40 days on the Wilderness Road: The Examen

by Wendell Barnett

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith—II Corinthians 13:5a

Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.—Psalm 55:17

God to enfold me,

God to surround me,

God in my speaking,

God in my thinking.


God in my sleeping,

God in my waking,

God in my watching,

God in my hoping.


God in my life,

God in my lips,

God in my soul,

God in my heart.


God in my sufficing,

God in my slumber,

God in mine ever-living soul,

God in mine eternity.—Celtic prayer from the Carmina Gadelica


One of the ways I have found to make a journey more pleasant is to have good maps or an up-to-date GPS; indeed I use both. Another way is that while traveling the driver needs to maintain what is often called “situational awareness.” At its most basic, situational awareness is knowing where you are and what is going on around you. You glance at your speedometer to see that you are within legal limits, and you look over the gauges or “idiot” lights on the dashboard to ensure that everything is operating normally—and you have enough gas to at least make it to the next service station. You look ahead to be aware of what’s in front—like a semi coming over into your lane, maybe too closely, yikes! You look in your rearview and side mirrors to be aware of what’s behind and you glance out the sides to see what’s going on there. Situational awareness helps you stay safe and helps to keep you from getting lost.

How do we keep situational awareness of our relationship with God? You already know the common and usual answers: prayer, Bible study, attending worship and Sunday school. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church reminds of another way we can be situationally aware: self-examination. Lent is a great time to begin a routine of self-ceamination; in fact, this is actually an intended part of Lent. In this post, allow me to introduce to you to a technique of self-examination I’ve only recently discovered, and it may be one you would like to use: The Examen.

Ignatius of Loyola, by Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664) (Art.co.uk) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ignatius of Loyola, by Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664) (Art.co.uk) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Latin title simply means “examination.” It was written by Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1534. Pope Francis I is perhaps the best-known Jesuit today. The Examen is a part of the rules Ignatius wrote to guide the order. Ignatius intended it to be performed twice a day—at noon and in the evening before going to bed. Unfortunately, unless you’re a Jesuit or retired, modern life doesn’t really allow for a lunchtime examination; so, for most of us an end-of-the-day time works best.


The Examen is meant to help us to see how God has been in our day, and to discern God’s direction for us. One may find several versions of the Examen on the web, but they all incorporate in some way Ignatius’ five steps. Here’s a method I like:

To prepare find a place and time in which you are not likely to be disturbed. Sit down and get comfy. Relax. You may want to dim the lights or use the light from a candle.

  1. Begin with the present moment. Focus on God’s presence. God is here. God is now. Remind yourself of God’s presence and that He truly, madly, deeply loves you. To help yourself get started you may want to recite the “God to Enfold Me” prayer given at the beginning of this article. Since in a sense you are seeking light, ask God to send His Holy Spirit to illuminate your day. Your goal is not simply a good memory of what happened during the day, but also to get a grace-infused understanding of it.
  2. Now recall your activities throughout the day—with gratitude. Don’t focus on your failures. Like the old song says, you should “Accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative.” And by all means “don’t mess with Mister In-Between!” Look for the small things: that cup of coffee that was brewed just right, the night’s raindrops made little rainbows on the windowsill as the morning sun hit them, someone held a door open for you as you struggled with an armful of stuff, or after dinner your dog lies next to you with her head in your lap and gives a big sigh of contentment. Recall the gifts given to you and the gifts you gave others. Thank God for each one as you recall it.
  3. In this step you dig a little deeper, and also begin to pay attention to your miscues, failures and sins. Begin by asking the Holy Spirit to give you the grace to look at your day with honesty and to be open to conviction, forgiveness, and instruction. Take a good look at your emotions. One of Ignatius’s insights was that we can detect the presence of the Spirit of God in our emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day. Were you irritated? Glad? Resentful? Compassionate? Angry? Confident? What is God saying through these feelings? Look deeply for the implications as your emotions are clues to how God was in (or left out) of your day.
  4. This step is much like the second and a continuation of the fourth, but is distinguished by being more analytical than the seconds step and more narrowly focused than the fourth. As you recall your day’s activities and emotions was there one that stood out more than the others? Focus on that. If that event/emotion stood out and you’ve been seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance during the Examen, it may well be that the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you something. Ask for revelation and guidance. Listen for God to speak, convict, encourage, comfort and challenge you. God always invites you ever closer to loving Him with all your strength, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. If you haven’t done this sort of exercise before or it’s been a long while, don’t be discouraged if all you hear at first is the sound of silence. Keep at it. This practice will hone your ability to hear and heed the call.
  5. The final step is a heart-to-heart with God and a look toward tomorrow. Praise Him for the good in the day. Ask forgiveness for your sins. Ask for God’s protection and help. Ask for His wisdom about the questions you have and the problems you face. Do all this in the spirit of gratitude. Remember that your life is a gift, and it is adorned with gifts from God.

    Look at tomorrow; open your appointment book if you keep one. What feelings surface as you look at the tasks, meetings, and appointments that face you? Anything make you anxious, or eager? Feel like putting off for another day? Whatever it is, turn it into prayer. Close out your prayer and the Examen with the Lord’s Prayer, if you wish.

Doing the Examen will be like learning anything new. At first it will be very awkward, and you may feel quite self-conscious. You may not hear anything or very little from God.  As you keep practicing though, you’ll get a better sense of its flow and, even better, of God and what God desires for you.



Note: I used several sources (and directly or indirectly much of their words) in preparing the Examen I presented. They are listed here:



http://thepracticaldisciple.com/one-classic-model-of-daily-devotion (Also available as a PDF download: http://thepracticaldisciple.com/pdfs/examen.pdf)

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