A contemporary take on the daily examen

“Hi, my name is Lindsay, and I’d like to play.”

So begins a game I learned more than 15 years ago at my Jesuit college, though the game’s roots reach back to the 16th century.

This line is submitted to the participating group after a period of reflection on the preceding day or week. Once a “player” — really a “prayer” — is ready, she shares three moments that struck her: a “high,” or the best thing that happened to her; a “low,” the worst, saddest, or most challenging thing she experienced; and a “surprise,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

We called it a game, but really it was a point of entry to the Ignatian examen, a practice encouraged and cultivated by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits.

In the examen proper, one first acknowledges God’s presence and then reviews the day (or whatever period of time) with gratitude. St. Ignatius placed value on recognizing and honoring one’s emotions within the context of prayer. The crux of the examen is choosing one event or encounter and praying about it, reflecting on where God is in the accompanying feelings of consolation or desolation. The exercise closes with an eye toward the next day and anticipation of where God will be in that.

Too often we move too quickly through life and find ourselves wondering where God was in our days. We finally get to confession and realize that we can’t remember what we did or didn’t do in the time since we last received the sacrament. We may be trying to live faithful lives of service, but if we don’t check in regularly with God and with ourselves, we’re neglecting an essential element of our spiritual lives. St. Ignatius said, “The man who sets about making others better is wasting his time, unless he begins with himself.”

This checkpoint is key to discerning our vocations, to overcoming sinful habits and to allowing our souls to thrive. When it’s practiced consistently, we can start to see patterns, for better or for worse. We grow in gratitude. We find God in more places because we are looking for him everywhere.

The game of “High, Low, Surprise” is something I’ve taken into my adult life. It’s a way I connect with my brothers- and sisters-in-law after we’ve been apart for a while. It’s a means of getting a better view of what’s going on in my kids’ school than the typical ride-home conversation (“What did you do today?” “Nothing.”). And for the last year and a half, a modified version of it has helped me draw closer to the Lord in challenging times.

Before I go to bed each night, I write down two or three ways I saw God in my day. This might sound like a gratitude journal, but in phrasing it differently, as how I saw God, I recognize him in the blessings and the challenges. When I take the time to stop and remember my day, I see him in the good and what the world would call the bad. I am more aware of the constancy of his presence and where I need to grow in appreciating that. In the words of St. Ignatius, “He who carries God in his heart bears Heaven with him wherever he goes.”

A simple web search will yield many, many adaptations of the Ignatian examen, as well as versions of a more generic examination of conscience. It’s a practice that the faithful have been observing for hundreds of years in various forms. Find a technique that you connect with and try it every night for a week. At first, the effects may be subtle, but in time, I trust that you will start seeing yourself and the Lord in a new light, one that will guide you more directly to where and who you are called to be.

St. Edith Stein — also known by her religious name, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — saw it this way: “When night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with him. Then you will be able to rest in him — really rest — and start the next day as a new life.”

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