The material that follows is also available as an audio recording.
As we are all getting to grips with the thought of a further three weeks of lockdown, going the distance comes to mind again. How do we hold on to God not just in the first flush of a trial but over the long haul? How do we discern his presence with us and draw encouragement and strength from that as well as discernment? I believe one answer to these questions lies in a prayer known as the Daily Examen.
The Daily Examen is a prayer tool that was developed by St Ignatius of Loyola. It can help us to discern God’s presence in our day and, over time, his purposes and direction for us as well. We could think of it, perhaps, as looking for the silver linings in each day so that we can both give thanks for those blessings and learn from them.
Sleeping with Bread, Holding What Gives You Life is the title of a book about the Daily Examen written by Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Lint. They explain the benefits of recognising God’s presence in our days through likening the action of the prayer to the bread in this story:
“During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
This story, at heart, explains the motivation and benefit of the Daily Examen.
It is the discipline of asking ourselves, put simply, two questions: For what am I most grateful today? For what am I least grateful today?
These questions help us to identify moments of consolation and moments of desolation in our day. Consoling moments are those that draw us closer to God and to others. These are moments that are somehow life-giving and can leave us with a sense of rightness and peace within ourselves.
Moments of desolation, by comparison, relate to those times when we see that we have moved away from God or times when we feel disconnected from him, from ourselves, or others. Times when we are at odds with ourselves or God and feel in some way bereft.
When we pray with the Examen over time, we can begin to discern patterns in our behaviour or relationships. We begin to notice what or who helps us to move towards or away from God and, as a result, guides us to seek more of that which we realise draws us into deeper communion with God and less of that which does not.
The Examen can be done at any frequency – daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. However, the more frequently we do it, the greater the benefits.
Actively remembering God’s goodness and noticing his daily presence in our lives is the daily bread we hold onto as we sleep. Bread which can enable us to be at peace and to endure whatever each new day will go on to hold.
The invitation of today’s contemplative offering is, after a time of centring, to do an Examen and then to record in a journal or simply on paper what came from that time of prayer. It is by recording what comes from your prayer each time you do the Examen that you will most easily capture the patterns of consolation and desolation. If you are doing this in the morning, I would suggest your Examen is of yesterday. If you are doing this late in the day, it could be of that same day up to that point.
I would suggest that you read through all the material before you come back to begin.
Begin by settling yourself comfortably; take a minute or two to focus on your posture and your breath.
So take deep breaths that gradually give way to quieter and more even ones. As you inhale imagine drawing into God’s loving presence and experiencing his peace. As you exhale imagine letting go of those things that lead to tension, fear, and a sense of separation from God.
Now picture a place where you find calm, serenity and peace. This might be a favourite place out of doors or it might be a spot in your home, maybe it is the very place where you are reading this.
As you picture this place, imagine yourself there with Jesus; settled and at peace.
If you find your mind wandering, don’t feel you have to struggle. Simply start again to imagine or see yourself in prayer in this place where you find peace and serenity; do not strain to focus but let your musing anchor your thoughts in a relaxed way as you continue in Jesus’ presence.
Then when you feel ready ---
Ask the Holy Spirit to show you the moment today for which you are most grateful. If you could relive one moment today, which one would it be?
It may be a moment, although not necessarily, that shines or stands out positively for you.
However, don’t immediately assume you know. Wait on the Holy Spirit to point to that moment.
When that moment does come into view, ask yourself what was said or done that made it so special.
It might be that it was a moment when you felt fully alive or full of peace, love, hope or joy, or close to God in some other way.
Experience again the gratitude you felt and receive life again from that moment.
Then ask the Holy Spirit to show you the moment today for which you are least grateful.
What was the moment when you were perhaps least able to give and receive love or least at peace or drained of energy? This may be a moment when you were off kilter somehow and out of step with God. This may appear as a low moment or one when you felt angry or sad although challenging emotions do not automatically mean we are distant from God. It may also be a moment that stands out to you as absolute desolation; a feeling of God’s absence altogether.
Again, as appropriate, ask yourself what was said and done or not done in that moment that made it so difficult.
The aim here is not judgement but understanding.
The invitation is not to try and immediately change or fix what is past but to be present to the insight it holds so that you can carry that wisdom forward.
As you remain present to the discomfort of that moment, you may wish to take deep breaths and invite the Holy Spirit to fill you with the love, mercy, hope, peace or other grace you need.
As you conclude your prayer time, give thanks for what has been received.
Now, take a note of what this prayer time has revealed.
As already noted, if you do the Examen regularly, patterns will be revealed that will help you to recognise where God is present in your life thus guiding and helping you, as a result, to make better choices.
Finally, it is worth stressing again that the Examen also helps us to see, whatever we may be feeling, the silver linings; the blessings that God faithfully pours out on us. This is the daily bread which can build our faith, undergird our stamina and give us hope for whatever each new day holds whether we are in lockdown or not.