The “Examen.” A prayerful reflection, made famous by the Jesuit leader St. Ignatius of Loyola. Sometimes it takes you to places you could not imagine. Like it took me, today.
Examen in Five Steps
Originally, the Examen was designed for the end of a day, but you can do it anytime. Just follow these five steps. (1) Feel God’s Presence. (2) Reflect on what you’re grateful for. (3) Observe your emotions. (4) Send up a personal prayer. (5) Note your hope going forward after this prayerful time.
The Examen is open-ended, but sometimes a theme helps. So, sometimes I use the app Reimagining the Examen. Each day, it guides you through the five steps, but following a different theme. The language is quite Christian. So, if that’s not your tradition, you have to adapt the instructions. And that’s what I do. Quietly, I translate them into my spiritual language: Torah, Talmud, and depth psychology.
Divine Presence (Step 1)
I sit on the floor in my bedroom, by a window, in whatever light the season brings. First, I close my eyes and listen to sounds. I recognize them, but I can’t see who or what is making them. But I try to listen without picturing anything. Thus I’m drawn into a way of paying attention that’s unusual for me. It feels like an expanded consciousness. A hint of the divine consciousness.
Gratitude (Step 2)
Then, I picture, one after another, the people and animals I live with. Grievances come up, for sure, but I name in my heart something good they bring to my life. Even if, that day, it’s just a cup of tea. Or a learning. Finding a positive calms my mood.
Self-Observation (Step 3)
Then I open to the theme of the day. I accept whatever the Examen app has chosen in its blind algorithmic wisdom. This morning’s theme is, “Where Are You?”
This question, the app says, comes from a motif in Genesis 3. When God confronts Adam and Eve, who are hiding, God asks, “Where are you?” Obviously God knows where they are. After all, God is speaking right to them. So, clearly, God is asking a deep existential question.
Then, the app asks me: Where are you? And I answer. I’m exhausted, anxious.
But the app isn’t done with with me. So it asks a follow-up question: And what do you want? And I answer this, too. I want to be free of hyper-vigilance. Free from my constant worry that the people I’m with 24/7 during this lockdown might be upset with me. I’m watching, evaluating, minute by minute, on a micro-level. Feels like I’m dragging something heavy around all the time.
Of course I know where I developed this habit. And why, when I’m under stress, it kicks into overdrive. I grew up with it. I watched my grieving parents explode at each other and I tried so hard to make them smile. To be a delight, always good at the right time and in the right way, sweetly keeping the peace.
But I’m 61, my parents are long dead and I’m so tired of doing this work. I don’t even do it well anymore.
And yet. I can’t imagine any other way of being. I reach out with the antennae I have. I perceive as I do. My emotions are as they are. How can I change this ground level of subjectivity?
Prayer (Step 4)
I would like to change, really change. But how? And into what? I don’t know. But I’m willing, finally, to leap into the unknown.
Surely there’s a neutral space in my psyche? A place of pure potential, maybe? With energies and possibilities I learned to avoid? What exactly will I find there? Will it be safe? How long till I come back? And when I do, will I be happy? Or will I be more lost, more burdened?
How shall I travel there? Do I follow the Talmud’s hints, hidden in the story of the four who enter pardes? When you get there, says Rabbi Akiva, call a thing what it really is. But do the travellers do that? Ben Azzai sees himself and can’t bear it. Ben Zoma loses himself in the possibilities. Aher can’t tolerate his old community any more. Only Akiva comes home, whole (B. Talmud Hagigah 14b).
But I’m not ready for this journey. I don’t know how to call things what they are. My ways of seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling are too limited. So please, send me some guides, God. Gentle guides, so I don’t feel bruised. Generous guides, who won’t narrow my potentials. Wise guides, who’ve taken the journey themselves, and come home whole. Maybe more than once.
Looking Ahead Post-Examen (Step 5)
Now that I’ve put my longing into words, it dawns on me. My prayer has already been answered. Guides have appeared. Maybe not full-service tour guides, so to speak. But ushers, pointing me down one aisle or another. A therapist, a colleague, a friend: each shares a helpful gem. Each offers to walk with me. But the journey is mine, and mine alone.
Want to read more about adapting the Examen for a Jewish idiom? Here’s another example.