The Way of Self-Reflection

Part of the traditional practice for Ash Wednesday is time spent reflecting on your life and your relationship to God. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the sixteenth century, formulated a guide to spirituality that includes a practice called the “examen” . I am indebted to Dennis Hamm, S.J. for his light hearted and contemporary take on this discipline. Here is how I think of it.

  • Align yourself with God. Before we look at anything else, we need to prepare to look; dis-engaging from our electronics, quieting our body and focusing our mind. Sometimes going to the same physical place helps. With practice, this may only take a minute or two most days, longer when you are stressed and scattered. But it is a necessary prelude and preparation.
  • Unroll the scroll of your day. Backwards or forwards, whichever seems best, review the happenings of the day. Don’t skip the mundane tasks like driving to work or doing laundry; sometimes when our hands are busy, our hearts and minds are free to roam.
  • Review the feelings that surface. Many people have a hard time finding their feelings, especially on a day when “nothing” went on. If you can’t identify a feeling, try to remember what was going on in your head during the day. These don’t have to be “spiritual” feelings. Were you bored? Relieved? Irritated? Grateful? This is one of the greatest gifts of the examen. As we practice paying attention to our feelings and reactions, they are less mysterious, and less likely to trip us up. Some people have poetry or images or music that inhabit their inner lives. Could that be the way your feelings are expressed?
  • Choose a moment (positive or negative) and pray from it. Just bring that feeling or thought (and the situation that went with it) to God. Just talk about it with God as you would with a trusted friend. What did you learn from it? How can you understand it? What does it mean to you? Remember, it doesn’t have to be a crisis; just something that happened. God wants to hear about it all; good and bad, big and small.
  • Move to the future. What are you going to do differently as a result of your experience? Some people choose this time to look at their schedule for the next day. Some others make a “resolution” for the next day. Whatever you decide to do, check in with yourself to see how you did. And end your examen with a prayer before you go about the rest of your day or night.
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