions.
6. We actually find something to bring to confession.
That is, we stumble across our sins without making them the primary focus.
We can experience an inner healing. People have found that praying about (as
opposed to fretting about or denying) feelings leads to a healing of mental
life. We probably get a head start on our dreamwork when we do this.
kind of prayer helps us get over our Deism. Deism is belief in a sort of
"clock-maker" God, a God who does indeed exist but does not have much, if
anything, to do with his people's ongoing life. The God we have come to know
through our Jewish and Christian experience is more present than we usually
9. Praying this way is an antidote to the spiritual disease of
Pelagianism. Pelagianism was the heresy that approached life with God as a
do-it-yourself project ("If at first you don't succeed..."), whereas a true
theology of grace and freedom sees life as response to God's love ("If today
you hear God's voice...").
A final thought. How can anyone dare to say that
paying attention to felt experience is a listening to the voice of God? On the
face of it, it does sound like a dangerous presumption. But, notice, I am not equating
memory with the voice of God. I am saying that, if we are to listen for the God
who creates and sustains us, we need to take seriously and prayerfully the
meeting between the creatures we are and all else that God holds lovingly in
existence. That "interface" is the felt experience of my day. It deserves
prayerful attention. It is a big part of how we know and respond to God.
Hamm, SJ, a Scripture scholar, teaches in the department of theology at
Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. Reprinted from America, May 14, 1994. www.americamagazine.org.