We took a long wander down the Ignatian path in our last podcast, and all because yesterday (July 31) was the feast of the man himself, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Sometimes, and particularly when we wake up the day after a feast, we find ourselves in a position that requires a long look in the mirror, a close examination of our actions, and perhaps even a plea for divine assistance. Sometimes, and particularly when we wake up the day after a feast, we wake up in a state of disrobe, covered in scratches of an unidentified nature, and our tongue tastes like a lump of desiccated roadkill, and it feels as if tiny leprechauns are using the inside of our cranium as a glockenspiel. I mean, maybe that’s just me, but you get the point.
Luckily for us, St. Ignatius has given us a tool specifically designed to stop, look, and listen for the movement of God’s spirit in our lives. It’s called the Examen. And no, that’s not a typo, it’s Spanish. Because St. Ignatius was “of Loyola” and Loyola (the town, not the university) is in Spain. Now “examen” sounds like it should be Spanish for “examine.” right? Wrong. “Examen” is a noun, which means that it’s really closer to “examination” (It also means that not all Spanish nouns end in -o or -a, so you’ve been doing it wrong if you’re that guy who walks into a restaurant and says “I wanto a taco on my plate-o, amigo.” So stop it.)
Now, if you’re of the Catholic persuasion, you probably want to immediately drop an “of conscience” right after every use of the word “examination,” but the Examen is not quite that. Think of it this way – an examination of conscience is a thorough scouring of your soul before the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is kneeling before the king and begging for mercy. It’s drama and wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Examen, on the other hand, is more akin to a walk on a forest path. God is there, listening, and walking with you as a trusted friend. Might you end up as a puddle of tears and snot abject self-loathing? Why certainly! But that’s half the fun.
Now there are many, many, many resources out there in Internetlandia about the Examen. If you want a wonderful, concise, and informative summary of what it offers the spiritual pilgrim and how to go about adding it to your personal prayer repertoire, there’s plenty to choose from. I recommend this one from Fr. Mark Thibodeaux. But this, well, this is not that. This, my friends, is Church Drunk. And so, I present to you Church Drunk’s overcomplicated guide to the 5 easy steps of the Examen!
Step 1: Pour yourself a drink. It doesn’t have to be a boozy one, but it can totally be if that’s your preference. It can be anything you want, whatever floats your boat. The important part is that you pour yourself a drink that you really like. In fact, make it one that you love. In his timeless wisdom, St. Ignatius began the Examen with the all important practice of gratitude. Well, in fact there is some dispute as to whether gratitude comes with Step 1 or Step 2, but it’s close to the beginning, in any event. I like to put it first.
Now, back to that drink. You’ve poured it, but don’t imbibe just yet (we’ll get there, I promise). Instead, take a moment to admire it. Look deeply into its beady little eyes. Is it a fizzy drink? Look at those bubbles! Did you add ice? Listen to those bergs drifting and colliding. Smell it. Touch it. Drag a finger through the condensation gathering on the glass. Drink it in with every sense except taste. Then, give thanks for it. Thank the good Lord for this drink and every drink that has ever quenched your thirst, and then build out from there. Give thanks for the drink, and the glass, and the ice, and the table that it sits on, and the hands at the end of your arms that pick the glass up off the table, and the chair that holds your butt off the ground, and the force of gravity that keeps your butt from spiraling out into space, and your friends, and your family, and the billions of blessings that fill your life, and the infinite love of God…and the drink sitting in front of you. Surround yourself in a castle of gratitude. This is where the Examen happens.
Step 2: Take a sip. (I know, finally!) But not just any sip. Take a sip that invites more than just the drink to pass your lips and fill you up. You’re not just drinking a beverage, you’re drinking God, man! I know, it seems stupid, but this is the step where Ignatius tells us to ask for God’s light to fill us up. So while most of us find ourselves full of spirits from time to time, as you sip this particular drink do your best to open yourself up to the Spirit (see what I did there?), and see where that takes you. Does it make you feel thankful? Feel free to go back to Step 1 (gratitude) at any time.
The important thing here is that our practice of the Examen involves an active invitation to God. We’re committing to opening up some God space in the next few minutes. Get to the essence of what makes up that drink. Find the God in it (very Ignatian, but more on that later). Take a sip. In the words of the immortal Ron Burgundy, “Drink it in. It always goes down smooth.”
Step 3: We’ve arrived at the meat of the Examen – the true “examination” at the heart of the practice.You can tackle this any way you want, but the basic premise it to review your day. Take anther sip of that delicious beverage in front of you, but this time call to mind a highlight of the last 24 hours when you do it. Walk yourself forwards or backwards in time from that moment. What set the wheels in motion to make it happen? How did you react to that moment? What came next? How was God moving in your life in that moment?
With each subsequent sip, call to mind another highlight or lowlight of your day. Dig into each one and find the Godness there. Again, there’s flexibility with this part. Some folks like to start at the beginning of their day and move forward, while others walk back in time. Had a rough week? Feel free to look at several days instead of just a 24-hour window. The important thing is to seek out God in the everyday happenings of your life. Take your time. This is one of the very few times in life that I would advise you not to chug your beer!
Step 4: You might not like this part. I don’t. It’s the part where we have to recognize that we are not perfect. You may want to pour yourself another drink at this point. I’d recommend a Negroni, or perhaps a nice, sour, funky farmhouse ale. Something bitter or sour or mildly delicious-yet-off-putting that leaves you pleased and pucker-faced and conflicted should do the trick. You see, this is the part where Ignatius tells us to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? Well, like, everything. If you’ve really done a good job of reviewing your day in Step 3, then you’ll inevitably bring to light at least one or two (or eleventy thousand) situations that bring to light your own short-comings. And that sucks.
Luckily, the gift of forgiveness is on standing offer from God, whose love is infinite, compassionate, and perhaps most of all patient. And that’s awesome! So we screw up, and we own it, and we ask for mercy, and we drink our Negroni, and life goes on. And we’ll probably do it all over again tomorrow. And God loves us anyway.
Step 5: We’re almost home! The final step of the Examen is to look to the future. Tomorrow is a new day, full of wondrous possibilities and terrifying uncertainty. Ask for God’s help on the road ahead. Know that those blessings you called to mind in Step 1 don’t just vanish. Most of them will still be there tomorrow, even if it turns out to be the worst day of your life. Invite God along for the ride, and take comfort in the faith that God is walking beside you even when you forget to extend the invitation. Try not to make the same mistakes. Know that you probably will. Know that God loves you anyway.
Finish your drink.