Tag Archives: examen

Sacred Story renews interest in spiritual discernment

The notion of spiritual discernment is not new to the spiritual life of Catholics. It has been part of our spiritual heritage for a very long time. Discernment is the key way we judge reality as it exists, and how I am a protagonist in this reality. One of the spiritual masters of the contemplative life is Saint Ignatius of Loyola who, as you know, placed great emphasis on spiritual discernment. This is seen in his classic manner of leading persons to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ in what is known as the Spiritual Exercises as lived in the 30-day silent retreat, or the 8-day retreat or some shorter form of retreat. The Exercises is more of an experience of grace than a text; it is a method, a journey rather a destination; discernment means having an experience greater sense of freedom in Christ than a decision maker.

The election of a new Pope, man who has been formed in Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality has consequently brought to us renewed interest in the difficult, exacting and yet rewarding manner of knowing and living God’s will and living in the Divine Presence now. We know that our happiness on earth as in heaven has been promised to us by the Lord Jesus himself. You may want to contemplate the biblical narrative of the hundredfold to see what Christ indicates.

The other night on EWTN’s program with Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ, a new program, the Sacred Story Institute, was discussed and the conversation gave me a solid impression that what is proposed herein is very much worth our critical attention. Poke around the website (link given above) and you’ll find some interesting and useful stuff. The work of Sacred Story is clearly about the new evangelization but it is more: it is about meeting Jesus personally through the gift of life given to us by God the Father. If the goal is gain more people in the pews, then don’t bother; the spiritual life is not a program. If you want to know Christ in a personal way with the concomitant desire to be His disciple, then look no further.

Here is my recommendation: watch what Jesuit Father William Watson says as he  introduces the Sacred Story Institute here. You may want to order a copy of Watson’s book, Forty Weeks: An Ignatian Path to Christ with Sacred Story Prayer. One valid piece of criticism I can offer is it can be perceived to rely on psychology a little too much. Fair enough. There are points in the work that gives the impression that seems to give too much preference to psychology than to spirituality. Perhaps this is a point in further revisions of the text as they do some beta testing.

It seems to me that if you want to be mature Christians, then you ought to take advantage of the work of this Institute.

Pope Francis’ books draw on Ignatian spirituality

Have you been wondering what the Pope has published? Well, look no further. L’Osservatore Romano is publishing an article in tomorrow’s edition on Francis’ books. With Pope Francis leading the Church I think there will be a resurgence of Ignatian spirituality –as distinct from “Jesuit spirituality”, inhabiting our Christian lives. I am sure these books will be published in various languages before long.

The first two books in Italian by Jorge Mario Bergoglio were presented on Tuesday, 26 March in the offices of Civiltà Cattolica. They are published by Editrice Missionaria Italiana (Emi): Umiltà, la strada verso Dio (Bologna, 2013,  64 pages, € 6.90, with an afterword by Enzo Bianchi) and Guarire dalla corruzione (Bologna 2013, 64 pages, € 6.90, with an afterword by Pietro Grasso) and are collections of  addresses that the Cardinal Archbishop of  Buenos Aires gave in 2005 to the faithful of the archdiocese.

Both books draw on the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola to describe  its deep inner workings and offer solutions to extremely pertinent phenomena such as corruption in both society and the Church, as well as the urgent need for an ecclesial life distinguished by brotherly holiness.

Speakers at the meeting chaired by Fr Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief  of the Jesuit journal, were Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian historian, Fr Luigi Ciotti and Lorenzo FazzinI, director of Editrice Missionaria Italiana.

Bergoglio stated:

“Factions fighting to impose the hegemony of their own viewpoint and preferences are  fairly common in religious communities, both local and provincial. This occurs when charitable openness to neighbour is replaced by each individual’s own ideas. It is no longer the religious  family as a whole which the religious defends, but only the part of it that concerns him. People no longer adhere to the unity that contributes to configuring the Body of Christ, but rather to the divisive, distorting, and debilitating conflict. For formation teachers and superiors it is not always easy to inculcate a sense of belonging to the family spirit, especially when it is necessary to shape inner attitudes, even small ones, but which have repercussions at this level of the institutional body. One of the effective attitudes that must acquire substance in the hearts of young religious is that of ‘self-accusation’, for it is in the absence of this practice that the spirit of  separation and division is rooted. It is therefore essential first of all to ban every  reference, even an unconscious one, and every kind of pharisaic attitude that presents self-accusation as something puerile or characteristic of the cowardly. Self-accusation, rather, presupposes a rare courage in order to open the door to unknown realities and let others see beyond my appearance. It means removing all our make-up so that the truth may shine through.

The accusation of ourselves (which is only a means) is the basis in which the fundamental option puts down roots: for anti-individualism and for a family and Church spirit which brings us to relate as good children and good siblings, so as to succeed later in being good parents. Accusing ourselves implies a fundamentally communitarian attitude.”

Discretion keeps the practice of virtue between extremes

The daily grind of living is only made more fruitful when we take time to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  While not technically not one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Prudence (a cardinal virtue) is perfected by the Spirit’s energy. How often do we move through our day without giving time to self-awareness, reflection on our “I” in action? The lack of a Trinity-diven examination of conscience in one’s  spiritual life is a pitfall many post-moderns fall into. Any person wanting to know more about him or herself needs to spend time, if only 10 minutes a day, in reviewing points of grace and sin in life up to that point of the day while asking for the grace of root-and-branch conversion. For example, it is has been said that a measure of the person today is how he or she uses free time. Discretion is a fruit of the virtue of prudence; ask yourself if you have been sufficiently discrete in your undertakings.

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Spiritual infirmities such as tepidity are caused, not only by chills but also by fevers, that is, by excessive zeal. Saint Paul says, let your service be a reasonable service [Rom. 12:1], because he knew the truth of the words of the Psalmist, the king in his might loves justice [99:4], that is, discretion; and what was prefigured in Leviticus, whatsoever sacrifice you offer, you shall season it with salt [2:13]. In the same vein does Saint Bernard speak: the enemy has no more successful ruse for depriving the heart of real charity than to get him to act rashly and not in keeping with spiritual reasonableness. “Nothing in excess,” said the philosopherAnd this principle should be our guide even in a matter pertaining to justice itself, as we read in Ecclesiastes, be not over just [7:16]. If one fails to observe this moderation, he will find that good is turned into evil and virtue into vice. He will also learn that many inconveniences follow which are quite contrary to the purpose of the one who so acts.

The first is that God is not really served in the long run, as the horse worn out in the first days does not as a rule finish the journey, and thus it happens that someone must be found to care for it.

Second, gains that are made through such excessive eagerness do not usually endure, as Scripture says, wealth gathered in haste will dwindle [Prov. 13:11]. Not only dwindle, but it may be the cause of a fall: and he that is hasty with his feet shall stumble [Prov. 19:2]; and if he stumbles, the further he falls, the greater the danger for he will not stop until he has reached the bottom of the ladder.

Third, there is the danger of being careless in overloading the vessel. There is danger, of course, in sailing it empty, as it can then be tossed about on the waves of temptation; but there is also danger of so overloading it that it sinks.

Fourth, it can happen that, in crucifying the old man, the new man is also crucified and thus made unable through weakness to practice virtue. Saint Bernard tells us that because of this excess we lose four things: “The body loses the effect of the good work, the soul its devotion, our neighbor good example, and God His honor.” From this we infer that whosoever thus mistreats the living temple of God is guilty of sacrilege. Saint Bernard says that the neighbor is deprived of good example, because the fall of one and the ensuing scandal are a source of scandal to others; and he calls them, in cause at least, disturbers of unity and enemies of peace. The example of such a fall frightens many and makes them tepid in their spiritual progress. In the fallen there is danger of pride and vainglory, since they prefer their own judgment to the judgment of everyone else, usurping what is not their own by setting themselves up as judges in their own cause when the rightful judge is their superior.

Besides these, there are also other disadvantages, such as overloading themselves with weapons which they cannot use, like David with the armor of Saul [1 Sam. 17:38-39]. They apply spurs to a spirited horse rather than the rein. Therefore there is need of discretion on this point to keep the practice of virtue between both extremes. Saint Bernard gives this advice: “Good will is not always to be trusted, but it must be bridled, regulated, especially in beginners,” if one wishes to benefit others without any disadvantage to himself, for he that is evil to himself, to whom will he be good? [Sir. 14:5].

Saint Ignatius of Loyola 
Letter to the Fathers and Brothers studying in Coimbra, Portugal 
May 7, 1547

The Daily Examen

The Daily Examen is a spiritual exercise on the events of the day looking to be aware of God’s presence and discern His will for us. Various recommendations exist on utilizing this gift of prayer but I think it’s necessary to do the Examen twice a day: at midday and then at the end of the day. The whole point of the Examen is to ask the three questions Saint Ignatius Loyola asked: What have I done, what am I doing and what will I do for Christ. This venerable spiritual practice of the Church helps us to see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola gave us a five-step Daily Examen:

1. Be aware of God’s presence;

2. Spend a moment looking over your day with gratitude for this day’s gifts;

3. Ask God to send you His Holy Spirit to help you look at your actions, attitudes, motives with honesty and patience;

4. Review your day in a particular way;

5. Have heart-to-heart talk with Jesus.

Looking at these prayer points:

More than 400 years ago Saint Ignatius Loyola encouraged his disciples to cultivate a conscious awareness of the Divine Majesty’s work in our lives. He wanted us to live vigorously in the power of the Blessed Trinity. Loyola called this awareness is what the Daily Examen.

1. Become aware of God’s presence. So often we forget that God is really present in the daily work we engage in. Here you are asked to look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit. The day may seem confusing to you –a blur, a muddle. Ask God to for the grace of clarity and understanding. Wherever you are, you are a creature in the midst of the beauty of creation. As you quiet yourself, become aware that God is present within you, in the creation that surrounds you, in your body, in those around you. Ask the Holy Spirit to let you look on all you see with love.

2. Be concrete and let the important moments of the day come to mind! In a general way give a moment of reflection on what happened to you. Some people will recall the smell of morning coffee, the laugh of a friend, the fragrance of a flower, or the feelings brought forth by a kind word, or what you’ve learned. Consider what you received and what you gave.

3. Give thanks to God for favors received. This is an opportunity to appreciate the permanent gifts you have that allow your participation in this day; conversely recall your particular strengths in times of difficulty. God the Father gives you these to draw you into the fullness of His life. As you move through the details of your day, give thanks to God for His presence in matters large and small. “When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13) The Holy Spirit inspires you with the gift of growing freedom in your life. Here the freedom the Holy Spirit offers to us allows us to look upon yourself without condemnation and without complacency and thus offering us the opportunity to change, to grow. Ask that you will learn and grow as you reflect, thus deepening your knowledge of self and your relationship with God.

4. Recall the events of your day; explore the specific context of your actions. Search for the internal movements of your heart and your interaction with what was before you. Ask the Lord to show you the moments of grace and sin based on what you experienced since the last time you did the Examen. In what ways did you accept the Spirit’s gifts and in what ways did you resist the Holy Spirit? As the Psalmist says, we have a divided heart. The Examen shows us the areas of this division –the wavering of the heart between helping and disregarding, scoffing and encouraging, listening and ignoring, rebuking and forgiving, speaking and silence, neglecting and thanking. Remember, the Examen is not a time to dwell on your sin and other shortcomings; rather, it is a loving look with the Lord at how you have responded to God’s gifts. The idea is to notice where you acted freely, that is, cooperated with grace–the picking a particular course of action from the possibilities you saw. See where you were swept along without freedom. What reactions helped or hindered you? See where Christ entered your decisions and where you might have paused to receive His influence. “Test yourselves,” Sain Paul urges, “to see whether you are living in faith; examine yourselves. Perhaps you yourselves do not realize that Christ Jesus is in you.” (2 Cor.) Thus, you will come to know that Jesus Christ is with you. Christ continually invites you to love Him and your neighbor as yourself; He will strengthen you to do this.

5. Seek God’s guidance. Ask Him for help and understanding. Pray for hope. Speak with Jesus about your day, about your concerns. Share your thoughts on your actions, attitudes, feelings and interactions. You may feel the need to seek forgiveness, to ask for direction, to share a concern, to express gratitude, etc. Express sorrow for sin; give thanks for grace, the enlightening presence of God, and especially praise God for the times you responded in ways that allowed you to better see God’s life. Resolve with Jesus to move forward in grace-filled action.

You might like to finish your time with the Lord’s Prayer and the Glory be.

Examination of Conscience: Praying Backwards through Your Day

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 “examen.”

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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, 1920-1990.

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.

A Method: Five Steps

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.”

2. Review 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, whatever.

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).

Do It

Take a few minutes to pray through the past 24 hours, and toward the next 24 hours, with that five-point format.


Here 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.

3. We 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.

5. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 think.

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.


Father Dennis 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.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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