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.”
My senior year of college was one of the best and busiest times of my life. Balancing an electrical engineering major with a theology minor, finishing an engineering capstone project, leading a Search retreat, going to Theology on Tap and Quizzo at the bar across the street from my apartment, and keeping up with friends made those two semesters enjoyable but hardly peaceful. With everything going on in my life, it often felt like I had little time to really consider where I was going, what I was doing, or what I wanted. I tended to use my attendance of Mass on Sundays as a way to slow down for an hour, take stock of things, and try to listen to God for a bit. I would get to church early for some time in silence. Beautiful music during Mass helped draw out emotional instead of intellectual responses. The Augustinians who ran the school were excellent preachers, and their homilies always seemed to touch on some issue I had on my mind that particular week. While this was helpful, I realized that with so many people, tasks, meetings, and feelings filling my days, stopping just once a week was not nearly often enough to properly appreciate it all.
As I tried to figure out how to process the wide variety of experiences I had each day, I remembered a form of prayer that I had learned about when I was a sophomore in high school: the Examen. The Examen is a prayer developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola as a way to help a person carefully reflect each day on the events of that day. Doing so, you can come to appreciate God’s presence in many aspects of your life. The Examen gave me the opportunity to notice where Jesus had been present throughout my day: celebrating a good test grade with me; calling out for help with the homeless men and women I passed on the street; reminding me to be thankful for my parents’ hard work to provide for me; comforting me as I dealt with self-esteem issues. By noticing Jesus in these places, I began to see Jesus as a close friend. My practice of praying the Examen every night had faded, but remembering how beneficial it had been, I decided to return to it.
The Examen proved to be a valuable form of prayer in a number of ways. For one thing, it helped me to focus on the gratitude I felt for everything that was making me so busy. My classes on topics ranging from the saints to Android programming were engaging and stretching me intellectually. The time I spent with my friends, like staying up late during finals week to play “The Floor is Lava” in the library, provided me with more laughs and memories than I could count. My work with Search retreats and service trips gave me opportunities to grow in engagement with my faith and the people around me. By focusing on my gratitude for these many gifts, I recognized the abundance of ways in which God was showering me with love. To truly appreciate God’s gifts, however, I had to also make good use of them. This prompted me to consider how I was responding to such a generous display of affection.
In praying the Examen, I had the opportunity to ask the question “How did I love today?” While it was moving to simply take in the many ways I was being blessed with love, I also appreciated the chance to see how my own thoughts, words, and actions showed (or failed to show) my love for God and others. Since Christian identity is grounded in love above all else, I strived to make sure that love appeared at some point in every day. On the days when I failed to see any real occurrence of love, I had to challenge myself to look for opportunities the following day to give love just as I received so much love. I felt an equal desire to foster the relationships and activities in which love played a central role so that more of my life would begin to look like my best days.
The Examen helped me notice the patterns of my life that were developing and where my deepest desires lay. In all my busyness, I had been so focused on whatever was most urgent that I did not seem to want more than what was immediately available, such as good grades or time with friends. While these were good things, praying the Examen helped me to see the deeper desires underneath my immediate desires. Every night, I realized just how much I appreciated the conversations I was having with my retreat team about God, forgiveness, and unconditional love; the faces and stories of the people I had met on service trips to Belize, Appalachia, and Philadelphia continued to challenge me to respond to their struggles. I also noticed how attending Mass more frequently helped me to see Jesus more in my daily life. On the days when I went to the noon Mass on campus, I not only had more time and space to slow down; I also had the opportunity to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, accept his love for me, and let that love override the anxieties I usually felt about deadlines and my self-esteem. All these experiences showed me the things I wanted to stay involved with beyond college: my faith, social justice, and friends who would continue to support and inspire me.
As I prayed the Examen and reflected on the common movements of my prayer, I came to realize that my relationship with God was at the heart of every day. God provided the gifts that sustained and excited me, dared me to love in all circumstances, and authored all my deepest desires. In the midst of my busyness, I realized that no matter what happened next in my life, I needed God to be my focus. I needed to listen to whatever God was asking me.
Things suddenly came together when I stumbled upon a description of Jesuit formation. I had been casually reading Fr. James Martin, SJ’s My Life with the Saints when, in one chapter, he described what his Jesuit novitiate had been like. In reading about Jesuit ministries, studies, and community life, I saw the opportunity to make the most of the gifts God had given me, love in new ways, and pursue my deepest desires. Even amidst my own self-doubts and other desires in the weeks following this discovery, my curiosity about life as a Jesuit did not diminish. As I continued to pray the Examen every night, I noticed that God not only wanted to show me where he had been in my life in the day that had passed; God was also showing me where to seek him in every day to come. God was inviting me to a life where my greatest joys and challenges would continue to permeate every day, a life where my Examens would have no shortage of material for reflection.