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The particular examen

Mark Argent
4 August 2018

One of the less familiar corners of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is the obscurely-named Particular Examen. It lurks in the first part of the Exercises, where the general focus is on sin and the forgiveness of God. The word “particular” is in the title because the person making the Exercises is invited to keep track of the times when they fall into a particular sin, perhaps making some small gesture (such as discretely striking their breast) each time they catch themselves, and to periodically take stock of their performance. Confidently, Ignatius suggests a slightly bizarre diagram whose purpose is to help a person keep track of how they are improving.

On the face of it, this does not seem so helpful. There’s a whiff of Pelagianism about the idea that you can eliminate your sinfulness by trying harder, and one of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that to pushing something away tends to give it a real power, often unhelpfully expressed.

Yet throughout the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius places so much less emphasis on sin and so much more emphasis on the love of God than many of his contemporaries, that it is no great surprise that he caused the Inquisition to raise an eyebrow.

One of the modern approaches tries to catch the essence of Ignatius’ idea by turning it inside out. Rather than inviting someone to keep track of occurrences of a particular sin, the suggestion is instead to choose a personal motto, and to check in with it several times a day. The snag is that the tendency is for people to choose — or be encouraged to choose — a motto emphasising generally good things, which is to vague to make much difference. That’s also a long way from Ignatius’ idea of something particular.

An area of the Spiritual Exercises which receives rather more attention are the two sets of “Rules for discernment of spirits”. Also rooted in late Mediæval spirituality, these have stepped across the centuries more easily. Side-stepping the language of “angels” and “devils”, these provide a toolkit for dealing with the sense that some things draw us to God, some things draw us away, and patience is needed because we sometimes get this wrong.

One way of bringing this to bear on the Particular Examen is, when things are difficult, to make the assumption that the bad spirit has the upper hand, then write down in one column a list of the words that summarise the situation in one column, and, for each word, write in the second column what seems to be its opposite. If the bad spirit is behind what’s in the first column, then the suggestion is that the good spirit is behind their opposites, so, to make a phrase out of the opposites is to get a quick summary of where the good spirit might be pulling.

An example is someone who brought into their prayer a generalised sense that they were “not good enough” and “doomed to fail” — turning that into “good” and “free to succeed” brought a marked change. It could sound like a game with words, but it was enough to interrupt the sense of “how things are doomed to be” and undermine the assumption that God was somehow in collusion with this.

There are a couple of subtleties in play here. One is that the motto is private, so it doesn’t matter if it is a couple of words that wouldn’t make much sense to someone else. Another is that it is important to change the motto phrase. This is a tool for dealing with a particular moment. When circumstances change it is important to have the freedom to stop using the motto, or to change it to deal with a new situation.

Another subtlety is that this doesn’t involve looking back into a person’s story, so it side-steps the tendency to be defined by one’s past and gets in touch with the reality that religious experience happens in the present tense — though the past may make it harder to see.

In spiritual language, this approach is also about actively choosing to expose oneself to particular aspects of the forgiveness of God. This isn’t to say that all the problems in a person’s life are because of their “sin”, but is to see the potential for the forgiveness of God to step across the barriers.

Identifying where there is a sense of being drawn away from God and using a motto as a way of turning to face in the other direction is to invite God to come close.