The General Examen is a simple yet profoundly important way of incorporating the various lessons and practices taught by Saint Ignatius into your daily routine. If you were to pick one thing from this book that is most important for your daily spiritual journey, this may be it. The daily examen will help you to establish a habit of prayer, and a habit of prayer is good. You will find a practical guide for the daily examen in Part Three of this book entitled “Daily General Examen at Night.” The goal of this chapter is to teach you how to properly use that daily examen.
Let’s begin with some analogies to illustrate the importance of this daily examen. For example, say you make a living by being a commercial fisherman. How do you improve your success each day when you go out fishing? First, you look at the weather forecast, you study the fishing report of the previous day, you check the water temperature, consider the time of year, etc. Then, while out fishing, you must constantly view the radar and monitor the radio for news of active fishing at other nearby locations. In other words, the best way to become a good and successful fisherman is to do much more than fish. You must also prepare, listen, evaluate, study, measure, etc. so you can make the best plan each day to catch the most fish possible. Thus, being a good commercial fisherman requires much more than just putting a line in the water and waiting.
Or imagine you are a gymnast who competes at a very high level, say in preparation for the Olympics. You clearly would have many natural talents that got you to that point. But if you simply rely upon your natural talents alone, you will never go very far in the Olympics. Instead, you practice, practice, practice. You record film of your moves and then study it carefully, over and over, in slow motion, etc. You evaluate and make adjustments to how you land, jump, twist, etc. You look at the finest details of your moves and try to adjust them to perfection. A gymnast seeking to go far in the Olympics would never simply watch the video and say, “Looks good to me! No one will even notice my small missteps.” No, they will work and work and work at perfecting every motion and move.
So it must be with the spiritual life. You must never simply say, “Well, things are just fine.” This leads to a life of lukewarm spiritual activity: Lukewarm faith, hope and charity. The result is a lukewarm relationship with God. And a lukewarm relationship with God is an open door to the evil one through which he is invited to mislead you in the numerous ways already discussed.
The daily examen is a way of “watching the film” or “getting the fishing report” for your spiritual life. It’s a way of collecting all available data for spiritual growth in YOUR life using the means and methods discovered and taught by Saint Ignatius.
Love of God and spiritual growth is in the details. The details are essential if you want to grow in perfection and deep union with God. The details are essential if you want to perfect your virtues and, especially, your love of God and neighbor. Thus, the Ignatian daily examen is one excellent way to tune into the details that are necessary to grow in holiness.
The “Daily General Examen” is a five-point method of praying that examines the action of God in your daily life. It is also a way of searching for ways you have failed each day and have allowed the evil one to influence you. It seeks to examine your thoughts, words and actions using, especially, the Ignatian lessons on the discernment of spirits.
The daily examen can be used any time of day, but the prayers in Part Three recommend it at night. The simple goal is to review your day carefully and then end with resolutions for the coming day. Saint Ignatius offers five brief steps to his “Method of Making the General Examen”:
First Point. The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received.
Second Point. The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.
Third Point. The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts, in the same order as was mentioned in the Particular Examen.
Fourth Point. The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.
Fifth Point. The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace.
The following is a practical summary and recommendation on how to use the five points above:
Gratitude: Start by calling to mind the blessings that God has given you during your day. It is essential that you primarily look at how God is at work in your life. To start, the blessings you receive will become an essential “road map,” so to speak, for seeking out and following the will of God in your daily life. By seeing the blessings you have been given, you will more easily be able to enter into those blessings so that they flourish and grow.
Therefore, as you begin your daily examen, start by quietly reviewing your day and try to see the many blessings you have received. In this step, there is no need to think about them in great detail; rather, strive to make a quick list in your mind to set the context for the rest of the examen. The blessing of health, of a blessed interaction with someone, of a good prayer time, of a kind word, of an encouraging idea or thought, of a loving relationship, of the completion of a project, etc. If you have the spiritual eyes to see clearly, you will immediately be aware of many blessings from God that, for the most part, are taken for granted. Again, the goal of this step is simply to set a sort of “context” for the rest of the examen. This context embraces a general gratitude to God for the ways He is at work in your life.
Petition: Make a simple and personal prayer of “petition” to God. The petition should have two goals. First, ask the Lord to give you understanding. Specifically, ask that the Lord help you to know and understand whatever He wants to communicate to you this day. This is an open-ended petition. God knows what He wants to communicate to you, so if you humbly come to Him and ask for this grace, then it’s a way of opening your heart and mind to whatever it is He wants to speak to you. Saint Ignatius specifically mentions that you should pray to know your sins. What sin does God want to reveal to you? What obstacle is there in your relationship with Him? Pray that God shows you.
Secondly, ask for courage to act on this insight. It matters very little if you only receive understanding of the Lord’s will, but it matters a lot if you then act on this understanding. Knowledge of God’s will is always given for the purpose of becoming freed of all that hinders your relationship with God and others. Additionally, doing so within the context of the many blessings you have received will help you to choose those good blessings over your sins and receive the blessings in even greater abundance.
Your prayer of petition could be something as simple as this: “Lord, I know that You have much to say to me this day. Please open my mind and heart to whatever it is that You want to say. Help me to see all that keeps me from loving You and others and help me to see the ways You are at work in my life. As I see, help me to listen and respond to this gift of Your grace.”
That’s it! Very simple. But making a simple act of petition will do wonders as you move into the next steps of the daily examen.
Review of Day: This may be the longest step in the daily examen. It will consist of looking at your thoughts, words and actions of the day. As you examine them, especially look at the various interior experiences of consolation and desolation you experienced within them. In thoughts, what line of thinking led to consolations of joy, peace, refreshment, contentment, etc.? Consciously accept these. Also, what thoughts led to desolation; that is, what thoughts left you agitated, angry, restless, disturbed, confused, uncertain, etc.? Consciously reject these thoughts.
The same examination is done in regard to your words and actions throughout the day. Where was God at work in them (consolation) and where was the evil one at work (desolation)? Over time, it will become easier to discern the action of God in your life and also to see the temptations and deceptions of the evil one. Looking at your day in an objective way and looking for these various movements within your soul will allow you to continually fine tune your spiritual life by choosing that which is from God and rejecting that which is from the evil one. And when you are aware of your sins, don’t only acknowledge it as sin, also try to understand what led you to that sinful choice.
Forgiveness: Make another petition to God, but this time ask for forgiveness. In Step Two you petitioned God to know and understand all that He wants to communicate to you. In Step Three you reviewed your day and were attentive to the ways in which you were moved both by God and by sin. In this fourth step, make a humble petition to God to forgive you for your failings.
Don’t take this step lightly. There is great power in humbly identifying your specific sins of the day and asking God to forgive you for those specific sins. There is great spiritual power in uttering the words, “This action was a sin, please forgive me, Lord.” Additionally, making a firm resolution to overcome these sins is also of great power.
Renewal: One of the graces born of the previous four steps is the preparedness to make specific and concrete resolutions for tomorrow. This step is at the heart of the Ignatian exercises. Yes, it’s important to understand your sin, to ask for forgiveness and to receive His mercy. But it’s also just as important to then resolve to grow and change. And it’s important to do so with specific spiritual and moral goals in mind. Therefore, once you have completed the previous four steps, you should be in a good position to then make specific decisions on how you are to change, grow, amend, etc. Do that in this step in the most practical and simple way you can. Don’t go overboard, be reasonable, be thoughtful, but do take action and do take concrete steps. If you do this each day, little by little you will continue down the glorious path our Lord has in mind for you.
Lastly, in this step it is also important to acknowledge the many ways that God has been active in your life. Recall the many blessings and also commit yourself to pursue more fervently the road of virtue to which those blessings call you. Renewal is not only about choosing to overcome sin, it is also about resolving to continue walking down the path of virtue and grace that has bestowed upon you countless blessings.
For a more practical understanding of how to use these five points for your daily examen, you may now want to turn to the back of Part Three and read through the prayers recommended for the “Daily General Examen at Night.”
Chapter Eight: Rules for the Distribution of Alms