A Guide to The Examen Prayer

The prayer of Examen is a space you create to reflect on (to examine) your day in light of God’s presence. This is a practice I’ve been using in recent weeks, as I approach my 25th birthday, and I’ve found it helpful and comforting.

“…to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

— Mary Oliver

This extraordinary time of life has lent itself to more personal reflection, the reorganization of priorities, and renewed awareness to life’s complexity. We must continue to examine our understanding of “normal,” and for many, our privilege, and seek to conform our hearts and minds to Christ.

Practicing the Examen

There are a few different variations of this form of prayer and if you decide to practice the examen, you’ll find your own rhythm that works best for you. I’ve found it helpful for my own practice to associate the steps with something tactile: gardening. Similar to adding motions to a children’s song, the gardening metaphors help me to remember the rhythm.

photo: jade seok

Give Thanks

Begin by planting seeds of gratitude. Offer thanks for whatever comes to mind. The “seeds” are all different sizes, some harder to pick up than others. There is a power in recognizing what you’re grateful for, even if you don’t *feel* very thankful in the moment. The seeds will continue to grow and fill up your garden.

“It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich!” 

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Be Present with God

Don’t be quick to wipe the dirt from your hands. Allow yourself to be fully present with God. One of the best parts of gardening is putting your hands in the soil. Its mildly therapeutic, in my humble opinion, and encourages me to be mindful of the task at hand. In silence or with a few words, invite the Holy Spirit to guide you as you pray.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways…Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

—Psalm 139:1–3, 7 NRSV

Reflect on the Day

Notice how the garden has grown. Where have light and water nourished the garden? Where have weeds taken over? Allow the Holy Spirit to direct your attention to God’s presence in your day.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

Any every common bush afire with God,

But only [s]he who sees takes off [their] shoes;

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

— Elizabeth Barret Browning

Identify Areas of Growth

Remove any weeds from the garden. Invasive species or common weeds are inevitable and must be tended to with a sharp eye and gentleness. Where is pruning needed? Ask the Lord for forgiveness where you’ve been wrong. How can you initiate or participate in reconciliation?

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

— Ephesians 4:31-32

Look to Tomorrow

Water with care. Reflect on your hopes for the next day and ask God to help you in any anticipated temptations or challenges. The act of watering is an act of hope for new growth and new life.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

— Lamentations 3:22-23

Alternative Method

We all get overwhelmed and sometimes it’s too much to think of the entire prayer, or the entire garden, if you will. If this describes your day, it may be easier to ask yourself just two questions:

  • Where have I spoken or acted in love?
  • Where have I spoken or acted in fear?

As you ask these questions, allow yourself to be present with God, even for a few minutes.

Additional Resources

Practicing Lectio Divina

In our corner of the world we are working remotely, staying home, and slowing down in hopes to slow the growth of COVID19 cases. The first week or so was new and sort of exciting but by now it’s set in that life will continue to look different in the coming months. I’m sure we all have mixed feelings about the forced slow-down. I know I do.

If you find yourself in a new rhythm of life, you may also find a little bit more room for family time, walks outside, solitude, preparing meals, or whatever else springs up when you’re at home.

As you recalibrate your routine, consider adding a new (or beloved) form a prayer, lectio divina. This form of prayer can be done individually or with a group.

“By its very nature, meditation is a discipline that enables us to slow down and respond with intentionality to the truth. We might compare this kind of reading to an extended meal that lasts through an evening, where each morsel and course is savored without hurry. We pause, consider, ruminate and take it in at a moderate pace, realizing that if we move too quickly we will miss something important.”

Gordon Smith, The Voice of Jesus
delta-breezes:
“Ann | @ancherdesign
”
photo: pinterest

What is Lectio Divina?

I won’t overcomplicate this type of prayer by getting too detailed, so if you’d like more information I’ll include a few resources at the very bottom. Essentially, there are only 4 elements. All you need is a passage of scripture and a notebook and pen if you’d like to jot down your thoughts.

“…the lectio divina honors the historical and human character of the Bible. It is important to stress that this kind of reading of Scripture takes the nature of the Scriptures seriously…We do not honor the Scriptures when we do not honor the way in which God brought them into being. Scripture has a fundamentally human character that must be respected if we are to appreciate its divine character.”

Gordon Smith, The Voice of Jesus

Lectio

Begin by reading or listening to a passage of scripture. The passage does not need to be too long; 10-15 verses will do. Many suggest reading the passage 2-3 times either silently or aloud.

What is the scripture’s literal meaning?

Meditatio

After reading or listening to the passage, meditate on the text for a few minutes. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination to picture yourself in the passage. Consider how the scripture is relevant in your own life. Does anything stick out?

Where do I see myself in this passage?

Oratio 

When you feel ready, respond with prayer. Aloud or silently, spontaneous or with a prayer book, long or short — how you respond is up to you.

How will I respond to God?

Contemplatio

The final step is to contemplate how to practically apply what you’ve just read, meditated on, and prayed about in your day-to-day life.

Where in my life can I implement what I’ve learned?

Read more:

Guided Lectio Divina

If you’re like me and you like a little structure, here are some resources that might be helpful as you explore what works best for you. Most are relatively short and easy to listen to.

  • Contemplative at Home
    • “Guided meditative prayer sessions which help you slow down and listen for the truth that is being born out of God’s love for you today. Imaginative and contemplative prayer with gospel stories, psalms and other scripture, drawing on Ignatian Spirituality and Lectio Divina.”
  • Being Podcast
    • “You’re a human being, not a human doing. A podcast for taking a moment to just be.”
  • Exploring Peace Meditations
    • “Caring for your soul is vital to living a peace-filled and purposeful life. Join author and host, Whitney R. Simpson, for a regular dose of peace and calm for your breath, body, and spirit as you explore these practical mediations. Using yoga teachings and ancient spiritual tools such as the Prayer of Examen, Lectio Divina, and Breath Prayer, allow Whitney to companion you on your spiritual formation journey.”
  • The Slow Word Movement Lectio Divina
    • “Savor the scriptures with lectio divina with host and spiritual director, Summer Gross.”
  • slō
    • “This is a facilitated space for you to slow down and be still in the presence of God. Whether you are listening with a group, on your way to work, cleaning your house, or in a focused time of devotion, may your heart and mind be filled with peace.”
  • Exhale
    • A contemplative prayer podcast led by Pastor Faith Romasco.

Music

If you need some music to accompany your lectio divina or other forms of prayer or scripture study, here’s a few to get you started:

On Earth, Lissom, Salt of the Sound, Rhys Machell, as well as this album.

If you’ve prayed in this way, I’d love to hear about it!

Using the Book of Common Prayer and Other Prayer Books

How were you taught to pray?

I wasn’t so much directly instructed on how to as much as I watched how others prayed at church, before meals, and often before class. Spontaneous prayer was a frequent choice and sometimes the Psalms were used. People usually spoke from their heart and used common phrases of gratitude and names for God.

Another form of prayer was introduced to me in college through the Book of Common Prayer, which I describe more below. I wasn’t sure why it was being used or where it stood compared to scripture but I was intrigued. Could you really pray while you were reading the words from a page?

I soon discovered prayer books don’t replace scripture, nor do they replace spontaneous prayer or induce a “scripted faith” — they simply offer ways to draw closer to God through community. You may read the prayers alone or corporately. Either way you’re connected to the communal liturgy and broader (sometimes ancient) worship of the church. Sometimes I don’t have all the words to express how I’m feeling or what I’m sensing; a prayer book invites me into the prayer of another and reminds me I’m not alone.

photo: Lilian Dibbern

Here are a few I’ve picked up over the last couple years.

Book Of Common Prayer

This book shapes most of our regular Sunday services in our episcopal parish. There are many other churches who use prayers from this book, too. Perhaps this is one of the most popular, oldest prayer books out there and for good reason, no doubt. There are morning and evening prayers, daily devotionals, collects, creeds, Psalms, prayers for confirmation, baptism, marriage, ordination, sickness, thanksgiving death, church planting, and more.

Although somber, one of the most meaningful prayers for me is one we pray corporately every Sunday.

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in though, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

— Book of Common Prayer, pages 359-360

(There is an album where some of these prayers are sung. It’s lovely.)

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

This is a beautiful collection of art, songs, and prayers. This prayer book also includes morning and evening prayers, as well as occasional prayers, but what is special about this particular book is one’s ability to use it as a daily devotional. It begins at the start of the liturgical year, the first day of Advent in December. Each day is a liturgy with prayers, a scripture reading, a brief paragraph on someone in church history, a space to pray for others, the Lord’s Prayer, and some include a song. (The sheet music is included in the back!) Each month has a theme and piece of artwork.

“May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you : wherever he may send you; may he guide you through the wilderness : protect you through the storm; may he bring you home rejoicing : at the wonders he has shown you; may he bring you home rejoicing : once again into our doors.”

— Common Prayer

(Someone created a playlist with all the songs used in this prayer book.)

Every Moment Holy

This might be my current favorite. There’s a prayer for everything; the artwork is stunning. You’ll find occasional liturgies as well as prayers during the loss of electricity, for those who feel awkward in social gatherings, and a table blessing for each day of the week.

I’ll allow it to speak for itself. This is an excerpt from A Liturgy for Changing Diapers I:

“…I am not just changing a diaper. By love and service I am tending a budding heart that, rooted early in such grace-filled devotion, might one day be more readily-inclined to bow to your compassionate conviction — knowing itself then as both a receptacle and a reservoir of heavenly grace… So take this unremarkable act of necessary service, O Christ, and in your economy let it be multiplied into that greater outworking of worship and of faith, a true investment in the incremental advance of your kingdom across generations…”

— A Liturgy for Changing Diapers I, pages 53-55

Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants

This one doesn’t have the same visual beauty as the last two books, but it does have a thorough devotional quality. Its outline follows the rhythm of the liturgical calendar with various scripture readings and quotes from authors, artists, and theologians. The general focus is geared towards those who serve in the church but I think most anyone would benefit from it if they enjoyed the style.

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions

This prayer book was given to us by a dear friend. The style is more traditional than the other books mentioned here but it could appeal to a variety of traditions. It lists short prayers by topic or emotion, and also includes morning and evening prayers. The book itself is small and leather-bound, which makes it handy to slip into a backpack or purse for everyday use.

“…May the truth that is in him illuminate in me all that is dark, establish in me all that is wavering, comfort in me all that is wretched, accomplish in me all that is of thy goodness, and glorify in me the name of Jesus… Uphold my steps by thy Word. Let no iniquity dominate me…”

— “Truth in Jesus,” pages 308-309

Prayer: Forty Days of Practice

Again, art and prayer are means for inspiration and reflection. Created by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson, this is a small, but powerful, book. These prayers are shorter, maybe a few lines or half a page, but they certainly give you enough to think on. I’ve shared many of Erickson’s pieces on my Instagram in the past.

“May it be enough for me to see God in the world.”

— Prayer 35

How do you pray? Do you use a prayer book?

What is Spiritual Direction?

Although this may be your first formal introduction, you may have already received or given spiritual direction. Perhaps you’ve consulted a pastor or spiritual leader for advice. Maybe you made time and space to listen to a friend. “Spiritual direction”, in my opinion, is a fancy term for something we do or look for all the time: companionship.

Spiritual direction is spiritual companionship, not clinical counseling.

Spiritual direction is holy listening, not a bible study.

Spiritual direction is meant to be nourishment for your soul, not a one-size-fits-all formula.

This chart is a very helpful comparison between spiritual direction, discipleship, counseling, and other similar relationships. There is no universal solution to life’s questions and therefore no superior approach.

“The environment of spiritual direction, then, is affirming and encouraging, but it is also a place of authenticity. In spiritual direction we look at the truth of our present situation and experience. The question asked is not “What should be happening in my life?” but “What is happening in my life?” We look for God here, now, because the place where we are in our lives is the place where we find God.”

Alice Fryling

Who are spiritual directors?

Some spiritual directors are trained through specialty programs or master degrees and others appear in the form of untrained, but sage friends or leaders. Some receive payment for their time and have warm, inviting offices. Others generously offer to listen for no formal compensation in settings like living rooms or coffee shops. Spiritual direction can happen in groups or among individuals. There are all types of combinations.

One common thread in each combination is the dedication of time and space to listen. Spiritual directors listen to seekers. Seekers learn to hear and listen to God, the ultimate “spiritual director.” (Yes, this may sound corny, but it’s true!)

Meetings may begin with an open ended question like, “What is the state of your soul?” or “What has caused life to pour into you, recently?” Some meetings are filled with silence. That’s ok, too. Sometimes (most of the time?) we don’t have all the answers.

“The opportunity to tell our story opens us to hear God’s story more deeply – God’s presence and participation in our lives and in the life of the world. In God all human stories connect and when we participate in spiritual direction, we seem to notice more of the connections.”

Jeannette A. Bakke

Is spiritual direction a new practice?

Spiritual direction is far from new. There are examples in Christian scripture and throughout church history.

It’s also not exclusively Christian and there’s no particular denominational affiliation. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and other eastern religions can practice spiritual direction.

“Spiritual direction is a way of companioning people as they seek to look closely, through the eyes of their hearts, at the guidance and transforming work of God in their lives. It’s a practice that began in the early years of Christianity when people followed the desert mothers and fathers out to the wilderness to ask them how to know God. Over the years, spiritual direction has appeared in many faith traditions. It was kept alive in the Christian faith mainly through the Roman Catholic Church, but today the Protestant church is rediscovering it. People throughout the Christian church, including those of an evangelical orientation, are experiencing again the gifts that God gives to his people through the loving listening and the gentle guidance of spiritual directors.”

Alice Fryling

What does this mean for me?

Have you wondered where God is leading or inviting you? Do you have questions regarding faith or spirituality? Do you feel confident in your faith life, but might be curious for a new approach or perspective? Are you interested in new approaches to prayer or spiritual disciplines? Do you have a desire to nurture your soul?

If you felt drawn to one or any number of these questions, spiritual direction is for you!

Looking for other spiritual formation resources?

This was a brief introduction, so just in case you’re still curious:

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition.