Ed Cyzewski's writing is always thoughtful and gracious and challenging, and I love that his newest book is one that considers the disciplines of prayer and writing together. What a beautiful idea. When he approached me asking if I'd like to host his thoughts on how he uses the Prayer of Examen both in prayer and in writing, my word-nerd/prayer-nerd (can you be a prayer nerd?) self exploded. Between now and March 16 his e-book is available for only $1.99!
So happy to host him here .
When I try to pray, I often find that my anxious thoughts get in the way.
When I try to write, I often find that I can’t form a single thought.
It feels like feast or famine most days.
How can I face my thoughts for prayerful contemplation without getting swept up in anxiety and worst-case scenarios?
How can I hang on to a few thoughts that are worth exploring through writing before the blank page wins?
Thankfully I’ve found that one practice can help with both problems. The Examen, developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, offers a lifeline to stressed out, over-thinkers like me, while coincidentally prompting writers to address what matters most.
Praying with the Examen
Ignatius believed the Examen was a gift given directly from God. After spending a significant time in prayer, he found that prayer could move forward best with this time of reflection and meditation.
The Examen is set apart from run of the mill self-reflection right from the start by its first step: Awareness of God’s Presence. We don’t face the most challenging parts of our lives alone. God is with us as we begin the Examen, and as we move forward into it, that awareness will only grow. In fact, the Examen encourages us to invite God into our days and our times of reflection.
The genius of the Examen is the way it stops the roller coaster of worry and distraction when I begin praying, while still offering a path forward. It provides an orderly, prayerful direction to my thoughts so that I can honestly face what I’m truly thinking without feeling restrained.
My own Examen practice follows the guidelines in the (Apple Store only). The initial reflections on God’s presence and gratitude for the day are followed by “consonance” and “dissonance” questions or prompts where I type in my replies.
The consonance section focuses on the positive relationships, events, and experiences of God throughout the day. The dissonance section focuses on what is discouraging, restricting, or provoking fear. It ends with an invitation to five minutes of silent meditation. Other Examen guides offer variations of this approach.
Any practice of the Examen should include reflection on our days and awareness of our emotions. Some guides distill the Examen into :
1. Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow.
I encourage you to begin with at least one period of reflection in the evening (Ignatius practiced the Examen twice a day). While I can’t speak highly enough of the Examine app, perhaps you can begin with just a few questions or prompts and then add new questions as you develop a routine.
If you don’t use the app, I also recommend journaling your replies to each prompt. Even just writing a few words for each prompt on the page can be tremendously revealing—as if we can finally own up to the truth once we see them typed on a screen or penned onto a page.
While the Examen often ends with an invitation to silent contemplation, there are plenty of directions you can take. I’ve often merged it with either , where I use a sacred word to still my thoughts, or the Divine Hours where I use one of the scripture readings for —using slow, repetitive scripture reading to guide prayer.
However you choose to move forward, I’ve found that the Examen provides an essential first step for confronting the issues on my mind, guiding my contemplation, and then freeing me to pursue other spiritual practices.
Writing with the Examen
Whether you write regularly for publication or you simply keep a journal, the Examen can provide a steady supply of writing prompts. I’ve often finished my Examen and prayer time by jotting down a few ideas in my journal or in a notes file.
Good writing, like any good art, needs to confront the most challenging aspects of life. Whether exploring our pain, anger, or fears, writing won’t ring true if it fails to confront these deeper issues or only offers pat solutions to complex issues.
The Examen pushes us beyond our filters and even the shame that could keep us silent. When we face ourselves as we truly are before entering into prayer, we’ll start to see clear paths forward for writing.
Some may only need to write privately about an issue in order to gain additional clarity and direction. Others may tap into their fears and insecurities and find that they have something to share with their readers.
From my fears about work to my struggles with anger and control while at home with our kids, the Examen has helped me take important first steps toward the kind of writing topics I needed to pursue. However, I don’t think I would have ever seen these topics with the same degree of clarity if I hadn’t spent month after month addressing them in my Examen.
As I followed up on these issues in my writing, I found a space to process them further. Once I had a better grasp, I knew what to pray about that evening. Prayer and writing became a self-sustaining cycle.
While my prayer and writing stand apart as distinct practices, they blend together and support each other. There is no sacred and secular. There’s just life, and both practices work together.
I trust that my approach to writing and prayer isn’t for everyone, but even the most basic use of the Examen may bring a sense of peace and order to your thoughts that could create a deeply needed space for prayer.
This post is adapted from my new book .
Order the eBook version for $1.99 between now and March 16:
Ed Cyzewski is the author of A Christian Survival Guide and Coffeehouse Theology. He’s a freelance writer who regularly addresses the intersection of faith and writing on his blog and tweets as @edcyzewski.