Looking Back, Seeing Clearly--The Discipline of Examen

"The examen makes us aware of moments that at first we might easily pass by as insignificant, moments that ultimately can give direction for our lives."--Dennis Linn Do you feel like your life goes by in a whirl? Before you know it, another day, week, month has gone by. Or do you wonder why you are reacting the same way (usually negatively) to the same things over and over? Something just triggers a reaction in you and bam! You're mad, frustrated, peeved.

From my personal experience, unless I take the time to process and think through the patterns and pacing of my life, I will get swallowed up in it. Bad habits are created as we live reactionary lives. Unfortunately, in our frenzied pace of life in the 21st century, there is little time and space for that...unless we make time and space to do so.

Enter the spiritual disciple of the examen. What is that? Did I spell "examine" wrong? Not really, but there are similarities. When I looked up the roots of this word, I found that whatever the language I looked at, it generally is a noun that means "test" or "exam". So, basically, what this discipline does is gives us the opportunity to run through our days, testing or examining it.

At the heart of this discipline is looking at our lives, usually at the end of the day, with a desire to discern the presence and movement of God in our lives. Ruth Haley Barton describes two types of examen: the examen of consciousness, which seeks to see God more clearly, and the examen of conscience, an opportunity for us to reflect on our underlying attitudes throughout the moments of the day.

In both of these, we take the time to reflect, pay attention and develop a receptivity and awareness to God's work through our lives. If we do this on a regular basis (ideally it is done daily), we can begin to see patterns and habits in our lives that we may otherwise miss.

For example, I have noticed that when a certain combination of deadlines, stress or activity exists in my life, I tend to have more trouble in my relationship with my husband. Whether it is his activity or mine, as I watch my life, I notice that I tend to withdraw and turn inward, which often leads to friction and irritation, or even arguments. Not what I want to live with, if I can help it.

This insight has been very helpful. Back in the beginning of February, right before we moved, my husband and I had a chance to talk together about the upcoming stress of moving and change, in the midst of basketball season and on top of my weekly teaching commitment. And we haven't even mentioned the regular routines of homeschooling and life! But being aware of this tendency helped us to work out a game plan for connecting and keeping our marriage healthy during this time of stress.

This is one of the practical benefits of examen, but I have also found it beneficial as I take time to examine what God is doing over longer stretches of time. As I reflect on the highs and lows of my journey with Him, I am able to see how He has been walking with me through these times. As I seek to discern what direction He wants me to go, looking back has been a wonderful way to see where He has already taken me, what He has gifted me with, and the opportunities before me.

In my first post for this series, I talk about how we can tune in to what God is doing in and around you. This discipline is one that allows us to do just that. As we begin to notice what God is doing in our lives, we are better able to follow Him into the life of fullness He promises. It doesn't always mean that we will be free from struggle, but as we take the time to make sense of our days, we are much better able to live purposefully and meaningfully. While we cannot avoid all of life's pitfalls, we can learn how to deal with the ones that do tend to trip us up regularly in a more godly and profitable manner.

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