Practicing an Examen at the End of Your Day
Why is it that the minute we lay down, everything unresolved in our lives comes to the surface? Every mistake you made that day, the reliving of that argument and what you wish you had said, the regret with how you should have parented that child differently but now it’s too late, the running of numbers to see how the bills will get paid, and on and on.
Even as a child I would worry myself to sleep. Some of it was linked to having a father who was bi-polar— the unpredictability of his choices, the concern for my mom and sisters, the figuring out how I could be better to keep my parents happy. I spent the first half of my life fixating on how I could do things better the next day.
Once I married a shrink (and have we ever gotten every dollar out that degree), he gave me the official language: I was ruminating— turning things over and over in my mind without finding resolution.
Interestingly, over the years, my bedtime ruminations have become one of the most instrumental connection points with God around what is going on in my heart. It is here in the unguarded moments before sleep that the themes of our anxieties, insecurities, and longings surface. And there’s no better time to bring those into God’s presence.
One tool that helps give us a structure for self-examination in God’s presence is a historic Christian practice called the examen. The examen is a set of questions that you walk through at the end of a day (or week or season) to reflect on where you have seen God at work and to discern what is happening under the surface of the events happening in your life.
Being the modern people that we are, you can actually walk through an examen on your phone. My favorite app is one called “Reimagining the Ignatian Examen.” I’m directly quoting from their information because they so succinctly describe the purpose of an examen.
What is the Examen?
St. Ignatius of Loyola created the Examen to be a very short prayer that can be prayed at any time. In the Examen, we review our recent past to find God and his blessings in our daily life. Ignatius would say that the Examen should be the most important moment of our day, because this moment affects every other moment.
Benefits of the Examen
The Examen brings God’s presence into the mud and muck of our day. It helps:
- unite you even closer to God;
- reveal God’s perspective on your everyday life;
- stir you to praise God for the countless gifts that have popped up in your day, and even to find God’s presence in those gifts;
- give you an opportunity to recognize and apologize for your faults, and to grieve your failures and hurts and receive healing from them;
- bring insight into what is really going on beneath the surface of your thoughts, words, and actions— into the very source of your motivations;
- you discern how to handle the trickier aspects of your life, to know what gifts you need from God to do the right thing tomorrow, and to ask God for those gifts explicitly.
What I love about this particular app is there are a variety of themes from which you can choose depending on what you are brooding about that day. Options to choose from include: Am I free or unfree? Ask for the grace. Shifts in my spirit. Identifying inner wounds. Who wore God’s face today? I’m drained! What do I seek? Each one leads you to a different place of reflection and conversation with God.
Last night I was worrying over a certain loved one in my life and chose the examen titled “A Relationship.” The examen began by asking you to bring that person to mind, imagining this person before you, their voice, their gestures. Then I was led me through profound questions such as: What has the relationship meant to me? Has it led me closer to God, or farther away? What is the most difficult part of this relationship? The most enjoyable? Is the strong emotion I’m feeling in the present moment in sync with the strong emotions I feel as I reflect on the relationship as a whole? From there, I was invited to bring my longings and questions about this person before God, and ultimately, to seek what invitation I might have in that relationship at this moment.
Instead of worrying myself to sleep over this person, I released her to God, and found myself more clear about what I am to carry, and what I am to release. What was particularly profound is that this morning as I was just starting to awaken, I had a vivid image that I knew was God speaking about what was happening with this person. Somehow, I feel asleep with this person on my heart and awoke with her in my heart, but all in the conscious presence of God.
This lenten season, I encourage you to add a new rhythm into your bedtime routine. Instead of reading the news or social media to unwind (as if that really helps with anxiety!), download the app I’ve been using here. Or commit to do the Examen with a friend or spouse. My husband and I did an examen app (download here) where you write simple answers and the summary is emailed to yourself or someone else. I learned more about the movements of my husband’s heart from that app than any other exercise we have ever done.
May you be empowered in this season to form a new habit of taking those ruminating thoughts to the One who can help you sort things out.