The Jesuit spiritual discipline called “The Examen” originated with Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). He lived with the daily expectation that God would speak through our deepest feelings and yearnings, what he called “consolation” and “desolation.” Ignatius recommended each of us returning to our deepest moments of consolation and desolation on a daily basis both to see where God has been present in my life and also where I have kept God out. This is what the Examen helps us to do. For centuries now, prayerful Christians have found direction for their day and for their lives by identifying these moments – and then making the wonderful discovery that God is in both!
Consolation, Desolation, and Discernment
When we say that something has “moved” us, we are usually talking about our feelings. However, when Ignatius talks about interior movements or motions in a person, he is talking not about feelings but about the direction in which our feelings are taking us, that is, either toward God or away from God. Feelings may be pleasant or painful, and both kinds of feelings can lead us either toward or away from God. The same can be said of our thoughts, images, fantasies, desires, decisions, and actions: they can draw us either to or away from God.
Pleasant feelings can draw me toward God by kindling my love for Jesus or my joy in his presence. This interior movement toward God Ignatius would call spiritual consolation. But it is also possible to get trapped in pleasant or pious feelings, to become complacent in them or subtly proud of myself for having them. This interior movement, arising out of pleasant feelings but leading me away from God and turning me in on myself, Ignatius would call spiritual desolation.
Painful feelings can also draw me to God by deepening my sorrow for sin or my distress at Jesus’ death on the cross. This may not feel like consolation, but it is spiritual consolation, because its direction is toward God. Painful feelings such as discouragement, self-pity, or despair can imprison me in myself and lead me away from God. This interior movement is recognized as spiritual desolation because of its direction. The more important thing is not the feeling itself, but the direction of its movement to or away from God. Consolation and desolation are therefore understood by Ignatius to be spiritual experiences – the result of the powerful or subtle influence of good and evil spirits, that is, of the Holy Spirit and of what Ignatius often calls “the enemy of our human nature.” Discernment of spirits is paying attention to our inner experience – our feelings especially, in order to distinguish the direction of their movement, and also our thoughts, in order to determine whether they lead us to or away from God.
Typically, the Examen is done at the end of the day. Some families do it at the end of the meal when they’re still gathered around the dinner table. Others take a few moments before retiring for bed to do it either alone or together with someone else. Regardless of when you find it best to do, here are some guidelines:
Preparation: You may wish to light a candle to visibly remind yourself of Jesus’ presence and his unconditional love for you. You might imagine yourself in a favourite place with someone whose love you trust, such as your spouse, a friend, or Jesus. Put your feet flat on the floor, take a few deep breaths from the bottom of your toes, up through your legs, your abdominal muscles and your chest. Breathe in God’s unconditional love, and when you breathe out, fill the space around you with it.
Place your hand on your heart and ask Jesus to bring to your heart the moment today for which you are most grateful, which most led you toward God. If you could relive one moment, which one would it be? When were you most able to give and receive love today? Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so special. Breathe in the gratitude you felt and receive life again from that moment.
Ask God to bring to your heart the moment today for which you are least grateful, which most led you away from God. When were you least able to give and receive love? Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult. Be with whatever you feel without trying to change or fix it in any way. You may wish to take deep breaths and let God’s love fill you just as you are.
Give thanks for whatever you have experienced. If possible, share as much as you wish of these two moments with the other person.
Remember that doing the Examen “successfully” isn’t measured by what you “feel” after doing it. Remember that it is about nurturing and developing your discernment of the spirits at work within you – the self-awareness that will connect you to a new and deepening awareness of God and his presence, activity and leading in your life.
Eric Jensen, S.J., Entering Christ’s Prayer, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2007.
Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread:
Holding What Gives You Life, New York: Paulist Press, 1995.