The Examen - it's a prayer, not a test
Friday Book Pick: The Examen Prayer by Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher
The spiritual practice of the “Examen Prayer” is at least vaguely familiar to most Catholics—I would venture to guess. But it may be just that: a vague concept you’ve heard of but may never have been thoroughly taught how, or why, to practice it.
In The Examen Prayer, Fr. Timothy Gallagher not only explains the spiritual tradition of this prayer, but he makes a case for it. In this practical and inspiring book, like a true teacher, with ample examples and vivid stories he makes the Examen Prayer seem not only valuable, but indispensable to growing in a loving relationship with God. By the end of these pages you’ll not only understand the practice, but you’ll also be convinced that you should give it a try, and I sincerely hope you do!
If I was conducting a little survey on what you already know about the Examen Prayer, many of you would likely answer that it is a review of the day, like an examination of conscience, before going to bed at night. And while there is certainly an element of “review” involved in the Examen, it is not meant to be primarily a daily inventory of our sinfulness. If it were merely a personal moral review, it would not qualify as prayer, and it would likely be a source of discouragement and desolation rather than renewal, consolation and peace.
Rather than defining the Examen as a “sin inventory,” Fr. Gallagher teaches that the Examen is a way to make yourself available to God’s self-revelation. Or, to put it another way, the Examen Prayer is a time of connecting with God and allowing Him to show you something about Himself and about yourself—every day. It is taking time to notice, to pay attention, to try to decipher “where God was” in the events, conversations, and situations that made up your day.
Fr. Timothy Gallagher walks the reader through the steps of the Examen Prayer: Transition, Gratitude, Petition, Review, Forgiveness, Renewal, and Transition again, according to the method taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his classic work Spiritual Exercises. But he goes further, discussing motivation and desire, obstacles and problems, and even practicals like time of day and setting. And further still, Father illuminates the benefits and lasting fruits that faithfulness to this graced prayer can yield. Some of these are forgiveness, healing, perspective, gratitude, spiritual consolation, courage and renewal.
Ever a disciple as well as a teacher, Fr. Gallagher does not shy away from revealing something of his own personal experience along the way. In relating his progress in incorporating the Examen Prayer into his life over the decades since first learning it in the seminary, he writes, “Generally I would dedicate a few minutes, sometimes more, to the Examen at the end of the day. What had changed for me was the discovery of the Examen’s first step: looking for the Lord’s gifts in the day and then expressing gratitude for them. I found that I could do this, and it made a difference.” He goes on, “Recognizing God’s gifts to me at the end of the day would often gently lift my heart.”
You and I and everyone else too, at the core, desire communion with God. All of our efforts to pray are born of this central desire for God. The Examen prayer is a specific way to pray, to see how God was active in my life today, to hear what God was saying through the circumstances of my life in the present, to reveal where God is leading me now. It is like a uniquely designed tool for detecting the presence of God.
Far from a faultfinding expedition focused on self, the Examen reveals the love and generosity of a good God. Fr. Gallagher writes, “Through praying the Examen, I become more aware of God’s continual giving in so many ways during the day. Slowly the gifts begin to speak to me of a very real love behind the giving.”
The book clearly illustrates that when prayed perseveringly, the Examen Prayer becomes a means of recognizing the patterns of how God speaks, works, and leads in a life. And even if you think that faithfully praying the Examen is unlikely for you because of some circumstance or obstacle, once you read this book you will be inspired to consider it. The examples of many different people living every vocational state, and all of them finding fruit by practicing the Examen Prayer in their own way, makes you want to give it a try.
Father ends the book by introducing us to an elderly woman, long practiced in prayer, who now easily senses the vestige of God in the sunlight flooding a room, in the shining faces of friends, and in cold, bracing wind. And reading her experience, along with all of the others, you’re sure that if you find room for the Examen Prayer in your life, you will soon begin to see the fingerprints of God present in all things too—and no doubt you will.