After evening meal every day I go to the chapel and spend about 15 minutes looking back on the day that is coming to a close. In doing this I am guided by an exercise called the Examen, which Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) devised for the members of his newly-founded Society of Jesus.
This exercise is not just an examination of conscience. It is sometimes called an examination of consciousness, because it is really asking how often during the day have I been conscious that God is touching my life, and hoping for a response from me.
The starting point for Saint Ignatius is that God is continually touching our lives through the people and the events of daily experience. Nothing happens by chance or by mere coincidence. The Chileans used to say, “Coincidence is the Providence of fools”.
The Examen of Saint Ignatius is structured, and has five steps. It is not just an exercise of human memory. It is a prayer, which begins by recognizing that you exist because of God, and you are the focus of God’s care and attention all day long.
The second step is to give thanks for the day, for the good that has helped you, and for the bad that reminds of your weakness and your neediness.
The third step is to ask God’s Spirit to enlighten your mind so that you can see what has been happening to you this day. This means recalling people and events, but asking God to show you what was really happening beneath the surface of it all.
The fourth step is to ask forgiveness for the harm you have done, or for your failure to notice God’s presence and care.
The fifth step is to prepare for tomorrow in the light of the successes and failures of today. This involves the resolution to do no harm in thought, word or deed. It could also invoke some strategy to “notice” God at intervals, such as every hour on the hour, or every time you begin or complete a task.
At the beginning the Examen may seem artificial, and the steps hard to remember. But with a bit of practice it becomes easier and almost natural. As a student I was eased into it by a little rhyme that summed up its routine:
“Adore, give Thanks, beg Light, the day Review; contrite Forgiveness crave, Propose anew”.
The Examen makes sense only if you believe the basic truth that you are the focus of God’s attention and care continuously day and night. God knows we find this hard to believe, so we have it in God’s own words spoken through the prophet: “Can a mother forget her infant and not feel tenderness for the child of her womb? Yet even if she forget, I will never forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hands”. (Isaiah 49,15-16)