Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24
Like me, you’ve probably quoted these verses many times. But have you ever practiced them? The prayer of examen is a pattern of prayer that invites us to actually do what these verses say.
Crafted by St. Ignatius of Loyola, this form of prayer has been used for centuries by those who want to become more aware of God’s presence in their everyday lives and notice ways in which they can better align their lives to God’s Word. In as little as ten minutes, you can pray this prayer, or you can spend any amount of time you’d like with it. Allow yourself some flexibility with its structure. For example, some days, you might spend more time with one section of the prayer or skip a section entirely. That’s okay. Give yourself permission to enjoy this way of being with God while trying, on most days, to spend time with each section of the prayer.
An important practice that often accompanies the prayer of examen is writing in a journal. As you keep a written record of your actions, thoughts, attitudes, and feelings, you might notice some patterns in your life that you weren’t aware of. These patterns might become the content for additional prayer, invitations to change, or causes for celebration. Talking with a pastor, spiritual director, or wise friend can help you discern what, if any, actions you should take based on this prayer.
Over the years, the prayer of examen has undergone many adaptions and variations. Here’s a pattern that has been helpful to me.
- Review your knowledge of God. Sometimes before we pray, we need to remind ourselves about the Person to whom we pray. Is the God we pray to all-powerful? All knowing? Loving? Merciful? What do you know to be true about God? Do you know God as a healer, deliverer, comforter, teacher, creator, protector, friend, way-maker? Open your prayer by inviting God into this time of holy and loving guidance. Honor God by naming some of the attributes of God that you experienced today. Write them in your journal.
- Recognize where God has been present to you. Our days can be so busy that we often miss noticing the many ways that God is walking with us. What were the gifts of your day? Some days it’s as simple as the smile of a child, coffee with a friend, or work you enjoy. On other days, it’s as significant as the birth of a child. Where did you see God’s goodness today? Take nothing for granted. Rejoice and be thankful. Jot down a couple of examples of God’s loving presence and guidance to you today.
- Reflect on any feelings that emerge. During the past 24 hours, what feelings surfaced? Frustration? Shame? Joy? Excitement? Fear? Confidence? Disappointment? Love? Anger? Peace? Choose one positive and one negative emotion and talk to God about your feelings. Pay attention to instances where you cooperated with God’s action in your life. Notice where you resisted God. Reflect honestly and patiently on these feelings. Don’t condemn yourself, and don’t be complacent either. This is intended to be a gentle way of reviewing your emotions under an umbrella of God’s love and grace. Capture your thoughts in your journal.
- Repent for the moments you missed God’s invitations to serve, to love, to give, to hope. Did you miss an opportunity to be kind, helpful, encouraging, generous? Be attentive to the Holy Spirit who lives within you. Record in your journal some of these missed opportunities. Write down that one missed opportunity that you don’t really want to write down.
- Recommit to walking in a greater knowledge of God and self. Acknowledge your continued desire to live according to God’s ways. Ask for God’s strength. Listen for God’s words of consolation, love, and affirmation. Write down any insights, thoughts, invitations from God, words of guidance, or possible next steps. Thank God for speaking to you through your own life experiences. Ask for God’s graceful guidance as you move into a new day.
An Invitation—for the next 30 days, take 10 to 20 minutes to practice the prayer of examen, including recording your prayers in a journal. At the end of 30 days, review your prayers. Do you notice any habits and patterns in your life? Do you hear whispers of love from God to you? Are there any invitations for change, movement, growth, transformation? There might be, or there might not. In either case, you are building a relationship with a God who fully knows and loves you. As you come to God in this or any prayer, you can become more aware of God’s desire for your continual growth in compassionate love and grace for yourself and others.
Maisie Sparks is a spiritual director and the author of Holy Shakespeare and other titles.