Finding Gratitude, Practicing the Examen Prayer: Prayer Practices to Nourish Men (and Everyone) Part Two

The following comes from the second part of a workshop on spirituality for men that I presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, August 29, 2020.

“Twice a day, or at least once, make your particular examens. Be careful never to omit them. So live as to make more account of your good conscience that you do of those of others; for he who is not good in regard to himself, how can he be good in regard to others?”

St. Francis Xavier[1]

When I was five years old, I attended Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Altadena, California. I remember informing my mother one day that I thought that my teacher, a woman, must be Jesus. Why? Because she embodied the love, compassion, and presence that I experienced in Jesus when she read Bible stories to us.

Our teacher, Mrs. Heaton, (I still remember her name), asked the children to close their eyes and imagine with their senses all that was going on when she read Bible stories. Many of these stories were the classics about the patriarchs and prophets.

At one point, after a story about Moses complaining to God in the Exodus Wilderness, my eyes suddenly opened, and I blurted out: “How come Moses always forgets what God had already done for him. God helped him find water and manna? Why does he forget?”

Today, we can imagine someone complaining to a friend who had been helpful in the past: “” Yes, but what have you done for me lately.”

Forgetfulness about all that God has already accomplished was a chronic spiritual problem for the prophets and patriarchs, and I believe that forgetfulness is a spiritual problem for you and me here today.

The challenge is “to remember,” from the Hebrew word Zakhor.

Zakhor appears 200 times in the Hebrew Bible: remember the Sabbath, remember the covenant, remember the Exodus from Egypt.

Zakhor, remembering, is crystalized in the Jewish Passover meal, the Seder.  In a sacred meal that involves all the human senses, participants hear the story from ages past when God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery. In the Haggadah, the verb tense changes from past tense to present or subjunctive tense, as stated in the Passover Haggadah: “In each generation, every person should see himself as if he/she personally came out of Egypt.” Zakhor brings the past into the present and forward into the future.

In the Sabbath and all their sacred holidays, the Jewish people are involved in a performance of memory—through deeds, actions, and speech—in the process of not forgetting.

In his classic book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill contends that it is the Jewish people who gave to the modern world the concepts of progress and future hope. The classical world was a world of repetitive cycles where nothing changed. In the Jewish experience of their sacred history, history is linear, leading forward to fulfillment of God’s promises.

In all the pogroms and violence that the Jews have suffered in their long history as a people, how in the world could they sustain hope? Liturgically and sacramentally, they remembered with gratitude what God had already done. Thus, they could look to the future, as bleak as it may seem, with faith in God’s grace.

Zakhor has important meaning for Christians. As the Passover Seder was probably the precursor to the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion, the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is rooted in the Jewish idea of Zakhor: not a remembering as a memorial of an event long ago. It means that even today, in the breaking of the bread, Jesus is fully present with us and we are fully present with him. We remember: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Gratitude is foundational to Hope. Hope without Gratitude is wishful thinking.

In this introverted world of social isolation and political polarization, how can you and I find hope that is not wishful thinking?

Five hundred years ago, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, became conscious of interior movements within him that shifted from an awareness of God’s close presence and a sense of the absence of God. He noticed that event within the celebration of Holy Mass, these interior movements shifted dynamically.

One day, after a strong, consoling sense of God’s comforting presence, Ignatius returned to his room only to be overwhelmed with desolation. In his own words:

“When the mass was finished and I was in my room afterward, I found myself utterly deserted and without any help, unable to feel the presence of my mediators or of the Divine Persons, but feelings so remote and so separated from them as if I had never felt their presence and never would again; on the contrary, thoughts came to me at times against Jesus, at times against another Person, finding myself confused with various thoughts such as to leave the house and rent a room in order to get away from the noise, or to fast, or to begin the Masses all over again, or to move the altar to a higher floor in the house. I could find rest in nothing, desiring to end in a time of consolation and with my heart totally satisfied. (380-81).”

A cloud of confusion enveloped Ignatius. To center himself, he broke down these individual interior movements in his notebook. He longs for the consolation of God’s loving presence.

Ignatius discovered the key to moving out of the web of desolation. He should work at moving his heart toward God’s desires.

“With this, the darkness gradually began to lift and tears began to come. And, as the tears increased, I felt all desire to say more Masses for this purpose disappear.” (382).

The cloud of confusion lifts as Ignatius seeks to bring the desires of his heart toward the desires of God’s heart.

You and I experience these dynamic movements toward and away from God every day in our life, but we do not intentionally notice them.

“Our exploration of even a single half-day in Ignatius’s spiritual experience manifests plainly why he considered prayerful attention to interior spiritual experience and the effort to respond wisely to it to be the key element of the spiritual life, the one ‘spiritual exercise’ that must always be present in a day that seeks to be a lived ‘yes’ to God’s will. Such ongoing prayerful attention to our spiritual experience and our response to it is the practice of the Ignatian examen…”

The Examen Prayer, Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV (pp. 51-52).

The invitation to you and me to practice the examen prayer is to recognize our desire to know God’s desires for us and to grow in awareness “that our hearts are an arena where many different movements stir.” (Spiritual Exercises 32).

The spark that draws us into practice of the examen prayer is our Holy Longing for communion with this loving God, who is always close to us.

The Examination of Consciousness can seem like a simple prayer format with five action points. But as you pray it, it grows in rich complexity. The prayer can awaken profound and important life-changing events that will call out gratitude to God.

The Examen reveals a map with marker points: not leading forward as much as looking back on your life, those crossroads, those grace-filled moments, when you were at the end of your resources, in a corner, in grief or panic, God’s grace broke through. Mapping those marker points of your own sacred history in your life up to today can show you that you have not been alone in your life.  The Lord has been beside you all the way.

Gratitude is foundational to Hope

Hope without Gratitude is wishful thinking.

I read somewhere that we men define our self-worth by what we do, what we accomplish. Multi-tasking can lead us in many distracting directions and away from our best self and our connection with God.

To live more consciously in the presence of God, Ignatius gave us the Examen prayer. In this brief, five-part prayer we spend a few moments reviewing our day, paying attention to when we felt God present with us and times when we felt separated from God. The prayer helps us live in gratitude for those people, situations, and events in our day when we are most grateful. The Examen reminds us of God’s forgiveness.

In a few moments, I will invite you to pray this prayer with me. I pray this prayer every night before I go to sleep.  Here is a description of the steps (with thanks to Fr. James Martin SJ).

Prepare: I invite God to be with me now as I pray.

  1. Gratitude: I recall two or three good things that happened today. I look back on any good news, precious moments, perhaps an encounter in nature. I focus on thanking God. A caution: do not rush through this. Savor and relish this revisiting of events for which you are grateful.
  2. Ask for the Grace to know your sins. As I look back on this day, where did I turn away from my true self, the deepest part of myself. Where did some curt remark or rudeness happen? Listen to your Conscience and that deep voice leading you to be more loving. Do not beat up on yourself but own your need for God’s grace.

Anthony de Mello said, “Be grateful for your sins. They are carriers of Grace.”[2]

  • Review your day. This is the heart of the prayer. I imagine a video camera playing back my day, from when I first got up. I want to pay attention to where there was joy, confusion, conflict and moments of peace and love. Do not rush through this.
  • Forgiveness. Ask God for forgiveness for anything sinful done during the day. Look for the opportunity to make amends.
  • Ask for God’s help tomorrow. Close with a prayer.

This is another structured prayer that takes only fifteen minutes but can become transformative in your life with God. Remind yourself as you pray the Examen: this is not a dialogue with your self; you are doing this reflection of the past day with God as present with you.

This Examen prayer helps us to see the presence of God as we look back on our life.

Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ tell this story about looking back to encounter God:

“There was an abbot in the Middle Ages who would speak to his monks every day “on finding God, on searching for God, on encountering God.” One day a monk asked the abbot if he ever encountered God. Had he ever had a vision or seen God face-to-face?”

“After a long silence, the abbot answered frankly: no; he had not. But, said the abbot, there was not anything surprising in this because even to Moses in the Book of Exodus God said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God says that Moses will see his back as he passed by him.”

“’Thus,’ Father Kolvenbach wrote, ‘looking back over the length and breadth of his life the abbot could see for himself the passage of God.’”

“’In this sense, it is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by Him in all of life’s situations, where He does not cease to pass and where He allows Himself to be recognized once He has really passed.’”[3]

Let us now pray this Examen prayer together. In our communication with you before today, we invited you to prepare for experiences of prayer this morning by doing your best to find a quiet and comfortable place in your home.

I will announce each section and give a little reminder to what we do in that section. Some of you may want to write down what comes to you. I have found it most helpful to close my eyes and visualized the face and places of the day. Since it is only morning here, let us look back on yesterday.

Let us invite the Lord’s Grace to be present with us now.

Begin with Bell

  1. Gratitude: let us recall the good things that happened yesterday and give thanks to God.
  • Ask for the Grace to know our sins.
  • Let us review yesterday from the beginning of our day.
  • Let us ask God for forgiveness for anything sinful we did yesterday.
  • Let us ask God for help during the rest of this day.

We close with the “Our Father.”

BELL

Here is a testimony of how the Examen has helped one man:

“For me, the daily Examen provides a prayer structure that enables me to remember that my relationship with God needs intention, time and attention each day, and that the experiences of my daily life direct me to know the ways that God calls me and forms me in my life as a Christian. Through the conscious practice and discipline of this prayer, I can better learn to recognize God’s presence in my life, and I can be more discerning and responsible to God each day.”[4]

An app that has helped me is Examen Prayer: detailed guidance for praying this prayer. There is a tool for creating a daily journal of your reflections after praying the Examen.

Questions for reflection:

  1. As you look back on yesterday: for what are you most grateful to God?
  2. As you look back on the events of your life: for what are you most grateful to God?

Resources:

The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today, Timothy M Gallagher, OMV

The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, Fr. James Martin SJ.

An Ignatian Spirituality Reader: Contemporary Writings on St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Spiritual Exercises, Discernment, and More, George W. Traub, SJ

YouTube presentation on Examen with Fr. James Martin SJ


[1] The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, James Martin, SJ, p. 98.

[2] Ibid, p. 91.

[3] Ibid, p. 98.

[4] https://www.marquette.edu/faith/examen-of-consciousness.php#:~:text=In%20the%20Examen%2C%20we%20have,we%20felt%20separated%20from%20God.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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