The Spiritual Exercises and the Examen
I have combined three posts about Ignatian prayer, and what Ignatius calls ‘the Particular Examen.’ Please read them as a series of connected reflections.
The woman who inspired the last entry, "This May be Heresy," Annemarie Marino, died on May 20, 2006. I will always remember her quick mind and generous heart. We had wonderful conversations. Please add your prayers to mine that she has found peace and her heart's desire.
I invite anyone who reads this and wants to comment or share something about their experience using the Ignatian examen to leave a comment or contact me. If you are interested you can also check out the wide selection of books, articles, and websites that Morgan Zo-Callahan and I put together, An Ignatian Bibliography.
But let’s begin by outlining the Steps in Making the Ignatian Examen
1. We begin by quieting ourselves. Become aware of the simple goodness of the universe, the gifts of life and love. Be thankful. Recall that without faith, the eye of love, the human world seems too evil for good to exist.
2. Look deep within to see clearly, to understand accurately, and to respond generously to what is occurring in our daily history.
3. Review in memory the history of the day (week, month, etc.) in order to be shown concrete instances of our ‘chief characteristic,’ as well as instances of presence and guidance and, perhaps, of the activity and influence of the chief characteristic. These can be detected by paying attention to strong feelings we experienced that may have accompanied or arisen from situations and encounters.
4. Evaluate these instances in which we have either collaborated with deep inner guidance or yielded to the influence of evil in some way. Express gratitude and regret.
5. Plan and decide how to collaborate more effectively with your own inner guidance and how to avoid or overcome the negative influence of the chief characteristic in the future.
I would like to hear from you if you want to share anything you have discovered using the examen.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2006
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
I have been a practitioner of Buddhist meditation for more than 30 years. But this is not my first experience with intensive meditation practice.
I entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, on August 15th 1966. After a few months to acclimate to the schedule of getting up at 5:25 and bed at 9:30, we first year novices “did” the 30-day retreat. For a full month, the whole community was totally focused on the discipline of the Exercises in its strictest form, as strict as the discipline in any zen hall: total silence, 7 hours of contemplation very day, an unwavering order of meditation, invocations and most importantly, in retrospect, the examen.
The bell that alerted us to prayer, or mass, or spiritual reading, or the daily conferences with the Master of novices, was not a beautiful, clear temple bell. Rather it had the urgency of the alarm that gets firemen out of bed in the middle of the night. We were not to be monks dedicated to a life of prayer within exclusionary monastic walls. We were being trained to pray hard and work hard for the Kingdom of God.
After we took religious vows, every year we dedicated 8 days to the exercises. These were the heady days that followed Vatican II, so the strict retreat format, the fire and brimstone of the 1st week, for example, had fallen into disfavor.
Now 40 years later it is hard to believe that the Exercises had such a visceral effect, creating a feeling for the Transcendent in the way that they did. I remember reading Joyce’s description of the preacher sermon on Hell in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was a teenager, but Joyce was right on the mark. Fr. T. J. C. O’Callaghan may have lacked the dramatic flare of Joyce’s retreat master, but he posed the fiery world of the unforgivable, using the same script that, combined with a retreat environment created by the 80 men who shared the life of the novitiate, the silence, the liturgies, the homilies, the food, and the penances, geared to the meditations of 4 weeks of the Exercises.
I remained in the Society until 1976. But 5 years before I left, I began to realize that rigidity of religious life, in the traditional form, was not going to be a happy fit with my personality. Leaving religious life was a difficult choice; I had been very happy studying theology and exploring the religious practice of the Jesuits. I wanted to show the same respect for my choice to abandon the Society as my choice to make religious vows. And so I undertook the Exercises again in a form called the 19th annotation. In place of 30 days of seclusion and intense prayer, I dedicated an hour every day for almost a year and, with a director, followed the order of prayer and meditation that Ignatius set within the four ‘weeks’. I was already practicing both zazen and vipassana meditation by then, and though I didn’t consciously try to blend the two practices, that is in fact exactly what I was doing.
I cannot cut myself off from the life giving roots in the Exercises. For most successful Jesuits, the Exercises have been grafted into their bones. I was not immune—it can even happen in 10 years. I have begun some reflections and writing about the real links between meditation practice and Ignatian discipline. Yes, it has to be called a discipline.
Recently I have been focusing my inner exploration on the Examen as presented in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. In the early 16th century, the Examen was a real breakthrough in the pedagogy of prayer. Human beings were most certainly capable of self-examination before Ignatius, and, through the ritual of confession and expiation, and Christians found inner peace and clarity in their lives. But as a method of prayer, Ignatius recommended three short periods a day to examine your inner landscape in a focused way, and then refocus according to an intention that you have set for yourself. Some commentators have even credited him with starting the development of what we in the West now call the “self”–that particular set of inner motivations and proclivities that govern our lives.
Most people I speak with assume that “talking with God” is the most natural of any communication. I don’t believe this assumption is even close to the truth. For Christians it would mean that the results of Original Sin magically disappear with baptism or conversion. This is not supported by most of the evidence that we can gather from the experience of most Christian mystics, saints. It certainly flies in the face of most Eastern teachings regarding humankind’s sleeping, inattentive, deluded state.
I recently saw some clips from a TV documentary called “Camp Jesus” which focused on a fundamentalist summer camp for children. After an adult woman who was leading a prayer group made the rather startling accusation that Harry Potter should be in Hell, there was an interview with a young boy who preached and said that he regularly talked with God about his future. When the camera switched to his father's encouraging words, and I began to listen to him, an evangelical preacher, I felt that a strong, irrefutable case could be made that these “godly” conversations were nothing more than interiorization of subtle and overt parental messages, prejudices, on the same level as the ridiculous damnation of Harry Potter. The kid was destined, sadly, to be just like his dad.
Or in the words of one Jesuit master: “Our capacity to deceive ourselves is infinite!”
How do we know that our own channels are not jammed with well-intentioned instruction (at best), prejudice, obfuscation? Does God actually speak to us at all? If this is a real possibility, then perhaps practicing and working with the Examen and what Ignatius called the “Discernment of Spirits” does point to a breakthrough in prayer.
Of course prayer has to be learned and taught, and how it is taught changes. We learn about love as we live out our lives; we share and try to teach our children from our experience. This learning cannot happen in a vacuum: my friend Daniel Shurman refers back to this phrase from Episcopalian liturgy: what is the Spirit saying to the Church? We are always listening and learning, both from the Source of All That Is and from one another.
Sometime in 1997 I met a priest in the Episcopal diocese of northern California who was promoting a form of weekly prayer group for business people based, she said, on the Ignatian ‘Examen.’ At the time I was exploring the possibility of doing a small meditation group downtown after work. I contacted her and she invited me to attend one of her groups. Besides her wonderful head of red hair, I found several points for wonder and reflection: her commitment to bring prayer to the business world, and my initial impression that this form of Examen was both different from what I had learned and practiced in the Society and still had a strong Ignatian flavor.
I will examine my inner record as carefully as I can, and describe how we prayed together. We began with a short reading from scripture, and then after a few moments of silence and an invitation for anyone to share their private concerns and intentions, the conversation quickly shifted to the events of the day and personal reflections about what would be a “faithful” response. One participant, the most senior in age and status, redirected the conversation if it strayed from the core message announced in the gospel, as if there were an agenda for the business at hand. With sandwiches and the time to walk back to their respective offices subtracted, perhaps 30 minutes remained for conversation and reflection.
I feel that there was something that had the genuine feel of Ignatius, the discerning of God in the world, the immediacy of the inquiry, and the imperative to be in action. But there was little or no self-examination. There was, as I recall, not even an invitation to begin any introspection. The reflections seemed quite analytical. But the major break with the Ignatian Examen was that this only tangentially touched on an individual confronting him or herself.
In the next post, I will talk about the Examen, the role of intention and examining one’s inner motivations, plus the crossover to the practice of vispassana meditation--thinking with all of you, your whole body, including your memories, dreams and emotions.
This may be heresy, but does it work?
Rather than beginning with any predetermined notion of how an individual works in harmony with him or herself, their communities and the universe—following a set of rules or conventions about behavior and love and faith—I wonder where the Ignatius' Examination of Conscience (the examen) might lead if just regarded as a rigorous way to focus an inner search.
I hesitate to edit Ignatius, and only do so as an experiment. I do not wish to make him into an atheist or a secret non-theistic Buddhist master. But, in my view, his Exercises sprang from inner experience in prayer and meditation, and, I want to test if they can stand apart from any particular theological doctrine, or what becomes of them when they are allowed to stand in a more neutral context.
I have followed a few of the current explorations and adaptations among directors of the Exercises. Some modern Jesuits now refer to the examen as “an examination of consciousness.” I have to admit that when I first started to practice vispassana meditation in the early 70’s, I wrote to my superior saying something to the effect, “if this in not what Ignatius had in mind, it is what he should have meant, whether or not he did.” Today I take seriously that Ignatius, in every iteration of the Exercises, used the word “conscience.”
Conscience, I think, is closer to the ordinary English usage “compunction” than it is to “consciousness” which, after Be Here Now, has nuances closer to the experience of the expansive vastness sometimes experienced in Buddhist meditation. Compunction has more the twinge of regret or conscience—those places where we notice something’s off. If you are not judgmental or harshly critical of yourself, the mind more easily focuses and ventures where it would rather not go, but does not equal “consciousness.” I think that Ignatius would be happier if we save feelings vastness for the Contemplatio of the 4th week.
In response to the request of a woman who visits me for conversations about meditation, I made some simple edits to Ignatius’s instructions for the Particular Examen, an exercise that he recommends, to begin, three times a day while doing spiritual exercises, and then for the rest of life! I just removed any reference to a deity, or to any external guidance. In some places I have left the words “faith,” “love,” “grace,” “presence,” “guidance,” and “goodness,” not as absolutes but rather focus points for an inner exploration. Look for faith and presence in our own lived experience, for example, instead of returning to old sermons about how we should behave and what we must do to be good. I also presume that the practitioner has some direction and is examining him or herself for what Ignatius might call our “chief characteristic,” our greatest obstacle to living in freedom and love.
If you want to undertake this exercise, Ignatius recommends three distinct periods a day, upon rising, before the mid-day meal, and upon retiring. In the morning, as your day is not yet filled with conscious and unconscious actions, you set your mind aright to reflect, remembering what you are going to look for if you have identified a ‘chief characteristic.’