- Do you feel a little frayed around the edges?
- Do you go from one thing to the next without a pause?
- Do you fall into bed exhausted without having physically exerted yourself?
- Do the days just blur together?
- Do you go from book to book, from one TV show to the next, from movie to movie and then find a couple of months later you don’t really remember what you read or watched?
If you can answer ‘yes’ to any or all of those questions, then I’m pretty confident that regular self-reflection is not part of your life. So many of us have been trained to stay busy all the time, to wear our tiredness as a badge of honor, to pack as much into our day as possible, that we rarely take time to reflect on what we actually did. And so we move through life at a frantic pace, even when sitting down to read or watch a screen, and thereby miss so much of the life we’re living.
A decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Fr. Matt Linn speak at a retreat in Houston, and became curious about one of the practices of St. Ignatius which he led us in – the ‘examen.’ I picked up a copy of the beautiful book he co-wrote about the examen, Sleeping with Bread, and began to practice it with my wife, Rebecca. When our kids were old enough, we began to share the practice with them. It remains part of our bedtime rhythm with our now 14 and almost 13 year olds.
At the heart of the examen lie two questions:
- “What was I most grateful for today?”
- “What was I least grateful for today?”
Simple questions, certainly, but ones which require a slowing down, a reflection on the day we have just experienced, paying attention not only to what we did, but also to how we felt, what we heard, what we saw, what we learned, perhaps. Some days we find our answers immediately spring to mind. Other days it takes time to identify what the questions ask of us. Occasionally I find myself unable to answer one of them.
While I imagine the vast majority of Socrates’ contemporaries were struggling just to survive rather than engaging in philosophical discussion for hours on end, his sentiment offers an invitation to commit some portion of our day to paying attention to what it might teach us. The examen is a simple way to do so, a daily practice that may begin to shape how we live the rest of our lives – with more intention.
When our kids were younger we asked the questions in simpler terms:
- “What was your happy thing today?”
- “What was your sad thing today?”
- “What was the honey in your day?”
- “What was the sting?”
Whatever form of the questions you choose, I encourage you to try this practice for a week and see what you notice about your life. Perhaps keep a journal of your answers and see if there’s a common thread that may invite a response of some kind. If you share living space with others, perhaps share in the practice together. St Ignatius would encourage you to pause and become aware of God’s presence before you ask the questions, and, after you’ve answered them, conclude by looking ahead and asking where you will need God in the day to come.
I hope you find the practice of the examen as meaningful as our family has.