Our “true north,” as we do this examination of conscience, is the love of God, and in particular in the person of Christ. This fundamental orientation is called the Principle and Foundation in the Spiritual Exercises and it can be broken down into four principles as outlined by Timothy Muldoon in his Ignatian Workout.
- We are created to praise, reverence and serve God.
- We are made for eternity and everything in this world should help us toward that end.
- We must not, therefore, get caught in the “externals.”
- We need to cultivate a desire only for that which we were created.
David Fleming’s translation of this last point is particularly powerful:
“Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God’s life in me.”
Thus the need for constant discernment of spirits. If I believe that God is and that God has a desire for me in the context of the plan for salvation, must I not discern whether my will and God’s will are compatible? Would we not make the effort to align ourselves with the will of the people we love most on earth? Everything in this world is made and is “shot through” with the glory of God, and may be used to glorify God, but we must be discerning about what leads us toward and what leads us away from that end. We must continually monitor what our actual desire is, and bring that desire to light, to be confirmed or purified and transformed. As people oriented toward God in our basic desire, we are continually choosing among “goods.” But lovers want to give the “greater” to the beloved as an act of praise and reverence.
The discernment of spirits is practiced intentionally and daily in the examen. The best way to be attentive to the spirits that affect our lives is to stop several times a day and tune in, examine those feelings and desires that have arisen. What, then, are the thoughts that have given rise to those feelings? What am I telling myself about this situation? What is the imagined story and the motivations I am engaging? What needs healing in me in this moment? Ignatius said that if you did not pray any other prayer, this was the one you should hold on to for dear life. This is the prayer that keeps us honest and free before God and our very selves.
What is your experience of review of the day (or the moment) with God?
The point is to become what Ignatius calls “disinterested,” that is, FREE, to do God’s will moment by moment, unhampered by “disordered desires” that blind or bind us. Jesus was free to walk in grace and peace all the way to and through the passion and death to the resurrection. This is the stuff of which martyrs are made. What are we willing to live for? What are we willing to die for? These two questions are one and the same.
Consciousness Examen or Awareness Examen
Rather than picking at ourselves about what we feel were our successes and/or failures, we are asked to pay attention without judgment to the feelings and then be with them in God’s presence. Become conscious. Become aware of what is real for you in that moment without judging the feeling. We do not have control over the feelings so they are not to be judged. The spontaneous feelings and desires are the key to what is true for us, whether we want to admit it or not. It is relatively easy to deceive ourselves if we just stay with our thoughts; we can think ourselves into holy justification. Immediate feelings, however do not deceive. They tell us the truth in the moment, so this is a good starting place for mining grace. Until we are honest with what is, we cannot bring it to the light for healing.
Two examples of the examen as a “practice” are outlined below, but the point is to do the reflection in the presence of a loving God, whatever that looks like for you and your family or community, if you choose to practice this discipline in common.
In order to effectively do communal discernment, all participants must be committed to the personal practice of discernment of spirits so that as movements arise in the community, there is an ever greater ease in sorting out the spirits, individually and communally. When a community gathers in faith to discern, the community becomes an entity in itself with spirits of its own unique dynamic. When we complain about the Church, the Church is the community of made up of humans, all of whom struggle with these same spirits. The community is in need of purification and healing in the same way as each person present. If every person prepares the best she or he may, the Spirit promised to sustain us as a Church.
Five-Point Examination of Conscience
Transition: I become aware of the love with which God looks upon me as I begin this examen.
Gratitude: I note the gifts God’s love has given me this day, and I give thanks to God for them.
Petition: I ask God for insight and a strength that will make this examen a work of grace, fruitful beyond my human capacity alone.
Review: With my God, I review the day. I look for the stirrings in my heart and the thoughts that God has given me this day. I look for those that have not been of God. I review my choices in response to both, and throughout the day in general.
Forgiveness: I ask for the healing touch of the forgiving God who, with love and respect for me, removes my hearts burdens.
Renewal: I look to the following day and, with God, plan concretely how to live it in accord with God’s loving desire for my life.
Transition: Aware of God’s presence with me, I prayerfully conclude the examen.
Sleeping with Bread Version
For what moment today am I the most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?
When did I give and receive the most love today?
When did I give and receive the least love today?
When did I feel the most alive today?
When did I feel the life draining out of me?
When did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, others, God and the universe?
When did I have the least sense of belonging?
When was I the happiest today?
When was I the saddest?
What was today’s high point?
What was today’s low point?
These questions are a conversation with God (and with another if you choose to do this in common). They invite deep reflection and honesty, as well as a response in love.
Practice the examen, the discernment of spirits, daily. Note how God tends to speak to you so that you become a “connoisseur” of the Spirit.
How do you monitor your commitment to the “foundation” of your life? How do you know you are moving in that direction? What evidence do you have? How do you include God in this reflection? How is God responding to your desire and resulting choices?
Share how you normally review your daily life, whether it is along these models or not. What do you find works for you?
Practice group discernment with those closest to you in the style of Sleeping with Bread. Note after a while how this exercise has affected your relationship among those with whom you share regularly, and with others in your life. What is the fruit of the practice in your relationship with God?
Click here for a PDF version of this article: Examen and Fundamentals
 Tim Muldoon, The Ignatian Workout: Daily Spiritual Exercises for a Healthy Faith (Chicago, Ill.: Jesuit Way, ©2004), 67.
 David L. Fleming, SJ. Draw Me into Your Friendship: the Spiritual Exercises (Saint Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 26.
 Timothy M. Gallagher, The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today (Mahwah: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006), 25.
 Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1995), 6-7.