Examining Examen

“Discernment in its fullest takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the Word of God and the single-mindedness to follow that word in love. It is truly a gift from God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed. It is a gift cultivated by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge.” – Ernest Larkin

Among the things I love about this quote by Ernest Larkin is that he pictures discernment as a gift of God, but one that is cultivated by prayer and the search for self-knowledge. There is something about the way each of us were made that must play into the discernment process.

According to St. Ignatius, God directs us in three ways:

1) Direct revelation
2) Through the practice of examen
3) Through the use of our intellect

I want to talk in this post about examen. This is perhaps a new word for many. It’s most likely pronounced with a long “a” sound – like “exAmen.”

Examen helps us pay attention to our hearts, which is something we’ve been talking about here for a few weeks. Examen is the art of paying attention to what is giving us life and what is taking life from us. What is giving life, and what is sucking life. Ignatius called these two categories consolation and desolation.

Generally speaking, God wants you to do more of the things that give you life and less of the things that don’t. There are some qualifications to this, which we’ll get to in a bit, but this is generally true.

We can learn a lot about ourselves by learning to pay attention to the things that are life-giving (consolations) and life-sucking (desolations) for us.

Let’s do consolation first. The way this works is to get quiet and still (just like the last exercise), and to ask yourself these kinds of questions: “What has been life-giving for me this week? Where have I found blessing? What am I thankful for this week? What’s been the high point of my week this week?”

And here’s the most important question: “Why? What, specifically, was life-giving about that? Why was a this such a blessing to me?” Take your time here. Don’t rush this reflection time. Probe this deeply. And write down your answers in a journal, and reflect on that.

After you’ve spent a bit of time on consolations, do the same with the desolations. What is taking life from me this week? With what have I struggled most this week? What is sucking me dry?

And again, ask yourself “why.” Why is this so draining for me? What about this is so life-sucking? This is really important, so again, don’t rush this process. Sometimes we need to invite God into the desolation, because sometimes the reason it’s taking life from me is because I need to address something.

This is a great exercise to do weekly, but it’s also good to do monthly and even yearly in addition to doing it weekly. Identifying these patterns over time is what really helps us with discernment.

It’s also helpful occasionally to do what some have called a “final examen.” Imagine what you’d do if you only had a month to live. What would give you life? What would take life from you?

Now, let’s talk a bit about some of the dangers of this. It’s not really that examen is dangerous, but that we tend to be a bit dangerous with it. You may have a tendency to want to interpret “what gives you life” as whatever gives you the most pleasure or the most fun (like “having an affair with this woman sure is life-giving to me, so I should do more of it.”). Similarly, you may want to interpret “what takes life from you” as whatever is difficult or not enjoyable (like, “working on our marriage challenges with my wife sure is draining; therefore I shouldn’t do it.). In America, we’re all about half-narcissistic, and so we tend to think fun and pleasure are the highest goals, and that discomfort and difficulty should always be avoided. This is not what examen is about. Something may be difficult for you because you’re being selfish. God may want to transform this part of you. The point here is to keep your motivations in check. Be honest with what you’re feeling and why.

Examen is a powerful tool that can really help you connect you with what is most authentic about you; what has been placed within you by God.

I don’t remember where this quote comes from, but I’ve always liked it:

In the process of living life faithfully, lovingly, and freely, we create meaning with God. It is a question of “being” rather than “doing.”

God has placed a bit of himself within each of us; a bit of his heart in our hearts. Learning to pay attention to that part of us, responding to its promptings, is what gives our lives meaning, purpose, and hope.

Try this next week and let me know how it goes.


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