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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Awareness of the presence of God: the General Examen

Mark Argent
4 August 2018

One of the fruits of the increased interest in Ignatian spirituality in recent decades has been greater use of what Ignatius calls the General Examen.

In essence, this is to look back over part of the day, and ask “Where was God in the experience?”

Ignatius’ actual formula doesn’t translate so well across the centuries, but a contemporary approach is to

  • still yourself, sitting breathing slowly and gently, or using a mantra, opening yourself to the presence of God;
  • gently think back over the day, getting in touch with the memories as if unwinding them with God;
  • this isn’t a time to dwell on things that were upsetting, or could have been done differently, but it is time to hold the memories with compassion;
  • think about how this might have looked to God — seeing what was going on, and also understanding the things that shaped your reactions;
  • perhaps there are memories of things which had a sense of God about them, which might be big, but might also be tiny moments passing so quickly that they are easy to miss: in either case, these are memories to savour;
  • perhaps the sense was of the absence of God: if something was blocking the awareness, that too might be something to acknowledge with God;
  • sometimes — particularly when people first try this — things are not so clear: the art is to be gentle and wait, much as a close friend is important in a person’s life even if they are not speaking all the time.

Some people find it helpful to do this every few hours, some at the end of the day. On retreat it is often a good idea to do something to relax after a period of prayer such as going for a gentle walk: it can be helpful to use this approach at the end of the prayer period to look back over it, and again after going for a walk, to look at the prayer period and the relaxation time. In practice, doing the examen again later in the day means looking at this period again. Rather than being “paralysis by analysis” this is actually to create the space for new insights to emerge.

The paradox: it’s actually about the present

The paradox of the Examen, which is what lies behind the idea of “finding God in all things”, is that many people who use the Examen regularly find that, getting used to looking back over parts of the day makes them more attentive at the time, so that it actually becomes an exercise in developing an awareness of the presence of God in the now.