I recently signed up for a class on spiritual practices at my church. It's part of this new thing we are doing where one Sunday a month, all of us get to choose from several different classes that happen as part of our regular morning service, and the whole idea is to be more intentional about our own inner spiritual growth. I'm pretty excited about it - not just because I think it's cool that we're trying something new, but also because the whole concept of being intentional about growing spiritually seems incredibly valuable to me.
The particular spiritual practice I am focusing on right now is called the "Prayer of Examen". Maybe you've heard of it. Of course if you are here, you have obviously heard of prayer, but perhaps you never heard of this particular type of prayer. It's been around since about the 16th century, so it is nothing new. But in case it is unfamiliar to you, allow me to share the basic idea.
The prayer of examen provides a framework for prayer that can be summarized with the following steps: 1) Acknowledge God's presence as you think back through your day 2) Notice when there were moments that you felt a sense of consolation, or connection with God 3) Notice when there were moments of desolation, or a feeling of distance from God 4) Release the events of the day to God and look with hope toward the day ahead
There are many variations as to how exactly to go about doing the prayer of examen (if you're interested in learning more, you can go here or here to see some other explanations). The important thing is not necessarily exactly how one does the prayer of examen, as though it is some kind of detailed formula. (It's almost like that commercial, "there's no wrong way to eat a Reese's." Almost.)
Still, while there may not be only one right way to do the prayer of examen, I am learning that there is what I might call a key ingredient to this practice. And I think it often gets overlooked when it comes to spiritual practices (or maybe even life) in general.
Before I share what I believe this key ingredient to be, let me tell you about how it went the first time I tried doing the prayer of examen following our class in church. I had my notes and I was feeling determined. Prayer of examen, here I come! I started writing in my journal - kind of writing out what I was thinking and praying, trying to ask the right questions and then trying to answer them.
My determination began to fade, however, as I struggled to even remember any moments in which I could truly say I felt connected to God. Or the moment I thought of one, I second-guessed it. After writing lots of rambling words about this frustration, I finally decided to just think back through the day and write down as much as I could that happened in order, hoping to then ask God to show me what He wanted me to see.
Numerous minutes later, I got to the end of my day in writing, jotted down a prayer giving these many moments to God and then questioned again if I had done the whole thing right at all. Finally I had the thought, I wonder what it would be like if I started with silence first the next time.
Generally speaking, it seems to me that if you take time to actually stop and think deeply, truth is often revealed. Maybe it's not always some big revelation and sometimes maybe little to nothing comes. But I kind of think it's unlikely to come without taking any time to do this kind of stopping-and-thinking-deeply.
In the case of my earlier attempt at the prayer of examen, I tried doing the thinking-deeply part but I'm afraid I skipped over the "stopping" part. And this brings me to the key ingredient I mentioned earlier.
It's simply this: taking time to stop and be silent. To listen. To be still.
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes: “The purpose of meditation is to enable us to hear God more clearly. Meditation is listening, sensing, heeding the life and light of Christ. This comes right to the heart of our faith. The life that pleases God is not a set of religious duties; it is to hear His voice and obey His word. Meditation opens the door to this way of living.”
The thing I'm learning about prayer as I practice the prayer of examen is that the way I enter into it matters, maybe just as much as whatever it is I'm praying. Taking even just a short moment to pause, to give God space to do His work within me, puts me in a different place. If I skip over that step, I'm sure it's still possible God can do something good with the prayer. But I have a feeling it's going to change how I experience it.
Actually I can attest to the experience being different. Because I did try the prayer of examen again the next day, and I took some time to be quiet first. This time, it didn't look like me struggling through what to do, painstakingly trying to make sure I "covered" my entire day, and ending up wondering if the whole thing accomplished anything. Instead, it looked like a much simpler practice, just being quiet and then writing down a few notes about what stuck out to me from the day. No big revelation, just taking some time to make space for God to "re-align" me.
In some ways, the second way was a lot easier. Maybe the hardest part is remembering not to skip over that first step. It's a small one, but could be the one that makes the biggest difference.
As we pray, let's consider taking a moment to pause first...
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10
The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. Exodus 14:14
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength… Isaiah 30:15
May God direct us as we pray, and may all in the BCS/WCA community grow in the practice of taking time to be still along with our praying.
Soli Deo Gloria To God alone be the glory
~ Carrie Warner, BCS/WCA Prayer Team Coordinator