Adobe Stock

The Examen Prayer and the Priest

Examples of how to move from reacting to responding in our daily lives

0

When I wrote my book on the examen prayer, I interviewed several people who prayed it regularly. One person said, “Before I prayed the examen, I was reacting. Now I’m responding.”

The difference between the two is great. In one, we live the day simply reacting to what happens; in the other, we choose our responses to its events. The examen prayer moves us from reacting to responding in our daily lives as priests.

Ignatius of Loyola
Adobe Stock

The examen is a daily prayer that may take 7-10 minutes, generally prayed toward the latter part of the day. In it, with the Lord, we review the spiritual experience of the day.

St. Ignatius of Loyola outlines this prayer according to five steps: gratitude, as we recall the concrete ways that God has blessed us in the day; petition, as we ask help to grasp the spiritual experience of the day; review, as we examine the day with its spiritual ups and downs — what Ignatius calls consolation and desolation — and how we have responded to these and to the Lord in the day; forgiveness, as we ask the Lord’s healing touch where we perceive we need it; and renewal, as with the Lord we look to the next day in view of what we’ve seen in the preceding steps.

I will approach these five steps in a personal rather than an abstract way. There is nothing special about my experience! I share it precisely because it is so ordinary. My focus is on the give-and-take of everyday priestly life, the undramatic, “ordinary” experience that comprises most of our lives — and for that reason is so critically important. Do we simply react, or do we see the Lord in these events and respond?

Gratitude

It was a packed evening at the end of a pressured day. I was leaving the next morning to give a retreat and was making final preparations for the trip. Time was limited, but I expected that. Used efficiently, I could accomplish all that I needed to do.

I reached my office after supper and found a message on my phone. I had asked one of the priests who staffed a nearby chapel to bring some books I needed for the retreat when he returned to our house. His phone message told me that he had forgotten. I was disgusted. I would have to walk to the chapel, find the materials and return to the house, adding a half-hour to the existing tasks. A sense of frustration arose in me: What’s the matter with him? Can’t I depend on anyone? Now, how will I get everything done?

I asked another priest for the key to the chapel, explaining with a smile that wasn’t a smile how I needed the materials the other had forgotten. I went out the front door and found myself walking fast to the chapel, irritated, pressured, just wanting this errand over.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Resources

Book: “The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today” (Crossroad Publishing Company, $19.95) by Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV

Podcast: “The Examen Prayer,” on discerninghearts.com and the Discerning Hearts app, also on YouTube

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Then I reached a red light at an intersection. The brief, enforced halt pulled me up short. I realized that none of this was right: the rapidity, the frustration, the stress I was feeling and out of which I was acting. Standing there waiting for the light to change, I decided that I would use the 10 minutes of this walk to pray the examen. Immediately, I felt a sense of calm return. My pace slowed as I walked.

The chapel was just closing when I arrived. Within, I met a woman whose wedding I had done 15 years earlier and whom I had not seen for years. We were happy to see each other and spoke briefly in a conversation that we both appreciated. Another woman exited the chapel as I arrived, a member of the Hispanic community that I had led for five years. A second brief conversation helped her with the anxiety she carried. I found the materials I needed and walked back to the house with the priest who closed the chapel. He recently returned from an assignment overseas, and this was our first chance to speak — again a welcome encounter.

When I prayed the examen more calmly later before retiring, I reviewed that “simple” experience: the other who forgot to bring the books and my frustration. As I did, I recognized the gifts the Lord had given me through it: three fruitful conversations and a reference to useful materials. Gratitude began to stir in my heart. The frustration passed completely, and with gratitude, peace returned.

Through the years, I have come to appreciate this first step of the examen: a concrete look at the day to see the ways that the Lord loved and blessed me in it. Often, much of my examen is spent on this first step. In it, I witness the principal truth of each day: that God loves me and shows this love in many small and larger ways.

Petition

I had been away for a trip of preaching and conferences. The events had gone well, but the schedule had been full, and I returned needing to stop and rest.

I was met me at the airport and was driven home. I had just walked through the door when the superior approached me. He asked if I would take the early Mass the next morning. I told him that I could not, that I was too tired and needed to rest. He did not insist, but I could see the disappointment in his face. The exchange left me troubled.

When I prayed my examen, I knew that I needed to revisit it. I could not deny that, in the state of tiredness I had reached, I really did need to rest and would have said the same to anyone in those circumstances. Objectively, I felt I could not fault my response to the superior.

But I knew that my “no” would have consequences on my relationship with him. I knew that he would feel that “no” personally. Most likely, he would not ask when he needed help in the future, not wanting to face another “no.”

I sat there in the chapel, troubled. As I reflected, I was unable to see clearly in this matter. Then I turned to the Lord and said: “Lord, please help me to understand. I don’t know what to do with this. I feel a burden, and I don’t know how to lift it. Show me what I should do.” A thought came, “Well, why don’t you speak with the superior about this?” It was the answer I needed. We had a good conversation that not only lifted a mutual burden but also helped us both going forward.

Experiences of this kind tell me why Ignatius gives us his second step in the examen: a prayer of petition in which we ask God’s help to understand and respond to the spiritual experience of the day. On some days especially, when I am burdened, discouraged or don’t see clearly in matters I face, this second step comes to the fore. I lack clarity, but I can ask it of the One who can give it. As I do this, my heart lifts.

Review

Shortly before I ended my time as provincial, I organized a gathering of our members. One afternoon I went out walking with one of the priests. As we spoke, he shared his disagreement with a decision I had made regarding our ministry. A certain tension accompanied the conversation, and it did not resolve.

I ended my term as provincial, went on sabbatical and then resumed ministry. The other in this tale was stationed at some distance, and two years passed without contact.

Our generalate in Rome sends a monthly communication that includes the birthdays and anniversaries of the members. One day, I read it and saw that the other priest would celebrate his 60th birthday that month. On his birthday, I sent him a brief, warm email of best wishes. The next day, I received an equally brief and warm email of thanks. I read it and sat in my office, my heart lifted and grateful to the Lord.

That evening, as I prayed the examen, I recalled reading his email and the warmth of that simple exchange. A thought came: If a brief email remembering a fellow priest’s birthday could do such good, what would happen if I did this with others’ birthdays and anniversaries? I decided that each month on dates in which I knew that another would appreciate an email from me, I would write. I have done so since then, and many good things have come from this.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

St. Ignatius’ Surrender Prayer

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.” — Hallow.com

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

This was an experience of the third step of the examen: a review of the spiritual experience of the day. To employ Ignatius’ vocabulary, I reviewed an experience of spiritual consolation. What if we did this every day? What if we grasped the grace of such moments in the day? Out of this review would arise a tapestry of “small” steps toward growth — spiritual, relational and ministerial — that increase the joy and fruitfulness of our priestly lives.

On another occasion, I gave a retreat to a large group. I had worked with them for many years, offering one or two retreats a year. It was a blessed relationship that we all appreciated. This year, I based the retreat on new material that I had never before presented. I did not know how the group would receive it and whether it would serve well for a retreat. We began on Friday evening and continued through Saturday. All day, my uncertainty and anxiety increased.

On Sunday morning, I rose early, still discouraged, feeling alone, disheartened and with little energy for prayer and the retreat. Thoughts came: “Maybe this should be my last retreat for this group. When the retreat is over, I’ll let the leaders know that this is my final retreat with them.”

By God’s grace, I recognized that something was wrong and that before I began the day’s activity I needed to address it. I sat down, took my journal and described in writing what I was experiencing. I added that this is no time, and you are in no state, to make decisions about the future of these retreats (Ignatius’ classic rule 5: “in time of desolation, never make a change”).

We concluded the retreat with lunch on Sunday, and, that afternoon, the team and I read the evaluations together. They were positive. I have continued to offer retreats for this group through the years and to the present.

What if I had not made an examen that morning? What if I had not reviewed that experience of, using Ignatius’ term, spiritual desolation? How many doors to apostolic fruitfulness with that group would have closed?

The daily review of both consoling and desolate experiences richly blesses our priestly life. Through it, we pursue avenues of grace and avoid pitfalls in our priesthood.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Overview of How to Pray the Examen

pray
Adobe Stock

1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.

2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life.

3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.

4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?

5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific, and conclude with the Our Father. — From Jesuits.org

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Forgiveness

Another trip, and another return to the house. I was met at the front door by one of the priests. We exchanged greetings, and then he invited me to view the changes he had made to one of the offices while I was away. I was provincial at the time, and my office was one of a set in which we handled matters of administration.

We went to the office. He showed me the rearrangement he had implemented, clearly proud of the job he had done. When he had explained the changes, he looked at me and awaited my response.

I did not express this, but I was angry about the changes. The repositioning of machines in that office placed them against the wall to mine. The wall was thin, and the noise of them would carry through it. I could foresee conversations held against this invasive background. Interiorly, I said to myself, “Why didn’t he speak to me before making these changes?” And … there he stood, looking at me, waiting for congratulations on a job well done.

I’m not proud of my irritation, and I’m not proud of my response. I mumbled halting words of appreciation and then referred to the impact on my office. I said this last so fumblingly, however, that (thankfully) he did not understand it. He simply heard the appreciation and was pleased.

When I made my examen that evening, I reviewed this encounter. It weighed on me because I knew that this man needed affirmation. He had sought it from me and had received it only partially, and even that part grudgingly. Machines could be discussed later if at all. But I had not been willing to defer my concerns and focus on his need.

I did not know how to proceed with this. It seemed clear that to try to explain all this to him and apologize would confuse rather than resolve things.

I realized that I had several choices. I could just live with a failure. Or I could say: “It’s such a little thing. Why worry about it? Get on with the business of life.” Or, “He didn’t even notice your complaint. Just let it go!”

None of this satisfied. I knew that I did not want to live selfishly, to let self-centeredness and irritation limit availability to others in daily relationships. But I did not see what to do in this instance.

Then I realized that I could ask God’s forgiveness. I turned toward the Blessed Sacrament and did that. My heart lifted. I felt new energy to relate to this man as he needed and to give affirmation when the occasion called for it. This was a conscious experience of Ignatius’ fourth step in the examen: asking God’s forgiveness when our review of the day reveals we need it.

Renewal

One last story! I had lived for five years in one of our communities, been transferred to another for two years, and had just been retransferred to the earlier community. This was my first day back. I entered the refectory for breakfast, and there were four others, seated at a table. A single space at the table remained. Among the four was one whom in those five years I had found difficult. I looked at the table … and felt a repugnance to sit there and to reengage in the same old relational dynamics. To sit by myself at another table, however, would have been too obvious.

I sat at the table with the others — but I never said a word, and I left as soon as I could without attracting attention. The conversation flowed about me as I sat in silence.

In the evening, when I made my examen, I reviewed that breakfast. I knew that I had not related to the other with a Christ-centered love. I knew, too, that I did not want simply to resume my former relationship with this man, that I wanted something new in it. I wanted my relationship with him to be based on Jesus and the Gospel.

I asked the Lord’s forgiveness for that breakfast and resolved that I would work at this relationship in a new way. From that day on, I did, and I loved what followed. It still required effort, but something really changed, and the relationship grew easier and warmer.

This was an experience of Ignatius’ final step in the examen: renewal. The preceding steps look back over the experience of the day, but they do so in view of the day and days that lie ahead. Such “small” daily steps toward renewal, taken together, create a spiritual life that is never static, that is always progressing, always growing. This is a blessed way to live our priesthood.

Growth in the Examen

Like all prayer, the prayer of the examen grows deeper and richer over time. If you pray it daily, on days that it feels fruitful and days when it seems a struggle, a time will come when you cannot conceive of a day without it. You will love a priestly life in which you respond rather than react. And your people will love it, too.

prayer
Adobe Stock

Is the examen new to you? Then might this not be a time to learn this prayer and begin? Might the examen not be a source of grace and growth in your priesthood?

Do you already pray the examen? Do you experience its goodness but also wish for greater fruit from it? Do you find it hard to persevere with it? Do you struggle in one way or another as you pray it? Then, might this not be a time to grow in this prayer? The resources given below may help.

A priest who has prayed the examen for years, since seminary days. He says: “I used to struggle with the examen and still do somewhat today. But I find it much more helpful now. I want to finish the day with the sense that I am attending to Jesus and to where he has been in the day, and whether I’ve missed that in the day. Still, I keep learning more about the examen, and I discuss this with my spiritual director.”

Much of the journey with this prayer is expressed in that description: beginnings, struggles, growth, desire and ongoing learning. “I want to finish the day with the sense that I am attending to Jesus and where he has been in the day,” he concluded.

I want that too. I know that you do as well. The examen points the way.

FATHER TIMOTHY GALLAGHER, OMV, was ordained in 1979 as a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a religious community dedicated to retreats and spiritual formation according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He currently holds the St. Ignatius Chair for Spiritual Formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

 
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at PriestFeedback@osv.com