Every year millions of people around the world observe Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and fasting that lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Many people approach this occasion with the best of intentions—to slow down, be more patient, and pray. But in our busy, fast-paced world, taking our foot off the gas and finding time to pray can often be difficult.
As an editor of books by such authors as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, and as the author of “Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everday Seeker,” I sometimes find it hard to pray, too. But some years back, a friend of mine turned me on to a 400-year-old spiritual exercise that has revolutionized my life, ultimately helping me feel less anxious and stressed. It’s called the examen, a Christian mindfulness tool developed by 16th century mystic St. Ignatius of Loyola. Its objective is to bring us closer to God. It’s a perfect exercise not just for people preparing for Easter, but for all who believe in God and need a little help shifting focus.
The examen is a series of short reflections and questions that asks us, first, what is drawing us near God and, second, what is drawing us away from God. What fears and worries are blocking us from seeing and feeling God in our lives? Ignatius believed that it is often easy for us to overlook God in our actions and thoughts. He also believed that it was important not only to pay attention to what was going on inside the head, but even more so to pay attention to what was going on inside the heart.
This practice is not meant to shame us if we feel we haven’t lived up to either our expectations or God’s expectations. Instead, it’s a method of realizing that our life matters and the things that we do—or don’t do—can impact everyone around us.
Not only does this exercise help you draw closer to God, but it helps you get sleep as well.
The examen is usually performed at night before we go to sleep. It allows us to replay the day we are leaving behind, and helps us become more aware of how to live out the next day. It can take as little as three minutes to do and I’ve found it often helps with insomnia. So, not only does this exercise help you draw closer to God, but it helps you get sleep as well. I’ve broken the examen down into 6 easy steps.
1. Ask God to Be Revealed
Literally just ask, “God, please reveal yourself to me.” If necessary, imagine you’re in a dark room with a dimmer switch. In this room, it’s hard to make out what’s in front of us, though we know something is there. We ask God to gradually increase the light: “God, help me to see what’s in the room with me. Help me to see the people and things in the world before me. Help me to see you better.” Imagine the light in the room getting brighter and brighter.
2. Cultivate Gratitude
Give thanks for the day. Give thanks for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the homes that provide us shelter. Give thanks for our families and friends. Try to be thankful for all the people we meet during the day, everyone from the jovial security guard to the tired waitress in desperate need of a break. Give thanks to God for that person who drove slowly earlier in the day when you were running late for a meeting. Maybe that laggard was God’s way of slowing us down to protect us from being harmed in an accident.
3. Pay Attention to Your Emotions
Sometimes our heads can get in the way of our hearts. Many of us have minds that never stop jumping from one thing to another. But it’s important to pay attention to our emotions, especially if we’re experiencing blockages. Ignatius believed that our emotions are able to carry us closer to God when they are free-flowing, just as they can stall us when there are barriers. What is God saying to us in the feelings we have about the day, in the angry, anxious, depressed, or hopeful and happy feelings we experienced at work or at home? Ask God for help to untangle these experiences.
4. Choose Something Great That Happened Today and Pray About It
Maybe you had a great conversation with a friend. Explore what made you feel good. Was it just laughs, or did you learn something? Pray for that friend; take that experience into your heart and ponder it there. Make the experience a prayer to God.
5. Ask, Where Was God for Me Today?
Was God present in your actions? Ignatius asks us to seek God in all things, so the question becomes whether or not we see God in our work, in the less fortunate, or in the friend who is going through a divorce. If we are angry at our brother or sister, we know that we are angry at God. We are called to forgive, and if we are struggling to do so, then we can ask God for help.
6. Bless the Tomorrow
We ask God to guide us on this journey we call life. Though this might seem almost rote or silly, asking God for directions is an important part of our lives. From time to time, all of us need to stop for directions. Before you finish your prayer, ask God to point you where you need to go. Then be still. Trust that God is guiding you in everything you are doing and get some sleep.