Praying the Examen: A Guide for the Curious

What Is an Examen Prayer?

When the leader of a young movement, Ignatius of Loyola, instructed his friends in how they could make prayer a continual part of their life, he offered countless ways they could use their imagination, Scripture and rhythms of life—yet he said if they could only make one prayer during their busiest days, they must not neglect “the prayer of Examen.” The Examen is a way for us to go back upon our day and deepen its meaning and experiences in conversation with God. It’s essentially a prayer of review and reflection.

Often we’ll practice the Examen at the end of the day, or we might do it once at midday and again before bed. The idea is that I place myself in God’s presence and play my day back like a movie or a story in my mind. I review the whole of my day up to that point with God, and I notice what stands out to me, what seems significant, what I wanted to remember at the time but maybe I’ve already forgotten. I also listen to what God might point out to me from my day. And I can make all of that a conversation with God.

How to Pray the Examen

There are numerous forms an Examen prayer can take. We can apply different focuses, asking God to show us where God’s love was closest to us or where we may have neglected to give love so we can resolve to act differently in the future. Or we might perform an Examen for an entire week, a retreat or a year.

However, Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., very helpfully suggests that the basic shape of the Exman generally looks like this: relish, request, review, repent and resolve. I personally adapt it to include our opportunity “reexperience” our best or our worst moments and then to resolve.

1. Relish.

I savor the graces that are present to me right now, including God’s loving presence and the freedom to look back with God over my day—without judgment, with love and grace and encouragement. How does God feel present to me right now? What might I want to thank God for in this moment?

2. Request.

I recognize that I don’t always see myself or my world clearly. Left to my own devices, I can be overly critical of myself, or unwilling to see my darker sides, or too focused on myself. I ask for the Holy Spirit to be the initiator and my guide during this time of prayer.

3. Review.

I imagine there’s a movie screen in my mind that I can watch beside Jesus, and I can go forwards and back, speed up and pause. I press play, and going hour by hour, I review my day with God, noticing my thoughts, feelings and sensations. What seems significant to me or to God? What do I notice? I linger over those moments and pass quickly over ones that seem less important.

4. Reexperience.

As I review my day, I give renewed thanks for graces I experienced. I savor moments where I can recognize I was faithful to whom God is creating me to be. Where I can see missed opportunities or mistakes, I let myself feel remorse, I ask forgiveness and I imagine how I might follow Jesus’ invitation to respond differently in the future. I let God hold my entire past day—good, bad and indifferent—as a gift to Him, trusting that he receives it all and receives me entirely.

5. Resolve.

With what I’ve learned during this time of prayer, I ask God to show me—concretely—how I might respond. What does God desire for me out of this time of prayer? What might I want to do out of the love I find for Jesus? I resolve to do this, making a written note of it, and ask God for the grace to carry it out.

Why Pray an Examen?

Of course, the Examen isn’t a prayer that we have to do; better we don’t make it just one more obligation to perform. It’s a classic example of something we get to do—if we truly desire.

Many of us, when we’re in an exciting new relationship can’t wait to talk with the other person at the end of our day and tell them the funny story from work or the awful time we had at the store; we want to share what’s meaningful to us with them and share ourselves with them. If we find we feel or want to feel that same way about God, the Examen can give expression to that desire.

Likewise, we want our children to tell us about their day at school, even though the story may rarely be different. When I’ve been in love, I could listen to a minute-by-minute narration of my girlfriend’s day each day, even if nothing “special” happened. I simply desired to share in any little detail with her there was to share. How much more does the God who loves you feel that way about you, even though God already knows all of the details. God desires to share those moments of retelling with you, to reexperience the day with you. And to choose to share it is an act of love.

Finally, we can also see a benefit for ourselves in praying an Examen regularly. Just as Ignatius suggested, it can become really important if I’ve been too occupied to pray earlier in the day. Using an Examen, I can bring prayer to all of those moments now in retrospect, as we’ll see. More, if I’m regular in this discipline, I can even begin to track with patterns and progress over time, from day to day, week to week, year-to-year.

Three Tips for a Better Examen

To make an Examen at the end of a long day isn’t always easy. Sometimes there’s too much from the day swimming around our thoughts to keep it orderly. Sometimes so little seemed to happen that we feel impatient with the process. That’s where it can help to keep a few tips in our back pocket.

1. Narrate Your Examen.

If we can really let our day play out in our mind like a movie, rather than simply recounting the order of events, it can help engage our imagination and senses in a way that enriches our prayer—but it sometimes helps to give our movie a narrator as well. While visualizing the events and recollecting how it felt recruits our right brain to help us notice nonlinear connections we may not otherwise, narrating our prayer in a linear fashion can recruit our left brain to help keep things on track, especially if we get distracted.

Of course, this narration doesn’t need to be vocalized; you can simply let yourself hear your own natural thinking voice in your head. This is the voice that will often distract us in prayer with interrupting thoughts, so we might as well give it work to do if it begins to feel restless.

You might try beginning your prayer with a narration so if it does feel silly or unnatural at first, you’re a little more used to it later: “God, I am settling into prayer now, even though I feel distracted. I receive Your loving presence now, with Your help.” Once you proceed into Step 3, “Review,” your voice might simply identify the main points that occur to you, just as if you were recounting your day to a friend: “Then, at lunch, I took a walk . . .” And it can step back and let the movie reveal the rest, including details you might not have remembered until the scene replayed itself.

Finally, you might let your narrator refocus periodically: “Jesus, I remember now that I meant to call my brother. I wonder what made me think of this. I make a note of this so we can continue to walk through my day. Help me to remember once we finish.

2. Allow Yourself to Be Distracted.

It’s normal to become distracted in prayer, but we can still receive these stray thoughts as a gift instead of fighting them and becoming even more distracted. Generally, we’re more able to overcome these bumps in prayer than we think.

As we become aware of a distracting thought, we simply notice it and gently, lovingly turn our attention back to where it was. Like seeing someone out of a bus window as it drives off, we quietly let ourselves pass it by. However, suppose it doesn’t leave us so easily; suppose it jumps on the bus with us. This is fine too. In that case, we let the distraction ride with us quietly until it gets off at the next stop—only don’t let it force you off before you get to where you intended, that is, stopping your prayer time short. Your narration can help you do this.

If a distraction won’t leave you, or if you find you’ve already wandered far down the rabbit trail, you might:

  1. simply identify that in your prayer: “Jesus, I find I’ve been thinking of my meeting tomorrow . . .”
  2. allow it to become a part of your prayer, recognizing that God may have given the thought to you to bring into prayer: “Would You ease my anxiety and allow me to trust how You’ve helped me prepare? Would You use it for Your purposes? Also, would bless the other participants, wherever they are in this moment?” 
  3. and narrate yourself back to your Examen: “I settle back into recalling my day. I was remembering my conversation with my manager, which I now realize had made me anxious the rest of the afternoon . . .”

3. Take Time to Journal What You’ve Noticed

After you’ve concluded your Examen, it’s important to make a physical note of whatever response you resolve to take forward, but if you can take the time to reflect on the experience of your prayer, you’ll find many more gifts to bring out of it.

This journaling doesn’t have to be long-form; in fact, it doesn’t have to be any particular thing. Often, it may be helpful simply to write down:

  • bullet points or key phrases that arose for you (for example, “I kept thinking of my friend Susan—I’m not sure why”),
  • anything you noticed particularly (“when I remembered seeing the man begging on median, my heart began to break, and I suddenly wished I’d stopped to talk to him”),
  • as well as a general sense of how the prayer was for you .

As a general rule, more is significant than we think is significant, and we remember less than we think we’ll remember. To write merely, “My Examen was dry and frustrating,” may seem unworthy of the ink, but you may find in two days you can’t particularly recall how prayer has been, and simple notes like this can help you discern a larger pattern through your week. Still, if you can find more to record for yourself, this can prove all the more helpful—not only for the record it creates but for that small moment where you deepen the experience by honoring it with a little reflection.