Examen: the paradox of reflection
Ignatius Loyola’s great insight came while he was convalescing after a serious injury. God was communicating within him through his daydreams initially, leading him away from selfish pride and towards self-giving service of others. However, it was only in reflection, looking back over his experience, that Ignatius was able to sort out what was genuine. It would take him many years to be able to listen fully to what God was saying, to temper his own unruly impulses and be of real service to the world.
God seems to work with us slowly and patiently through different experiences, and we need reflection or ‘looking back’ to see it clearly. The end of a day is a really good time to look back and evaluate the experiences of the day just lived. Undoubtedly there will be ups and downs, laughter and tears, light and darkness. It can be easy to write it off as being ‘past’ or over, just focusing on moving on and forgetting. But there are surprising discoveries to be made in following this simple process.
An Ignatian technique called ‘Review of the Day’ (often called by its Latin title ‘Examen’: see this video for an explanation ») can be useful here as a practical and efficient way of building reflection into busy lives. Normally, it takes 15-20 minutes to do at the end of the day or whenever it suits. The key insight is that by taking some time to reflect or look back on the complex and often hectic experience of our day, we see things differently. This is the paradox: taking time to look back allows us to appreciate the experience more.
Often we see things we have missed, realise the importance of small moments of light, and come to appreciate the gift that is each day. We begin with trying to find gratitude within us for everything good that has happened. This helps shift often habitual negativity towards a more hopeful way of seeing that is more divine. Only then do we invite Jesus to watch our day replayed like a movie before us. Seeing it as he sees it, we realise the wonder of how God is alive in the world. We come to know exactly how we have been cooperating with God or not, and concretely how we could decide and act better in the future.
The idea is not to beat ourselves up about failures or mistakes but to commit ourselves to living lives closer to what God wants for us. Looking back in reflection, with God’s help, it is easier to see our cooperation or the lack of it. With practice you can ‘feel’ or get a sense of what was good and genuinely from God, and the opposite. This fuels our commitment to living the next day in a more aware, discerning and proactive way, literally making our prayer active and alive. It takes practice and patience, but it works very effectively over time to make our Christian commitment a reality in terms of how we act and decide.
It is also helpful to ‘process’ the experience of the day, work through all the issues and gifts, to see it through God’s eyes and be reconciled enough to hand it over and sleep well afterwards.
Find a quiet space and try to put aside 15 minutes. Some people find a lighted candle helpful to remember to ‘live in the light’.
The five steps are:
- Ask God for light: try to see the day through God’s eyes, not merely my own; see what stands out.
- Give thanks: get in touch with gratitude for the day you have just lived is a gift from God. This can be a struggle again as negativity can dominate, but there are always some lights to focus on.
- Review the day chronologically: look back on the day just completed, being guided by the Holy Spirit. Often you can be surprised about all the things you did, people you met, and you may have forgotten much.
- Face your mistakes or shortcomings: face up to what is wrong—accept mistakes; work out what you would do better to improve.
- Look forward to the next day: ask God for help to live a better day, commit yourself to learn and improve.
It can be helpful to write your observations or insights in a diary or journal to get them clear in your head. From this exercise naturally flows the desire to look at the coming day: what kind of day do you want? what would you like to happen? what do you want to avoid? Again, it is worth taking time to look at this, maybe as a separate exercise, and begin looking at what you really want, what is going to satisfy your soul. It’s all about tuning into this experience of a close God who wants the best for us, and who is trying to communicate with us through reflection and prayer.