Many priests will share stories about the challenges everyone confronts in their experiences of prayer. Many people relate how prayer seems to be a difficult reality. This is true for almost every person whether married or single. An honest priest will also share that they, too, find themselves on the same search at different times in their lives.
During my days as a Jesuit novice, learning about prayer was a primary goal. It was in those formative years that we were taught one particular spiritual practice that ultimately became a sure way of learning about prayer. The exercise, designed by St. Ignatius Loyola, for his Jesuit communities and for men and women making the Spiritual Exercises, had a specific intention that many of us novices did not see as a method of learning how to pray. The specific exercise is named the Examen. It is the shortened name for an Examination of Conscience. Today many would see it as a preparation for confession. It was much more than that.
The Examen consisted of five steps that ultimately brought an individual much closer to God. Who wouldn't grow in a personal relationship with God when twice each day the individual takes fifteen minutes to be with God going through five distinct activities included in the Examen. We novices quickly learned that the Examen was much more than thinking about what "sins" we had tallied since the last time we made an Examen. Looking at the five steps in this spiritual activity, you can easily see how these fifteen minutes are an opportunity to grow one spiritual relationship with God. Anyone who can remember the five steps of the Examen and practice the exercise at least once each day will soon feel the desire to speak out loud, "Heh, this praying business is not so difficult. Why didn't someone teach this years ago?" Ignatius was a wise priest and leader of a community of male religious. He was known to say often that the Examen is the one prayer in the daily life of the Jesuit that should not be omitted. What Ignatius said a few centuries ago is, perhaps, more important today than in his time. So, what is this wonder "test" that makes prayer so easy?
1. You ask God for his grace to make these moments alone with him a genuine experience of prayer -- both talking and listening between the person and God. This is what should be done as anyone begins a time of prayer be it the Examen or a regular time of prayer. This first step truly brings a person into contact with God at the outset. Just time asking God for his graces to open the mind and heart.
2. Consider the abundance that God has poured in your life since the last Examen. This abundance can be any moment or person that has brought happiness into your life in the last few hours. The resolution of a personal dispute or annoyance with another person, a telephone call from a friend whose voice always brings peace, or simply walking into an air-conditioned building on a torrid summer afternoon or even how good an iced tea or iced water drink makes one feel so much better on a summer's day. Then stop and, as Ignatius would say, "savor" the moment, "savor" the feelings that you may not have given much attention in the past. Don't rush passed these moments. Talk to God about how good these experiences are for you. Thank him for these special moments.
3. Bring to the screen of your mind the events of the last few hours. At this point you focus on what you did that made you feel God's presence or where you sensed you turned aside from God a little. It may be difficult at first but in this step we should seek to find hints of God's being present with us in the last few hours.
4. In this step you ask the God you have engaged in this prayer exercise to forgive whatever sins or faults you have recalled since the last Examen.
5. Finally you continue your dialog with God and ask for the graces to live your life in God's loving care. You recognize how God has tried to be with you during those hours and how you may have acted in ways that puts some distance between you but not having asked forgiveness, you seek the graces to move forward for the rest of the day or the next day mindfully living in God's graces. Then Ignatius recommends we conclude the Examen with an Our Father prayer.
Simple? I think so. A challenge? I know so. What you have done in this exercise is to have taken what had been your recent realities and turned them into genuine prayer with God. You have unlocked what many thought was an experience only for saints. You have initiated or you continue a genuine experience of prayer.