An ancient tool for helping us learn to practice God’s presence and grow in a more intimate relationship with the Lord is called the Examen of Consciousness or simply “The Examen.”
The Examen? If you’re not familiar with it then it probably doesn’t sound appealing! The idea of being examined is something most of us want to avoid! But this examen is different — it’s delightful! It is like a key that unlocks the door to entering into the spiritual reality of God’s kingdom where through exercising your trust in Jesus Christ you can experience the presence of God with you right now.
Practice the Presence of God
Always God is present with us — even living within us once we’ve put our confidence in Jesus Christ — but often we get distracted from appreciating the blessing of having the Spirit of the risen Christ in our midst. Maybe we relied on our own strength instead of the Lord’s. Maybe we wanted something other than to glorify God by enjoying and serving him. Maybe we weren’t trusting in the goodness and kindness of God, our loving Father. We don’t have to live distracted from God’s presence; we can learn to keep re-directing our mind onto God.
Jesus said that our relationship to him is to be like a branch abiding in a grapevine. The Father is our gardener, Jesus is the true Vine, and the Holy Spirit is the sap that is the life of the vine that produces the grapes. As branches we can’t bear fruit unless we abide in the vine. To abide in Jesus Christ is to remain in him. It’s to trust him. It’s to listen to his words and obey them. It’s to love one another as God loves us. To abide in Jesus is to practice the presence of God wherever we are and with whomever we are with. (John 15:1-17)
O, my friends, what peace and power is ours when we practice God’s presence!
The Examen of Consciousness and the Examination of Conscience
Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) and the Jesuits who followed him have developed the use of The Examen as a way to learn to live in the light of God’s presence by testing and then exercising their faith connection to God. Most Christ-followers are familiar with doing an Examination of Conscience in which we identify sins that we need to confess to God and ask for his mercy through Christ. That is an essential spiritual discipline, but it’s not the same thing as the Examen of Consciousness.
An example of the examination of conscience is in Psalm 139:23-24 David prays: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” What wisdom is here! To live in the way of God’s everlasting life we need to know our hearts; we need God to help us identify our anxieties and our offenses (the two often go together) so that we can receive his mercy.
In contrast to the Examination of Conscience, the Examen of Consciousness has a positive focus. It’s gentle. It’s delightful. Instead of focusing directly on your sins (which may evoke self-condemnation) you reflect on your experience of God’s grace. And yet, ironically, you’re likely to end up thanking God for his mercy for your sins. The examen is an encouraging way of confessing our sins!
In Psalm 26:2-3 we have an example of the examen of consciousness: “Test me, O Lord, and try me. Examine my heart and my mind. For your love is ever before me and I walk continually in your truth.”
I love this prayer of David’s! I’ve prayed it countless times. Notice that the focus of David’s this self-assessment under God is not on offenses or anxieties, but on having God’s love continually before us so that he can walk consistently in his truth.
Jesus didn’t need to pray Psalm 139’s Examination of Conscience in order to confess sins, though in his intercessions for others we can imagine him praying this on their behalf. However, Jesus did pray Psalm 26’s Examen of Consciousness and, no doubt, this way of reflective, grateful praying helped him to continually rely on the Holy Spirit and to persist always in the love of the Father. Jesus lived out perfectly the words in Psalm 26, always keeping his heart and mind open to the Father, always keeping God’s love before him, always walking in the truth.
A Dialogue with Jesus
In his book Sacred Companions David Benner describes doing an examen as entering into a dialogue with Jesus. At the end of the day (or the morning of the next day) you thank God for the presence of his Spirit with you that day. Then you ask him to help you to see the day with his eyes…
Imagine that Jesus and you are watching a film of your life over recent hours, slowly fast-forwarding through the scenes, as you look for examples of when you sensed God’s presence. As the highlight reel of your mind winds forward in a stream of consciousness ask Jesus to hold the remote control and to pause on the scenes that you need to reflect on. At each scene, let Jesus ask you, “Were you aware of my presence with you then?”
Because thanksgiving is the “password” that ushers us into God’s presence (Psalm 100:4, MSG) thank Jesus for being with you at each scene. This will be easy to do for those times that you enjoyed God’s blessings at that time.
But often you’ll look back at a situation and realize that although you weren’t conscious of God’s presence at the time you can see upon reflection that God in his grace was at work. When this is the case simply invite him to step into the foreground by appreciating him during your examen as you wish you had done during the event.
And in those scenes where you strayed from God’s presence let Jesus ask you, “What distracted you from relying on me?” Then tell Jesus you’re sorry for your unfaithfulness and immediately return into his open arms of grace with no self-condemnation!
When it seems as if God was hidden from you in a scene then pray, “God help me to discern where you are” and be still to listen to what he shows you. Of course, even if you don’t feel God’s presence he is with you – he promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) – so in faith offer to him a sacrifice of thanksgiving anyway!
An Example: My Examen of Consciousness Using Psalm 26
This morning it happens that Psalm 26 was in my daily Bible reading from the Book of Common Prayer. Perhaps the best way I can explain the examen of consciousness is to share with you how I used Psalm 26:2-3 to guide me in a time of personal reflection and prayer.
I reviewed my day yesterday by asking the Holy Spirit to examine my heart and my mind by reflecting with him on the question, “When was the love of God before my heart and mind yesterday? When did I walk in God’s truth?”
I humbled myself before the Lord and asked the Holy Spirit to help me recall the instances yesterday that I relied on God’s love. Then I quieted myself and waited for what memories came to me. It was sort of like God and I watched a movie together, only it wasn’t a flowing story, but more of a series of seemingly disconnected scenes which weren’t even in chronological order.
In some cases I was reminded of instances in which I had been especially conscious of having practiced God’s presence, like when I:
- Meditated on my day’s Bible readings from the ancient Book of Common Prayer.
- Ran with Jesus around the lakes near our home, enjoying the beauty and repeating a new prayer I’ve been using, “With Jesus be… Live freely and lightly.”
- Talked with Kristi about a concern for one of our daughters and then we prayed together about this before we went to sleep.
In other cases, I remembered times yesterday when I relied on God’s grace unconsciously. In other words, I had been in a natural rhythm of keeping in step with the Spirit who gives me life, without even trying to do this. (“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit,” Galatians 5:25). I thanked God for these times as well. For instance, when I:
- Packed up for our vacation and as I did there were a few times that I found myself breathing in and out the little prayer that helps me so much, “Thank you… Lord.”
- Relaxed in the car ride to Palm Springs (Kristi was driving) and participated in conversation with her and David rather than busying myself with unfinished work or reading.
- Sat in the Jackuzzi in Palm Springs with my family and we enjoyed being together under the moonlit night sky.
There were also occasions that came to mind in which I didn’t rely on God’s grace at all and I admitted this to God and thanked him for his mercy to me through Christ. For instance, yesterday as I was sitting in the car and we were stuck in traffic my right hamstring tightened up and became very painful and I complained. I didn’t rejoice in the Lord anyway, as I might have done. Instead I felt frustrated and sorry for myself. I also remembered an angry reaction I had the day before yesterday when I was running on the side of a road and a rude driver buzzed by me, way too close to me, and scared me. I didn’t bless the one who cursed me.
Interestingly, by reflecting on these occasions in which I did not participate in the flow in God’s love and therefore did not walk in his truth led me to come to an appreciation of God’s mercy to me while I was doing my examen. This was because in each case I thanked the Lord for his mercy and I was surprised by a manifestation of God’s grace to me that came right after the incident in which I had just failed to rely on God’s grace!
The time I complained God helped me to catch myself after a few minutes of sulking and instead of grumpily grinding through the last 45 minutes of our car ride I asked my family if it’d be okay if we took a break and got out of the car for awhile. And after my bad reaction to the driver who scared me I asked God for his forgiveness and he helped me to stay out of self-condemnation. These are examples of our God of redemption helping me to recover from sliding further and further away from him and instead to join myself to Jesus Christ. Like changing clothes, I “put off” my Type A, old self and “put on” my in Christ, new self which God has created to be righteous like Jesus (Ephesians 4:22-24, Colossians 3:9-10).
Learning to Practice God’s Presence
The primary benefit of regularly doing an examen of consciousness is the way it helps to learn to practice God’s presence all the time. That happens as we develop the habit of noticing what God is saying and doing. When we have a habit it means that we’ve trained our bodies to do something automatically without our having to think about it. That’s the only way to move toward praying without ceasing.
Of course, there are other spiritual disciplines we need to incorporate in the training of our souls and bodies in order to become the kind of person who practices God’s presence naturally and routinely. Memorizing Scripture, for instance, is an indispensable resource because it enables us to recall Scripture and meditate on it throughout the day. When God’s Word is in our minds then we can set our hearts upon the Lord, appreciating his presence and conversing with him. Solitude and silence are also important because they make the space we need to de-stress, concentrate, and bond more deeply with the Lord.
Meeting with a spiritual director, soul friend, or spiritual formation group are also very helpful with learning to practice God’s presence. This is because the focus of spiritual friendships like these is feeling our emotions, paying attention to our life experiences, and listening to God. (The ability to hear God or sense his presence is connected to our operational awareness of our feelings.)
The key question I ask people in spiritual conversations is essentially an examen of consciousness question: “How have you sensed God’s presence recently?” (Or similar questions like, “How are things going in your relationship with God? How have you been experiencing God’s grace? What is God teaching you? What have you and the Lord been working on lately?)
Certainly we can experience God in set aside times of devotion, church, or ministry, but there are many, many other ways and times! We may experience God in beauty, relational connections, our work, doing the dishes, quiet moments of “taking a breather”, thoughts that come out of the blue, or an enjoyable experience — if we notice, if we’re grateful.
Remembering and giving thanks to God for the ways that we’ve experienced his presence recently, whether conscious of this at the time or not, helps us to assimilate what God is saying and doing in our lives.