Lately, I’ve tried to make an examination every night before going to sleep. Too often, I only spend a bleary-eyed minute or two on it. It’s a pity that I don’t always make as much use of this last part of my day as I could. There are many graces to be gleaned from these fleeting minutes we spend in silent reflection.
Happily, I’m starting to make a little better use of these moments of reflection thanks to my Magnificat subscription. For those who saved their Magnificat for July (for those who didn’t, it’s available on the Magnificat app), I recommend “Strengthening Our Prayer Life”, an article by Father Joseph Koterski, S.J. on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s general and particular exam. In this article, I found valuable advice on how to fill my examination with gratitude, repentance, resolve, and resilience. It has started me on a crusade to make a better examination.
Brief Introduction to the Ignatian General Examination
Fr. Koterski uses the acronym GRACE to help make the steps of the exam easier to remember. GRACE stands for “Gratitude, Request for Light, Account of Actions and Attitudes, Chart your Course, Entreat God for the Energy and Enthusiasm you need.” I have found I can do these steps in about five minutes ‒ Fr. Koterski recommends five to ten minutes. I’ll cover these steps as we go and relate them to gratitude, repentance, resolve, and resilience.
Gratitude and Request for Light
Ignatius says that the exam begins with an act of gratitude to God and recollection: “after you have recollected yourself, you will thank God for the graces he has bestowed on you during the day.” Importantly, the first step is recollection and gratitude. Once in God’s presence gratitude and a sense of unworthiness becomes possible. Fr. Koterski adds to this idea by saying, “Thank God for something specific.” Seen through gratitude, my day becomes a gift from God, and by thinking of a particular thing for which I’m grateful, I can zero in on a grace I received during the day and consider how I responded to it.
This ties into the second step of the exam ‒ request for light. Throughout this essay, I will refer to The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola published by TAN books and available on Amazon. Here, I read Ignatius’ instructions for the step after thanking God: “You will then beg of him light to know your ingratitude and grace to detest it.” Interestingly, St. Ignatius implies that the very action of feeling gratitude to God begins to open my eyes to my almost constant attitude of ingratitude to Him throughout the day. Now, I ask for light not only to know my failings and lack of gratitude but also to see the potential God sees in me.
Account of Actions and Attitudes: Self-Reflection
Here, St. Ignatius brings to mind the words said in the Confiteor when he writes “Then you will think over the different hours or the different occupations of the day, examining your thoughts, words, actions, or omissions.” This section of the general exam is when I can really go over those three areas and see if my thoughts, words, and actions have imitated Christ or whether I have acted without charity.
This section of the examination can be a good time to refer to a booklet on the examination or to meditate on the ten commandments. Actually, St. Ignatius introduces his general examination of conscience with a review (targeted towards his monks) of sins commonly committed in thoughts, words, and actions. Referring to pamphlets on how to make a confession does require some discernment especially when these pamphlets include lengthy lists of sins that may not apply to us. I have found that lengthy lists can be distracting at best.
As Fr. Koterski puts it, we take account of our actions and attitudes best by describing them in an intimate way to Christ. He writes, “I try to tell Jesus what occurred: what I said and did, what other people said and did as well as what I was thinking and feeling. Admittedly, Jesus knows all this better than I do. But telling it to Jesus encourages me to get to the heart of the matter as well as I can.” This dialogue with God brings me farther out of myself and into God’s presence. It also makes me truly account for my day. I have to picture doing my day over before the eyes of Christ.
Chart your Course: Sorrow and Resolution
St. Ignatius wants his reader to try to feel true sorrow for his or her sins after making a general exam. This can be more an act of the will than a feeling, but even in dryness, this act of repentance pleases God. As ridiculous as it may sound, I had never made an act of contrition or even a resolution after my examination of conscience. Instead, I have found this a good preparation for sleep when I think it is especially important to surrender my body and soul to God and beg his pardon.
Making a good resolution does not have to be complicated. I find that thinking over my actions during the day has already helped me to ask why I fall into certain sins and how I can avoid them. For me, it might be as simple as listening to someone at work with more patience and humility. Maybe I can apply this principle of patience and humility to my whole day, thus, charting my course.
Finally, I’ll note that I sometimes feel very little emotion during confession. It’s more a matter of will. This is disappointing but hardly surprising. The moment of sorrow may happen at home in my natural element more often than when I’m expecting to feel it in a confessional.
Entreat God for the Energy and Enthusiasm You Need: Resilience
The last step in the examination is asking for the grace and energy to carry out my resolution. Later during other times of prayer, the petition can be made again. Fr. Koterski explains, “The resolution can then become the grace to ask for in prayer, and in future examinations of conscience” (411). In this way, the exam becomes part of what makes our prayer life what Fr. Koterski calls “vibrant.” It becomes the heartbeat of prayer ‒ something always on our mind. Now, we view the examination as something that helps vitalize our day and puts a spring in our step.
A Note on the Particular Exam
Ignatius also recommends a particular exam which is a more focused look at a particular sin. I have learned more about this exam at a site run by Sacred Story Institute. At this wonderful website, I read a day by day approach to the particular exam. Week #16 reads: “be aware of patterns and trends that reveal triggering mechanisms that make you easy prey to habits, sins, angers, addictions and vices. Pay attention in order to source the origins and “roots” of those habits from your early life.” The particular exam allows us to go deep into scars and wounds from sin. Not surprisingly, a particular exam might be ongoing for weeks or months.
The particular exam is done at a different time of day. I have tried to use the morning hours to think about a topic for my particular exam and have done my general exam at night. The general exam has helped me to think about starting a particular exam. These two exams are complimentary.
Particular Exam: Spiritual Warfare
Ignatius declares that “(the particular exam) goes direct to the predominant sin or vice of our character; in order to vanquish its enemies, it begins by isolating them and attacks them one by one.” He wanted his monks to keep track of how often they committed the fault they were working to eradicate, so that they could systematically overcome their failures. At the end of the day, Ignatius wanted his monks to tally up checkmarks on a piece of paper. Done well, the particular exam becomes a battle with sin.
Fr. Koterski adds to this idea “Real progress in our spiritual lives depends on deepening our relationship with Jesus and being willing to make the necessary effort” (413). Strive for spiritual improvement but through grace. Progress can be slow and painful, and almost seem nonexistent, but if God wills it, it will happen.
The richness of the examination in the Ignatian style has a lot to offer. It can change your nightly exam into something much more meaningful and give you many graces during the day. It can even guide you through days of retreat. At the website I mentioned above, you will find many great resources including information about a 40-day retreat styled on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I’m glad I have found the resources that St. Ignatius left us and I hope more people will take advantage of them. They can truly deepen our prayer lives.