One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Showing posts with label The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Show all posts

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Looking at The Particular Examen of Saint Ignatius with Fresh Eyes

 "This May be Heresy" 

A reformulation of the “Particular Examen” in Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises

I intend to explore the possibility that Saint Ignatius's Examination of Conscience, the Examen, might be useful as a rigorous way to focus our inner search. It’s an Open Source for anyone who wants to lead a full life in their communities and the universe. It’s probably not for individuals who confine themselves to a predetermined set of rules or conventions about behavior, love or faith, and don’t welcome questions. Leave that to the True Believer. 

I hesitate to edit Ignatius. He was not an atheist or a non-theistic hidden Zen master. His Exercises, however, spring from inner experience, prayer and meditation, and I want to test the hypothesis that they hold up outside Catholic theology. I have removed references to a deity, or to any external guidance not because I denigrate a particular belief, but I trust most believers can quickly fill in the blanks. Leaving them open might also allow space for new understanding or insight. In places I have left the words “faith,” “love,” “grace,” “presence,” “guidance,” and “goodness,” not as absolutes but rather focus points. Look for faith and presence in our lived experience instead of returning to old sermons about how to behave and be good. Examine our inner landscape. Include emotions, memories, and dreams. Think with every part of ourselves, right down to the bones,

Ignatius recommends undertaking the Examen for a relatively short period of time, 10-15 minutes, at three distinct times every 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 resolve to reflect and remember what you are going to look for if you have identified a ‘chief characteristic.’ Usually you will hone in on what you’ve determined is your greatest obstacle to living in freedom and love--some trait, a repeating negative pattern, a persistent inner dialogue, resentment or prejudice. This becomes a tool that helps focus your review of the day’s events. It is almost always a moving target. You might work with a spiritual director to figure out a useful self-interrogation.

Here are the steps of the Examen*

  • Quiet yourself. Become aware of the simple goodness of the universe. We see the gifts of life, the blessings of this human world through faith, the eye of love. Be thankful.

  • Look within to see clearly, understand accurately, and respond generously to what is occurring in our lives.

  • Review the history of the day (hour, week, or month) in order to see concrete, specific instances of the influence and activity of what we have identified as our chief characteristic. These can be detected by paying attention to strong feelings that may have arisen in situations and encounters. Over time more subtle feelings will become apparent. 

  •  Examine these instances, our actions, reactions, words and feelings to see whether you have collaborated with deep inner guidance or yielded to the influence of evil in some way. Express gratitude and regret.

  • Plan how to use our own inner guidance skillfully to avoid or overcome the negative influence of the chief characteristic in the future.

November 16th, 2006

The Examen was a breakthrough in the pedagogy of prayer. Human beings are certainly capable of self-examination, and Christians can find inner peace and clarity without Ignatius’s guidance. But he did recommend a method of prayer radically different from the ritual of confession and penance (although he certainly didn’t exclude them). He crafted a way to examine our inner landscape, the particular set of inner motivations and proclivities that govern our lives, and then refocus with an intention that we set for ourselves. 

Many people believe that prayer is like “talking with God,” and that it is the most natural of any communication. I don’t believe this 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 what we can gather from the records left by mystics and saints, and it certainly flies in the face of most Eastern teachings regarding humankind’s sleeping, inattentive, deluded state.

If God actually speaks to us, how do we know that our own channels are not jammed with well-intentioned instruction and misinformation at best or unexamined prejudice and obfuscation at worst? I recently saw some clips from a TV documentary called “Camp Jesus” about a fundamentalist summer camp for children. After the adult woman leading a prayer group made the rather startling accusation that Harry Potter should be in Hell, there was an interview with a young 12 or 13 year old boy who was a preacher. The boy said with absolute conviction that he regularly talked with God about his future, but when the camera switched to his father, also a preacher, and I began to listen for the subtext of what the father said, I felt that a strong, irrefutable case could be made that his son's “godly” conversations were nothing more than interiorization of subtle and overt parental messages and prejudices. I am certain the kid believed that Harry Potter was hell bound, and sadly he was destined to be just like his dad.

Prayer has to be taught and learned. 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.

After filling the page with distillation of Ignatius and reflections, I remember the caution of a very astute Jesuit spiritual guide: “Our capacity to deceive ourselves is infinite!” This leads to another set of cautions: don’t be duped and fall for an easy answer, but on the other hand, don’t let this caveat become an excuse to give up your quest when you become discouraged because you certainly will. Stick with it.



It was very difficult to find the exact text of Ignatius for the Particular Examen online. The internet is flooded with many people using the header “The Examen of Saint Ignatius,” and then freely adapting them. I have lots of company; whether or not it is good company, the jury is out. While my adaptation is admittedly one of the most theologically extreme, I have explained at some length my reasoning, and include an English translation of the original text from The Spiritual Exercises. 

*The text:

The first point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the gifts received.

The second point is to ask for the grace to know my sins and to root them out.

The third point is to demand an account of my soul from the moment of rising to that of the present examination, hour by hour or period by period. The thoughts should be examined first, then the words, and finally the actions.

The fourth point is to ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults.

The fifth point is to resolve to amend with the help of God’s grace. Close with the Lord’s Prayer.

My conversation deals with the Particular Examen, and the text from the Exercises is specifically for what is known as the General Examen. The steps are the same for both. The general examination surveys all the morally significant actions of the day, so far as we can recall them, while in the particular examination we focus our attention on one particular fault against which we are struggling and the corresponding virtue we are trying to cultivate. 

From The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Edited by Fr. Martin Royackers, S.J.


The woman who inspired this essay, Annemarie Marino, died on May 20, 2006. I will always remember her bright mind and generous heart. We had wonderful conversations. Please add your prayers to mine that she has found peace and her heart's desire.

And my deep gratitude to Bonnie Johnson who inspired so many by the way she lived her life. She continues to be a source of my inspiration.

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.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Goa, Saint Francis and Me

McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, India
April 7, 2014

Part of this article was written for the publication of "Spiritual Journeys" by a group of former Jesuits.

One Sunday this past February, my partner and I went to the English mass at the Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa. We were initially directed towards that queue, but after some negotiation, we found our way into a back pew in the main church. During mass people venerating Saint Francis Xavier wind through the courtyard of the Jesuit residence and pass his shrine, a small Baroque style altar where what’s left of his body is encased in glass.

I began to feel at home with the familiarity of the Jesuit ceremony, and was able to pay more attention. The priest’s sermon was not easy to follow. He struggled to connect Xavier’s religious enthusiasm to martyrdom, comparing the Saint’s remarkable life with the current situation of Christians in India. But Xavier died a natural death and, though they might feel persecuted, Christians in India are generally very well accepted. In fact in Goa, they pretty much control everything. I gave up on following the Jesuit’s exhortations, and drifted off, studying the congregation, mostly Indians, and certainly, as English speakers, well educated. They were not paying much attention to the sermon either, women looking after crying children, men closing their eyes and nodding, in many ways similar to the Irish American parish of my childhood.

The sermon and the ceremony were also disconnected from what was happening at the side altar where men, women, and children, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, pushed their way forward towards the barely visible body of the saint. We’d seen almost identical scenes at the many temples, mosques, shrines, gurdwaras we’ve visited across India, people seeking healing, relief from suffering, forgiveness for a personal transgression, blessings for a new marriage, a prayer for a child’s good fortune, or perhaps even a superstitious belief that touching his statue would produce a child. To be honest it felt disconnected from the Catholic, Jesuit saint I thought I knew, but it was real.

I turned my attention back to the altar and suddenly felt deep compassion, even kinship with the Indian Jesuit. He was obviously a competent, educated, thoughtful, even a devout, spiritual man who was sincerely trying to connect our messy lives with another dimension. With any luck, I might have turned out like him, but in that same moment, I also realized why I’d left the Society.

After I graduated from Dartmouth in 1966, over the objections of my parents, I entered the Jesuits, and stayed for more than a decade. When time came for me to be ordained, I took a leave of absence and extended it for 2 years before I asked to be relieved of religious vows. During that exclaustration, I realized that I had to confront, and deal with coming out as a gay man, my addictive personality, and, at the time, I thought that the most effective path was psychological work rather than prayer or meditation.

I had of course done the spiritual exercises of Father Ignatius many times. The experience was rich. When I was trying to decide whether to leave or stick it out, I undertook them again as well as trying to recreate some of that experience through a study of the enneagram, and beginning Buddhist meditation practice. Then for more than three decades, I either wore the designation “ex-Jesuit” as a badge of honor, and disavowed any value in my religious training except on the rare occasion when I ran into someone from that era.

Twenty-five years ago a chance meeting with a Zen priest who was starting a hospice for people with AIDS turned my attention back to meditation practice. It also allowed me to carefully trace the roots of suffering through a spiritual practice that is agnostic with regard to any particular religious system of beliefs.

Today my experience in the Society of Jesus grows dim, like a series of events in a very distant land, but what remains is a sense of intimacy that feels indelible and timeless. Most of the struggles of my youth, coming out in an unaccepting culture, finding a spiritual expression that suited me, have faded into the background. I no longer seek the kind of answers that I demanded years ago.

I regard spirituality as reflecting on the questions that life presents squarely, and I value seeing things through to the end, even things that did not turn out well. Most of the ordinary language of spiritual conversation feels inadequate. If I describe my particular path as a series of transitions, I feel I’m being melodramatic. Speaking of a path or a journey sounds like I just bought some nifty running shoes to train for a marathon at my unlikely age.

That morning in Goa, I didn’t feel distant or unconnected, but rather like I’d just grown up and realized that even if my life amounted to only a brief second, in that time I could leave things better than I found them, that I was not alone, and that the universe is vast and awe-inspiring.


The Experience of the Spiritual Exercises is indelible.

I entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, on August 15th 1966 at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Massachusetts. After a few months to acclimate to the schedule of getting up at 5:25 and bed at 9:30, the first year novices were guided through the Spiritual Exercises. For a full month, the whole community was totally focused on the discipline of the Exercises, as strict as the discipline of any Zen hall--total silence, 7 hours of contemplation very day, an unwavering methodical sequence of meditations, 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 more than 50 years later it is hard to believe that the Exercises had such a visceral effect, creating an opening for an experience of the Transcendent in the way that they did. I remember as a teenager reading Joyce’s description of the preacher's sermon on Hell in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. My Novice Master, Fr. T. J. C. O'Callaghan may have lacked the dramatic flair of Joyce’s retreat master, but he followed the same script to create a picture of the fiery world of the unforgivable. 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, our lives were 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 traditional rigidity of religious life was not going to be a happy fit for me. Leaving the Jesuits was a difficult choice. I had been very happy studying theology and exploring religious practice, and I wanted to show the same respect for my choice to abandon the Society as my choice to take 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 discovered several links between meditation practice and Ignatian discipline. I have written about two aspects, the Examen and the Discernment of Spirits. If you want to read further, follow the links on the Page “Writings about Father Ignatius.”

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