Contemplative Prayer & The Examen
by Fr. Rick Ganz
Begin with prayer (5 minutes)
Gather together as a Community in a comfortable setting (around a table, on the couch, the floor of a living room, etc.).
Start with this prayer from the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1492-1556):
- Lord, teach me to be generous.
- Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
- to give and not to count the cost,
- to fight and not to heed the wounds,
- to toil and not to seek for rest,
- to labor and not to ask for reward,
- save that of knowing that I do your will.
Debrief last week’s practice in small groups (15-20 minutes)
If you are in a Community of seven or more, divide into small groups of 3–4 people each (ideally same gender).
Spend a few minutes catching up on life…
Then talk through the following debrief questions:
- Did you pray the Lord’s prayer this week? Was it helpful?
- What do you feel like God did in your through the practice of daily prayer?
Transition back to one large group (5 minutes)
Ask a few questions about the last week’s practice:
- How does everybody feel about this new Practice? What areas of prayer are you hoping to learn more about - either biblically, or practically?
- Does anybody have a cool story about answered prayer?
- What do you think your greatest challenge will be in this practice of prayer?
Read this overview
More than anything else, prayer is about being in active relationship with a Person. If one understands this, then he or she will quickly recognize how being in active relationship with a person includes the practice of all kinds of habits of communication by which the relationship is experienced, grown, deepened, and challenged.
Sometimes this means talking; sometimes it means not saying a word, but sharing times of easy silence together; sometimes one shares a special landscape (a forest or an ocean beach, etc.) with the friend, walking with him or her in it; sometimes one shares music; sometimes it means acting for the other – being of help; sometimes it means listening to the friend, letting the other give or show or teach or guide as the friend wishes.
In short, prayer is not as much about “saying prayers” or as much about learning new “techniques” of prayer, as it is about doing whatever is necessary to deepen our friendship with God and making sure to set aside time daily to do that. However, learning from others how to do friendship skillfully, – and, in particular, friendship with God – and learning “techniques” or “habits” or “traditions” given us from the greatest of the friends of God, is still of great value.
A key insight that the churches have, and seek to teach their congregations, is something that many Americans, in our almost pathological aversion to being told what to do (!), might not grasp as significant. It is that we must also learn to do our relationship with God together – a regular and at least weekly practice of praying in common, encouraging one another, bringing everyone else’s spiritual journey into relation with our own. By doing so, we take heart through the faith of others, gaining knowledge and experience through what others share of their own relationship with God, and benefit from skilled leaders with a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and of the ways of God with humans.
Take some time to discuss what we have presented here.
- Does anything surprise you about this way of understanding “prayer”? Why are you surprised?
- Do you experience the Father or Jesus or the Spirit more clearly in private prayer or when praying in a group? Why?
Here’s a practice to do together as a Community right now: (10-30 minutes)
The Prayer of Examen
- Our practice this week is called “the Examen” or more fully, “an examination of consciousness” (note, it does not say conscience), or more playfully, “a rummaging through a day’s experiences, looking for God.” This practice has four steps.
- Before you begin, divest yourselves of anything you have that will intrude on this focused time of practicing – mobile phones, for example. Have great respect for how challenging it can be to be fully present only here, only now, and for the sake of this prayerful practice you all will do together. Whoever is leading this should not proceed until everyone in the room has quit fidgeting, has found his or her alertness. Be patient! Let people have the time they need to get settled.
- Then have someone offer a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to help guide this practice. Something like this: “Holy Spirit, we seek to make ourselves completely available to you – Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We want this designated amount of time to be governed completely by what You want for us as a group, and more hiddenly, to each of us in particular. Give us the Light we need to see, and in seeing, to understand.”
- Then have the leader patiently walk through each of the following steps.
Step One: Replay the day in your mind
- Notice where God has been active in the last few days of your life. Take a few minutes to practice active remembering of the last 24-72 hours.
- Find some moment, however simple it was or brief, when you felt grace in your life. Where did God “show up” for you?
- Share with the group what happened and how you felt the grace when it happened. Be brief in the saying: “I noticed God yesterday, when I walked outside and smelled the fragrant Spring air. What I felt was a sense of well-being, of feeling gratitude to God for so lovely a day, and of wishing that I could go for a walk right now with a best friend.” Simple. But it gives all who hear this a good sense of the nature of the grace that you experienced. Ask everyone to share something. (Perhaps best to go around the circle.)
Step Two: Name the strongest feelings you have experienced in the last few days.
- This next step of active remembering is aimed not at “what happened” but it is about recognizing when in the past few days you have felt most strongly moved in your affections. Which affection in particular was activated strongly? Give a name to that particular feeling: joy, depression, anger, delight, contentment, hope, shame, regret, confusion, disgust, compassion, doubt, gratitude, etc.
- Share with the group one example of a strong affection you experienced.
- The main goal of Step Two is noticing your strongest affective reactions to particular things, and wondering with God about those reactions. “Why did I feel that so strongly?” “Does this strong reaction reveal my faith in God, or a lack of it?”
Step Three: Share just one of those strong affections with Jesus.
- Be honest with Jesus about what “caused” this strong affective response in you, and try to name accurately which particular feeling it was that you felt.
- Ask Jesus whether He ever felt this same thing, and the way that you felt it, when he lived and moved and had His earthly life among us. You may turn to a Gospel text, to a scene in Jesus’ life in which you think that He reacted as you did. Read that text to yourself and explore Jesus’ affective response. Like yours, or different?
- Explore through the strong affection you experienced the value that corresponds with that feeling.
Step Four: Thank God for being present to you in this practice and for helping you grow in your friendship.
To wrap up, just spend a few minutes debriefing your experience with “the Prayer of Examen.”
Here’s a practice to do by yourself in the coming week: (10 minutes)
The Prayer of Examen
- Each day in this coming week, set aside ten or fifteen minutes at the end of your day (but before you are too sleepy to make yourself attentive to the practice) to practice the Examen.
- The key to this practice is not to fail to practice it each day!
- Follow the four steps above.
- If the four steps above are too in depth, here’s an easy alliteration to remember it by:
- Replay - What happened today?
- Rejoice - Where did I feel grace today? Where was God particularly present?
- Repent - Where did I feel emotional pain today? Where did I sin?
- Resolve - To live differently tomorrow, if need be. And sleep with gratitude.
Work through these discussion questions (10-15 minutes)
- Do you understand the basic design of the practice?
- Do you think that this is just the kind of prayer that Jesus Himself would have practiced each evening before heading to bed?
- You might want to talk together about the best time to pray the Examen. The two most famous times are during the noon hour, or else sometime in the evening, but closer to the time when you head to bed – a way of “signing off” on your day in a fuller awareness of God having been with you in it.