Have you ever engaged in the ancient spiritual practice of examen? No, it doesn’t have anything to do with taking a test when you get to the Pearly Gates. The examen is a practice that likely dates earlier, but was popularized by Ignatius of Loyola in the fourteenth century.
Ignatius was a Spanish soldier who experienced a profound conversion while recovering from battle wounds. He founded a religious order – the Jesuits – and created a series of “spiritual exercises” for those in his order, and others who would find them helpful. Only recently have Protestant Christians ‘discovered’ them and put them to use.
Among the exercises commended by Ignatius was the examen – not an examination to determine how much you know, but an examination of one’s self and life experience to consider the ways in which God seemed most present, or least present, in one’s day, week, month, year, or even life. Some practise the examen once a year, while others practise it daily. Some even wait until they know life’s end is near to look back and find God’s presence in their years.
I’m an advocate for practising the examen on a daily basis, as a growing part of the relationship with God. Typically, this can happen at the close of the day when one is preparing for a night’s rest. You can think back on the events of the day, and before God consider where God was most active, whether in encouraging or admonishing or comforting. At the same time, you can consider where God seemed most absent, or most distant.
These are good things to which to pay attention on an ongoing basis, and doing so daily makes it much easier to note the details of our lives. Did God’s Spirit minister to you in a special way at some particular point? Praise him! Perhaps you might keep a journal in which you thank God for those moments when he seemed closest and was at work in your life.
Did God seem far away at some point in your day? Take time to ponder why that was the case. Since we know from Scripture that God will never leave us nor forsake us (Joshua 1.5; Hebrews 13.5), we can take on faith that if God seemed distant, it was not because God was distant; we just chose not to involve or engage the Lord in that part of our day. Perhaps you might journal that, too, and ask God to help you to be more aware of his presence.
The Psalmist wrote, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139.23-24, NIV). I encourage you to try the examen as a tool to invite God to search you, and know your heart. Let it be a daily part of your growth in Christ. You won’t be disappointed as you see the transforming power of God’s grace at work in your life!