Variety in the Examen

Jim Manney posted on “Refreshing the Examen” on the dotMagis blog. Does the practice of the Examen need variety? As a newcomer, I can attest I need the regularity more than I need to develop variations on a theme.

To be clear, this specific idea wasn’t his own, but that of Paul Wilkes from well over a year ago at the HuffPo:

  • What did I do that made me happiest?
  • Where did I feel ashamed of myself?
  • What action would I do over again and how?
  • What habits or tendencies worked for or against me?
  • When did I feel most in alignment with what is best in me?

Stay with the feeling and allow it to lead you inward.

A few commentators had a problem with “shame.” Is shame a problem for emotionally healthy people? Or has its bad name become justified? Is “disappointment” not strong enough of a word, becoming something of a cop-out for a serious believer?

My own practice of the Examen is beginning to solidify after thirty years of knowing about it, fifteen years after receiving the strong suggestion to do it, and maybe one to two years of actually putting it into practice.

My own sense is that a healthy person can confront, admit, and transcend shame. My experience with young adults would be to use with extreme caution, given the amount of wounding I see in the current young generation. There is a lot of self-hatred in the world today, even among believers.

That said, the Wilkes approach strikes me a little too clinical for my taste. I still like roving backwards in time: an hour ago, then two, then three, and count as I go until I reach the time of my last Examen. At each hour, I usually draw a picture in my mind and dwell on it for a moment. If nothing happens, then I keep scrolling backwards, until I reach a point where my awareness is poked. Sometimes I feel disappointment. Sometimes shame. Sometimes it’s not a feeling at all, but a different sense: look at this, observe this, don’t forget this, or pray about this.

But one application occurred to me as I reflected on meeting with a young parishioner couple over brunch yesterday. Maybe this gets a bit beyond the purpose of the classical Examen, but I thought about a few moments in the conversation. I wasn’t concerned as much about things I was happy about or disappointed in, but more keeping people in mind and in prayer.

We train our student small group leaders to pray for their groups, the individual people they serve. It occurred to me this aspect of my ministry life needs more attention. It wasn’t as much of a sense of “What should I have done better?” in the meeting, or “How do I feel about that?” Instead, I felt a movement to bring the personal encounters more into my prayer. Not for any particular purpose, necessarily. But just to draw my professional and spiritual lives closer together. In other words, not necessarily praying for people in need, but keeping people in a certain level of my conscious interior. Maybe to look at three or so moments in the conversation.

As for you, readers, do you think the avoidance of shame has become more a problem than a solution for damaged self-esteem? Do you think the Examen needs variety?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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