I am sure you have often looked at the time on your watch or phone and uttered the words “Where did that day go?” Or some days you might have commented with desperation “There isn’t enough hours in the day!” There have been times when I have been asked at the end of the day, “What has your day been like?” and I have struggled to remember!
Another good mental habit that has become popular recently is the concept of the “attitude of gratitude”. It is the idea of deliberately taking the time to be thankful for what you have in your life. And doing this at the end of each day means having a more positive outlook on life, which in turn leads to better mental health. Even if one had a “bad” day, this exercise really helps a person to recognise that there was at least one positive thing that happened in that day so as to give some balance and realism to their state of mind.
So I was surprised to learn some time ago that a Catholic saint, St Ignatius of Loyola, had come up with this concept as part of a method of prayer as far back as four hundred years ago. He called this prayer The Examen.
The term “Examen” refers to the word examine – the idea of this prayer is to examine your day with God. But this prayer adds something extra to the idea of the “attitude of gratitude” – it adds two other dimensions: the need to be honest with ourselves and God and to look at when we may have hurt others by what we said and did so as to ask forgiveness for this; and to look ahead to the next day so as to use our experiences of the present day to help us have a better day tomorrow.
Many people have found the examen prayer to be quite powerful. One great advantage is that it allows you to fully appreciate your day and to not feel that your days are simply passing like the wind. You can savour and enjoy again the great moments of the day – the meal with a friend, the conversation with a colleague, the game of footy after work, the game you played with your child. Another advantage is that allows you to grow as a person – by looking at your shortcomings and mistakes, you can learn from them and resolve to do better the next day.
But the real benefit of this prayer is that it gives you an opportunity to really get to know God as a God who is part of your daily life. For many of us, we have grown up with the idea that God is up there in heaven, looking down on us and this God gets involved in our lives every now and again. This is a completely false image of God and no wonder many people struggle with belief in God when that is the image they have in their heads. This is not the God of the Christian faith.
This little parable from Anthony De Mello gives us a hint about the nature of God’s presence in our lives:
“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish, “You are older than I so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the Ocean?”
“The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now,”
“Oh this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the Ocean,” said the disappointed fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.
The Examen prayer helps to realise that in God, we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28) God is in every moment of our lives. Often we can’t see things when they are closest to us. The same applies here. But by praying in this way, we can begin to see that God is present in the meal we have with another, the work that we do, the present that we received from our partner, the compliment from another, the coincidence that led to us meeting someone we had not seen in some time and so on. And when we notice our emotions, they can also tell us what God might be saying to us in the midst of our day e.g. a continuing sense of boredom in a job may be God prompting us to examine if what we are doing is really fulfilling us and following God’s loving purpose for our lives.
At this point, you may be saying – but God isn’t in all that! These are just everyday things that I would do normally! Again, I would bring your attention back to the image of God many of us have learned; God up there, us down here. This will take some time to grasp but God is present in each moment of our lives. Each moment. And I know…it can sound too good to be true. But why can’t something so good be true? This is where we learn what faith really is.
So by practising any of these – living each moment (#1), the practice of meditation (#2) along with this prayer method (#3), you will discover very soon that you are truly living with purpose!
The link below will give you more information about how to pray this prayer:
Below is a PDF of the Examen prayer cards – print and cut one out, slip it into a book or leave it by your bedside so it is handy.