How can we hear God? Few questions are more important to answer than this one. We want to know God and what God wants of us. We want to hear His voice. Most basically, we want a connection with God — a daily sense of His presence and loving care.
Catholic tradition points to at least four ways that we hear God. We encounter His presence in the natural world itself, which God created and pronounced “good” (Gn 1:31). We hear God’s voice in Scripture, “the word of God.” We also hear God speaking in the teaching of the Church.
In addition, God speaks to us in our experience. He is present in our daily lives: in our relationships, our work, our decisions and accomplishments, our dreams and disappointments. The prayer strategy known as the Daily Examen is a method for hearing the voice of God in our experience.
A Saintly Habit
The great saints, mystics and masters of prayer have long taught that cultivating a habit of prayerful reflection on our daily experience is a key to spiritual growth. The Daily Examen has been practiced by Christians since ancient times as a technique of doing precisely that. The Examen involves us in prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and to discern His direction for us.
One version of the Examen is the examination of conscience, which many Catholics practice as a way to prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But the Daily Examen is useful for much more than just preparing for confession. It can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.
St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), believed that the Examen is a gift that has come to us directly from God, and that God wants it to be shared as widely as possible. One of the few rules of prayer that Ignatius made for the Jesuit order was the requirement that Jesuits practice the Examen twice daily — at noon and at the end of the day. It’s a habit that Jesuits, and many other Christians, practice to this day.
How exactly is an Examen conducted? Christians have developed various versions, but one popular version, composed of five steps, is based on the Daily Examen that St. Ignatius practiced.
“Rummaging for God”
Father Dennis Hamm, S.J., a Scripture professor at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb., calls the Daily Examen “rummaging for God.” He likens it to “going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be there.”
That’s an accurate description of what it’s like to pray the Daily Examen. We look back on the previous day, rummaging through the “stuff,” and finding God in it. We know He is there; we just have to look for Him.
Sometimes our prayer can become too formal and abstract. The Daily Examen helps us avoid that problem by keeping our feet on the ground. This reflective, Spirit-led review of the day grounds our prayer in concrete reality. Because we are God’s creatures living in a world that He loves and sustains, we can be assured that we can hear His voice in our lives in this world.
One final advantage to making a habit of the Daily Examen: We never run out of things to pray about.
Sometimes prayer gets dry. Sometimes we wonder what to say to God. The Examen eliminates these problems. As long as we have 24 hours to look back on, we’ll have hundreds of things to talk to God about — and to thank Him for.
How to Conduct a Daily Examen
This five-step Daily Examen is based on the one described by St. Ignatius Loyola in his “Spiritual Exercises,” perhaps the most influential book about prayer ever written.
Step 1. Become aware of God’s presence. Look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit. The day may seem confusing to you — a blur, a jumble, a muddle. Ask God to bring clarity and understanding, to show you where He was at work in each situation.
Step 2. Review the day with gratitude. Gratitude is the foundation of our relationship with God. Walk through your day in the presence of God and note its joys and delights.
Focus on the day’s gifts. Look at the work you did, the people you interacted with. What did you receive from these people? What did you give them? Pay attention to small things — the food you ate, the sights you saw and other seemingly small pleasures. God is there in the details.
Step 3. Pay attention to your emotions. One of St. Ignatius’ great insights was that we can detect the presence of the Spirit of God in the movements of our emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day.
Did you feel boredom? Elation? Resentment? Compassion? Anger? Confidence? What is God saying to you through these feelings?
In this reflection, God will most likely show you some ways that you fell short. Be sure to make note of these sins and faults. But look deeply for other implications as well.
Are you frustrated? If so, perhaps this means that God wants you consider a new direction in some area of your work.
Are you concerned about a friend? Perhaps He wants you to reach out to her in some way.
Step 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray about it. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that God thinks is particularly important. It may involve a feeling, positive or negative. It may be a significant encounter with another person or a vivid moment of pleasure or peace. Or it may be something that seems rather insignificant.
Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer that it provokes to arise spontaneously from your heart, whether it’s intercession, praise, repentance or whatever.
Step 5. Look toward tomorrow. Ask God to give you light for tomorrow’s challenges. Pay attention to the feelings that surface as you survey what’s coming up.
Are you doubtful? Cheerful? Apprehensive? Full of delighted anticipation? Allow these feelings to turn into prayer.
Seek God’s guidance. Ask Him for help and understanding. Pray for hope.
St. Ignatius encouraged people to talk to Jesus like a friend. End the Daily Examen with a conversation with Jesus.
Ask forgiveness for your sins. Ask for His protection and help. Ask for His wisdom, too, about the questions you have and the problems you face.
Do all this in the spirit of gratitude. Your life is a gift, and it is adorned with gifts from God.
Conclude with the Our Father.
Jim Manney writes from Michigan.