The Examen in the Era of COVID-19

TJ Lindstrom, Opinion Editor

“City inside raindrops” by taiyofj is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As I sit at my desk, staring out my rain soaked window, I find myself reminiscing about these past few months. So many hours spent staring out that window from the safety of my home. My home. “Home” has taken on something of a new meaning lately. It’s the place we all were ordered to retreat to when, for a moment last April, the world seemed to fall in on itself. And, when we finally got the all-clear and crawled out from our bunkers, we discovered a very different world. It was a more dangerous world; a more distant one. Suddenly home sounded much more appealing. 

We go to work from home now, go to school from home and spend time with friends from home. It’s safe here. But, that isolated safety often carries with it the most acute sense of loneliness. I’ve felt it plenty, and I’m sure you have, too. The great evil of this pandemic is that while, as in any moment of great crisis, all we want to do is come together, we simply can’t. And so we find different ways to cope. We bake or knit or paint or write. While I’ve picked up many small hobbies and activities lately, the most poignant practice I’ve added to my daily routine is the Examen. 

Today, the Examen is most closely associated with the Society of Jesus. First articulated 500 years ago by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a five-point Examen is still prayed daily by Jesuits around the world. The traditional Ignatian Examen begins with acknowledging God’s presence and giving thanks for the gifts of our day. It continues with a request that God accompanies us through the review of our day. Then, we actually review the day and recognize any failures. Next, we ask God’s forgiveness and forgive ourselves for any mistakes or failures. Finally, we look forward to the next day. It’s a beautiful process. A grateful review and closing of one day, followed by a hopeful look forward to the next. 

The gifts of the Examen don’t end with the prayer. I have found that reflecting on the emotions and happenings of my day helps me to more fully experience my present emotions generally. I become more mindful of the little beauties. 

For the Jesuits, God is certainly a central part of the Examen, but I don’t think you need to be a Christian or even religious at all to find the Examen useful. Simply replace the words “prayer” with “reflection” and “God” with “love” or “joy,” and I think you’ll have a very rewarding experience, regardless of your belief in God. At its core, the Examen is a deep, daily look at the self, and I think everyone can benefit from that. 

I’ve found self-reflection to be crucial to retaining my sanity over these past few months. With so much time at home, the days sometimes seem to blend together, and this is a wonderful way to move more intentionally through these days of quarantine and isolation. For me, the Examen is prayer in the truest sense of the word. It’s a deep breath; a forced pause from the craziness of today; a long, loving look inward. In a time when so much is uncertain and unfamiliar, it helps me to discover how I’m really feeling. I try to live by those feelings. And, by feelings, I don’t mean spur-of-the-moment impulses. For, our truest feelings – our desires, to borrow the language of St. Ignatius – take serious time and consideration to discern. They are discerned by allowing for the emotional consideration of our internal movements, the cessation of worry and the commencement of meditation and reflection. They are discerned through self-examination. And so, as I sit alone at my desk, looking out that all-too-familiar window, graced now by the glimmering stars, I pray my Examen and feel some semblance of peace – a moment of clarity in the most confusing of times.