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Ignatian examen: a practice of daily reflection

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by Katherine Willis Pershey

Katherine Willis Pershey is a minister in Western Springs, Illinois. In addition to writing a personal blog, she is a contributor to the Christian Century, a storyteller for A Deeper Family, and the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change. She and her husband, Benjamin, have two daughters.

I work full time as a minister, charged with nurturing the spiritual lives of young families – yet I cannot seem to get a handle on the spiritual life of my own young family.

I have grand intentions. This is, of course, part of the problem. Spirituality is especially vulnerable to our tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We think it must be all or nothing – you either do the weeklong silent yoga retreat or eschew yoga entirely, even though a five-minute-a-day practice could be quietly life-changing.

Or you sign up to read the whole Bible in a single year only to peter out in April (okay, March) and realize that there is dust on the good book by August.

Many faith traditions press for total commitment. But even though I get weepy every time I sing “I Surrender All,” I’m awfully relieved that Jesus celebrated faith the size of a mustard seed.

So we don’t always manage to fit in our Lenten devotions, and our Jesus Storybook Bible isn’t quite as well-worn as it deserves to be. But every single night, without fail, my family practices a variation of the Ignatian examen, an ancient prayer practice and tool for discernment .

This sounds fancier than it is. Let me explain.

When I picked up my textbooks for my first semester of graduate school, a picture book was tucked amidst the weighty theology books. I thought there must have been some mistake, but there wasn’t: Sleeping With Bread was a required text for my Spiritual Formation class. The authors (Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn) introduce the Ignatian examen through simple words and illustrations. “For many years, we have ended each day the same way,” they write.

“We light a candle, become aware of God’s loving presence, and take about five minutes of quiet while we ask ourselves two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?

Our practice of the examen unfolds without the benefit of silence and candles, but during the holy chaos of breaking bread together as a family. As we eat dinner, we practice the art of listening to one another – and listening to our lives.

We pay attention to what gives us joy and what breaks our hearts, and we offer this to God. So what if the two-year-old cites the boy next door as the best part of her day for three months straight? He is.

What I like about this ritual is that it works for us now, but our practice will deepen as our children grow. It already helps us reconcile ourselves to one another (when you’re culpable for your kid’s worst moment in her day, you have a lovely opportunity to model the art of seeking forgiveness).

It can also help us seek God’s will. As the Linns write, “Insignificant moments when looked at each day become significant because they form a pattern that often points the way to how God wants to give us more life.”

God wants to give us more life. Not more guilt. Not more items on our to-do list. More life.

To learn more about the Ignatian examen, track down Sleeping With Bread, or see how Mars Hill Church interprets the practice for their community of faith.

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Comments

  1. More life, not more guilt. Oh, Katherine. How I needed this direction today! THANK YOU!

  2. Wow. How could something so simple have never occurred to me? This is a great idea and a great way for us to communicate not only with God, but each other.

  3. Our daily examen is an even more abridged version- in the car, on the way home from work, after I get the boys from after school care. Right now, corralling all 4 of them into one space, quietly, would cause more logistical nightmares than I can quite get my head around! But it’s absolutely better than nothing and works right now :)

  4. WHEN I happen to remember I love to reflect on what I’m thankful for, what I repent of, and how I saw God at work during my day, butI love the idea of lighting a candle and remembering God’s presence. Thanks for the Mars Hill link. Very helpful and encouraging.

  5. My daughter attended Loyola HS here in Manhattan and now attends Fordham University. We have learned from the Jesuits, at these schools, how important the examen is.
    It is very simple to do and puts our busy lives here in NYC into perspective.
    I encourage many to try it. I suggest to read The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by Fr. James Martin. The book has a section on the examen with a very simple/straight forward approach.

  6. We had an incident today at a mission in California that was a real upset to our youngest son, but he learned a stern lesson. He put a pebble from the store display in his pocket thinking it would be okay as they were part of a prop an not for sale.
    I of course over reacted, thinking my son, the one discerning a holy life stole a shiny pebble from a mission!!!

    He sat in a corner humbled and I stood in a corner wondering what happened and had I failed.
    But I knew, if I did not act like Christ then I was worse than a little boy wanting a rock for his collection. So I did.
    To have a moment to reflect at the end of the day on the good and the bad is the perfect healing for what happened today.
    And if anyone reads this post, pray for his discernment and for me to parent him into his true vocation.
    Pam

    Wow, loving this heartfelt post lately. I am so on a healing journey.

  7. I am so grateful for your inspiration! After reading your post I spent time on the Internet researching the Prayer of Examen, and then I created simplified little booklets of the Prayer of Examen. My youngest daughter and I have found this prayer time to be very special, and very intimate as we sit together at night, light our little candle and share and pray. With this prayer we are both able to thank God for the things that make us grateful, but also to pray and resolve to make changes so that we live to please our Father.

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