Monday over Coffee: Examen

Examen

When I look back at my school days, there were a few triumphs, but also some memorable disasters. Algebra in middle school was vexing. In high school, I was flummoxed by William Faulkner and his virtually  impenetrable novels. I made a befuddled exit from a computer science class in college right before the drop deadline, and I certainly stumbled through a number of law school exams. But the worst grade I ever made on a test was early in elementary school. And it wasn’t just bad, it was unbearably bad. I got a zero. And it wasn’t due to an unexcused absence on a test day or a take-home quiz left inadvertently at home. I was there. I actually took the test. It was just that for each and every question, I wrote down exactly the wrong answer. 

 

In the preceding days, Mrs. Beeler of Hunter’s Creek Elementary School had ably led her first grade math class through the concept of greater than (>) and less than (<), but as she handed out the test covering the unit at the end of the week, I glitched out. I couldn’t recall which symbol was which and had to guess. Turned out, I guessed wrong. Consistently wrong. Doggedly wrong. Wrong-all-the-way-through-the-test-wrong. I comprehended the arithmetical notion, in a sense, and my 0 would’ve been a 100 if I’d simply recalled which way the pointy side of the symbol should’ve gone, but my paper was now covered with ‘X’s’ and a big red goose egg was staring back at me from the top. I went to Mrs. Beeler, but she took a dim view of my appeal, noting unassailably that consistency is no virtue if one is merely consistently wrong.

 

Though my first grade report card absorbed a severe blow that 6-week period, with just a brief examination of the examination, I soon overcame my failure, mastering the greater than/less than conundrum. A sympathetic classmate suggested that I think of the symbols as open mouths and that the mouth should always be trying to eat the bigger number. And while that stuck with me, it must be acknowledged not everything is so easily fixed, and generally-speaking, nothing fixes itself. It almost always takes some intentional examination. 

 

The Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca knew this. He famously made a practice of closely examining each of his days at their conclusion, cataloging both his triumphs and personal errors, giving consideration every evening to how he might repeat what was more noble and greater tomorrow while eliminating what was unvirtuous and lesser in each new day ahead. 

 

All over the world and for centuries, the Jesuits—who seek to find God in all things—utilize a similar practice in a more spiritual context. My son Charlie who attends a Jesuit high school introduced me to the idea—it’s known as St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer of Examen. With a series of introspective prompts, the prayer provides a contemplative environment to examine the events and encounters of one’s day as it ebbs toward its close. The prayer exists in many forms and can be adapted in many ways, but generally it starts with a series of deep breaths as the supplicant settles in, focuses his or her consciousness, and becomes aware of the presence of the divine. Next, one petitions God for the grace of understanding and then proceeds to a thoughtful examination of the day, spurred along with these sorts of questions:

 

  • What encounter were you grateful to experience today?

  • Where did you feel joy today?

  • What moment troubled, challenged, or confused you?

  • Where did you pause today and notice God's presence? 

  • Given these experiences and feelings, how might you more closely collaborate with God tomorrow?

  • With what spirit will you awake tomorrow?

 

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, and author of The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything urges us to think of the prayer of examen as a movie playing inside our heads. “Push the play button,” he suggests, “and run through your day…from your rising in the morning to preparing to go to bed at night. Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you to be more loving. Recall everything—sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, textures, conversations. Each moment,” he concludes, “offers a window to where God’s been in your day.” 

 

Finally, the Jesuits counsel, rather than grading yourself too harshly at the prayer’s conclusion, just look through that window and ask for a grace-filled God’s assistance to continually turn from what is lesser and toward that which is greater in each succeeding day.

 

God—May my prayers of examination show You moving in my life more and more. May I then continue moving in that direction.

Amen. 

 

—Greg Funderburk


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