A Beginner's Guide to the Daily Examen

A Beginner’s Guide to the Daily Examen

We’ve developed a daily family habit in our household over the last months. Each night at the dinner table our family of four go around sharing about our favorite parts of the day. Some days it’s prompted. More and more, it breaks out spontaneously. Often for the kids its about playing with friends, but more often than not, it’s cuddling with mommy. Capturing the moments of the day has become central to our dinnertime routine. The daily examen is a spiritual habit that similarly trains us to take in what’s happened through the day.

The examen is a spiritual formation tool for self reflection. It can be used daily, weekly, or even monthly. The frequency is not important. Nurturing one’s relationship with God is. Like date night with your significant other, the answer to “how often?” really is: As often as you want. As often as helps. All healthy relationships require intentionality. They never just happen. Why wouldn’t you want to check in with God daily?

The examen, as it is most popularly practiced, was first developed by Ignatius of Loyola. As a young man, and contemporary of the Protestant Reformation, Ignatius dreamed of glory and adventure. While convalescing from a war injury, to pass the time he read from a popularized life of Christ. It captured is imagination, and his life was transformed. He went on to found the order of Jesuits, or “the Company of Jesus,” greatly influencing the spirituality of both Roman Catholics and Protestants.

The examen is a movement of five pieces:

Be mindful of God

The first step is to put the brakes on the busyness of the day. Carve out 5–10 minutes to simple sit still. Turn down the volume of your inner noise. Be hospitable to the presence of God. Consent to being with God.

It’s not weakness to ask God for help. We live such frenzied lives, learning to slow down, stop, and pause can use some divine assistance. When I first discovered the daily office, the prayer for each day began with the words of Psalm 69:2: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” You can make this a breath-prayer that you can repeat as often as you need to until you’re settled.

You can do this in any environment. You can sit in your comfiest chair with eyes closed and palms open. You can go for a walk in the neighborhood. You can be in your car on your morning or evening commute. Engage your senses with a candle or incense. Take a pen and journal and capture the thoughts that come to mind.

Immerse yourself in gratitude

Perhaps nothing helps us make the movement from our little selves to a larger world than remembering God in gratitude. Such a perspective puts God in view in all of life, not just in the moments we set aside for worship or spiritual disciplines. Not just in the moments when life seems easy,” writes Henri Nouwen.

Gratitude is powerful. The psalms are soaked with the language of thanks: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.” The book of Leviticus provides instructions for how to give to God simply out of thanks. Gratitude unravels a creeping sense of entitlement. Gratitude tunes our eyes to see grace all around us. It softens our hearts and sharpens our ears to the presence of God’s Spirit with us throughout the day.

You can write a list from the most basic to the profound. When I was a chaplain at a food bank, the happiest people I met were ones that could thank God that they simply woke up that day. They had the biggest smiles despite the day’s hardship. Gratitude has a way of disarming our false selves.

Share the important moments of your day with God

Do a mental scan through the movements of your day. When did you most sense God’s presence? When did you feel far from God? At what points were you open to God? Where did temptation rear its ugly head?

If your day was a movie trailer, what images would be in it? What peaks and valleys? What highlights and tension? Notice these. Hold them before God. If you were watching this trailer with God, what commentary would you provide? “That was a fun surprise.” “I can’t believe a reacted in that way.” “If that comes up again, I can do better.” “Can we do that again tomorrow?” The good, the bad, the ugly—give all of it as an offering to God.

Celebrate and reconcile

Celebrate the wins from the day. Confess the fails. Rest in God’s peace and forgiveness. Let God wipe the slate the clean. This can feel like closing all the open loops in your inner space. As you might de-clutter your desk at the end of the work, putting everything back where it belongs, you can allow God to help your reset your mind and your soul.

If you notice a particular theme, sit in that space and pray around that. Invite God’s joy and goodness. Invite God’s beauty and healing. Invite God’s wisdom and truth. Whether it was a great day to remember or a total do-over, remember Jesus’ words, “Look, I’m making everything new!”

Anticipate the next day

Every night when I tuck my little girl in bed, she always asks, “Daddy? What are we going to do tomorrow?” She’s teaching me how I can talk to God. My daughter is one of the most joyful people I know, and her excitement is contagious. She can’t wait to see what’s happening next. I’m convinced God wants to grow a similar kind of joy in us.

Building anticipation into our rhythms with God breeds joy. Knowing that God is with us, trusting that God has ordered our steps, cultivating an expectation that God has us in mind—all this develops our own ongoing mindfulness to experience God. I’d like to think this is a little bit what it looks like when Paul says, “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”

The practice of the daily examen is simply one more tool at our disposal as we are drawn deeper into the heart of God.

If you’d like to go deeper with the examen, grab a small group of people and read through The Ignatian Adventure together. It’s a 32-week guide in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.

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