Over the past year, I’ve been studying a variety of spiritual fathers and their spiritual rhythms. I understand how pretentious that sounds, but the faith tradition I grew up in constantly declared, “It’s not religion, it’s relationship.” While I understand the sentiment of that statement, I think it errs in this way-
Religious practices can be the structure and rhythm that fosters a deeper relationship with God.
Any relationship requires consistency and intentionality in order to deepen. Spiritual practices provide an intentional, consistent structure.
One of the spiritual practices that I’ve been curious about lately is Ignatius’ idea of the daily Examen. Ignatius was a Spanish Catholic priest that founded the order known as the Jesuits. He has so many great things to teach us about Christian Spirituality.
The Examen is a discipline where you learn to reflect on the past day in order to see God’s presence in that day. In a sense, the Examen is a means of ‘praying backwards.’ We aren’t praying for something that is to come, we are reflecting back on what has already happened and learning to notice God, express gratitude, and notice ourselves as well. Here are the basic components of the Examen prayer:
Where did you notice God’s presence today?
What are you grateful for from this day?
What emotions did you feel throughout the day?
What is something you are looking forward to tomorrow?
These concepts are simple enough, but often times we are too busy to slow down and notice. God’s presence. God’s blessings. Your own heart. I’m starting to incorporate these questions into dinner time with my wife and our four small girls. I ask the question “Where did you notice God?” but caveat it for them “Where did you notice goodness?” (an easier concept to grasp at their age.)
Here were a few of last night’s actual answers-
”I noticed goodness when me and my sister were fighting over the pink unicorn. Neither of us wanted the white unicorn. After fighting for a bit, we agreed to share and take turns.”
”I noticed nervousness when I was in line for lunch. I was at the end of the line and worried I would have to sit at the end of the lunch table and I don’t like that. I was able to sit in the middle though because I brought my lunch.”
Nothing profound here, but the clarity and the simplicity of it are beautiful. The Examen is about learning to notice. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The Stoics made a practice of journaling. Seneca would journal at night, reflecting on the past day and if he had lived up to the ideals and virtues he expected of himself. I love Ignatius’ idea of Examen because it takes these principles and attaches it to noticing the presence and goodness of God.
I’d encourage you to try running through this Examen prayer for a week and see what comes out of it.