The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to better understand the Ignatian Examen. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The Ignatian Examen.”
With good reason, St. Ignatius has sometimes been called an early psychologist because of his keen awareness of inner movements and his ability to describe them in ways that connect with people across cultures and generations. Similarly, I think that St. Ignatius could also be called a sociologist because of the ways he understood groups of people and took on the role of an observer of his own life and for those who came to him for spiritual direction.
While I was in my first round of graduate school, I took a sociology course about qualitative research methods to help shape my professional skills. But I learned much more than that. I felt a resonance between many of the methods I learned in that class and my experiences of Ignatian spirituality. I realized that the discipline of trying to observe an unfamiliar social group could help me to look at my own experience in new ways. Specifically, five skills helped me to deepen my practice of the Examen. I share them here for anyone looking for a fresh perspective on this cherished Ignatian prayer.
1. Be a caring, rather than impartial, observer:
While reviewing your day, you might try to be “objective” by separating out your own emotions or viewpoint from the events of your day. In many scientific fields, objectivity is also a high priority. However, many modern sociologists recognize that we can never be fully objective. We always bring in biases and feelings about a situation, but that is not a bad thing if we can name those interests. Instead of being distant or impartial, researchers can choose to be caring observers that seek to understand another person or culture.
In the Examen, we often talk about taking on the perspective of God and asking for light from the Spirit as we review our day. A foundation to this approach is the understanding that God is not impartial! Taking the perspective of God means looking lovingly on our own life and the whole of creation. Our Examen should be a reminder that God has good and holy desires for us, and we should share that perspective too.
Personally, that means trying to imagine how God was expressing love, affection, and care throughout my day. Were there moments of life and light amidst any darkness? How would a loving and caring companion view my day differently from an objective observer? It has often changed the whole course of my day to remember this shift in perspective from an impartial third-party to the intimately loving Divine perspective.
2. Be careful about “going native”:
However, there is another danger of identifying too closely with what we are observing. Historically, sociologists have referred to this danger as “going native.” That happens when a researcher loses touch with their role as an outsider. It can mean abandoning the project entirely to live with another social group or drawing conclusions that hold little meaning outside a certain cultural context.
While doing your Examen, notice if you become too caught up in a certain moment. Do you start replaying an interaction in your head? Do you begin planning or making a list about how to handle a task that is still on your to-do list? These tendencies can pull us away from being a caring observer and back into the driver’s seat of our life. If that happens, gently bring yourself back to where you began, and ask for light to return to your prayer alongside God. Of course, we will eventually return to living our life, but praying the Examen is meant to keep us present to God’s movements in our lives rather than continually pulling us back to ruminate on the past.
A marker in my own Examen is when I start replaying a conversation in my head and imagining all the different (often more witty) things I could have said. Other times I start planning how I would respond if a similar situation happens again. One tip I heard recently was to watch out for times when a thought begins with “if only,” since that immediately tells me that I am no longer thinking about reality. When I get pulled into either reliving or planning my day, then I am no longer simply observing or being with God in the present.
3. Keep regular fieldnotes:
Another skill we practiced in my sociology course was taking field notes throughout our observations. The purpose of these notes was to track even mundane details, like people’s names or the color of a building. These notes can help both to focus our attention and to revisit if certain details become important later. Sometimes we do not understand the meaning of small details until we can see a larger picture or pattern.
In our Examens, we can also practice keeping written or mental notes about small details. Did a certain person or place come up unexpectedly in our day? Was there a sight, sound, smell, or other sensory detail that felt particularly striking that day? Or similar to lectio divina, was there a word or idea that connected with our emotions? These details might not seem important on their own or in the moment. But later, we might find a pattern in our own behavior or God’s action in our life, and we can look back on these notes with a newfound understanding and appreciation.
One of my favorite examples of these details is what I call “God winks.” They are moments when God’s humor and presence is both clearly and subtly known. It is a moment like when I admitted my frustration at not hearing back about an important conversation only to find an email in my inbox addressing my concerns precisely. They feel like moments when God bursts in with a punchline that feels so personal and so perfectly timed, almost like it was planned that way.
4. Make time for periodic process memos:
Along with regular fieldnotes, an important practice is leaving time to write process memos about a developing theme as it is happening. These memos are meant to capture the researcher’s intuitions in the moment about a set of observations to be either confirmed or updated later.
With the Examen, there are actually two types described by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. The daily Examen is sometimes called the “particular Examen,” which includes three moments of the day to check in with God. In addition, St. Ignatius recommended weekly reviews of these particular Examens as well as a periodic “general Examen,” 1 usually in preparation for the sacrament of Confession. These practices are important opportunities to put observations into words through writing or in a spiritual conversation with a director or trusted companion.
Personally, I am much more of an internal processor, so the daily, particular Examen is very comfortable for me. But I have had to work on externalizing the insights from that prayer through journaling or in conversation with others. Similar to process memos, these summaries are never final and can be revisited later. They are works in progress, just as we all are, and we can benefit from regular moments to gather up the insights like wheat from the threshing floor.
5. Remain a curious learner:
Finally, sociologists can benefit from some intellectual humility to remember that they are always learning something new about an unfamiliar culture. There can be a tendency to view scientific conclusions as definitive, but most researchers learn that situations are often far more complicated than their conclusions suggest, especially when studying human cultures. The best conclusions bring up even more questions. No sociologist ever fully understands a context outside themself. They never truly become native to any other culture.
In our Examens, we can benefit from remembering the sometimes difficult truth that we never fully understand ourselves as God understands us. We always have something new to learn or notice (or potentially to relearn or notice anew). Maybe an old wound that carried a lot of pain has begun to heal. Maybe a new opportunity arises that somehow seems to answer a prayer intention perfectly though unexpectedly. This humble approach of curiosity about God’s movement in our own lives can preserve the freshness of our daily Examen rather than letting it become simply another task on our to-do lists.
In my own imagination, I try to see the Examen less like a desk job and more like an adventure in the wilderness of my own heart, studying a culture and an internal community that I will never fully understand. Each day, I can sit amidst that wilderness with Jesus and marvel at all the signs of life that are constantly growing and transforming into something new. I begin to understand the small yet significant role I play in stewarding my own life alongside my Creator. And if I am attentive, I might notice myself transforming too.