Examinatio: The Art of Reflection

7:45-9:00 on December 30, 2020 [Zoom]

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Although it had a long and rich medieval history, the idea of daily examination as a central spiritual discipline for all Christians was popularized by the sixteenth-century Jesuit, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), who encouraged the practice of reflective prayer as the foundational discipline of his Spiritual Exercises. The spiritual disciplines in Ignatius’s book are called “exercises” for good reason. As he explains on the opening pages, spiritual exercises are:

ways of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise.

The first and most important of these spiritual calisthenics that Ignatius recommends is daily reflection, or “the examen.” During the first week of the Exercises, the book’s user is invited to attend carefully to her thoughts and actions, seeking to notice patterns of sin or weakness (in thought or in action), to feel gratitude for blessings and gifts, and to situate both in light of God’s boundless grace. In the Jesuit tradition, these ups and downs are often described as “consolations” (moments when we experienced the presence of God that are the source of gratitude) and “desolations” (moments when we strayed from God that we might confess). To prayerfully remember these moments, Jesuit tradition taught, was the beginning of cultivating the practice of radical honesty and vulnerability. But it was also to attend not only to the self, but to the larger community and work of the Spirit in the world, since examen also asks the person reflecting to situate what they see in their life within a larger picture.

            Although self-examination in premodern spirituality often focused on identifying sin, many modern Christians have found it to be a useful discipline of introspection and reflection more generally. Christianity is not alone in this. Nearly every spiritual tradition has a practice of self-reflection, as the excerpt on “Self Love” from Thich Nhat Han below suggests. Daily self-reflection allows us to step outside of our lives and consider how we are living, what we are valuing and neglecting, how our soul is doing, and where we see God in all of this. Regular self-examination is a form of prayer and discernment. Practicing examinatio is like looking in a mirror. As we think back over our days or weeks or month, we observe them from a slight distance, we see new things in them, we might begin to notice patterns, and we might begin to make or find meaning in what we see. Examinatio asks us both to be honest with ourselves and to be gentle with ourselves, to situate our up and downs within the larger framework of God’s goodness and presence in all things. To examine our day or week or a season in our year is to learn to see our lives – from the mundane to the momentous – through the compassionate eyes of God. Christians don’t practice examinatio simply to better understand themselves, but also to better discern the voice and activity of God in our lives and in the world around us.

So, rather than simply thinking of examinatio as “examination of conscience” (which can feel narrowly moralistic) we might see it as an “examination of consciousness.”  Our consciousness is both inner and outer. It is affected by external events, by stimuli, by the stuff of our physical, sensory life.  But it is also our inner response to that external life, to how we engage it, what we feel about it, how it shapes our notion of self. The fruit of a regular reflective practice is living with a greater attentiveness to the Spirit’s movements in our lives and the world.

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