The Gift of the Examen

Examen Videos

In the spirit of gift-giving, we got together and made a series of  videos where the two of us walk through an examen together and then prompt you to try it yourself. We hope this helps you notice the gifts — the sustaining desires — that God is already placing in your life. Watch the videos here.

The Gift of the Examen

By the Rev. Patrick Gilger, S.J., BA’02, and Kyle Lierk, BSBA’99

Let’s turn and face some uncomfortable questions, the kind that we normally just let hover unnoticed at the periphery of our vision.

Is there a meaning to our lives? Some particular thing we are supposed to be doing? Is there a path we’re supposed to be walking? And if there is, how can we find it? And how do we stay on it?

Speaking as Creighton alumni ourselves (one of us now a Jesuit priest, the other Creighton’s director of Campus Ministry) these are more than run-of-the-mill questions. We think about them all the time when we’re talking with the students who breathe life into the campus these days. We think about them when we’re talking to one another, planning a retreat or a homily. We think about them when we’re talking, reminiscing about our own time as students at Creighton University.

Having the space to think about how we are living our vocations, to listen to our students as they work to discover their path, their calling, is one of the best gifts we’ve received in returning to work at Creighton. It’s a great gift. But — and this is the strange thing about gifts — it can’t just stay here. It has to be given again.

We hope you’ll find it fitting, then, that we have a gift for you, one that helps us answer those uncomfortable questions. Not surprisingly, it’s a traditional gift in that it comes from Creighton’s Jesuit tradition. Wrapped neatly by the faithful hands of a saint nearly 500 years ago, it is a gift that has been passed along by countless Jesuits and lay people. It is a gift that is meant to be opened and re-gifted daily. The gift is none other than the examen as penned by St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The best and most powerful thing about this gift, we think, is that it lets us notice other gifts; it opens us to receiving gifts that we’ve been given but didn’t accept because we didn’t know they were there. This is how Ignatius experienced it in his own life, at least.

Ignatius was a soldier, born to a noble family in northern Spain. He was a devil-may-care daydreamer, a swashbuckler not given to facing uncomfortable questions. While convalescing from a grave injury suffered in battle, he had a spiritual experience. It wasn’t a voice from the heavens, but a subtle thing that took the forced quiet of recuperation to notice. What was it? St. Ignatius noticed that some those daydreams he was having would leave him, as he put it, “dry and discontented,” wanting more. Other thoughts, he noticed, left him “content and happy even after having left them aside.” In other words, lying in his sickbed, Ignatius was finally able to notice that God was speaking to him less in words than in joyful, sustaining desires. If we are willing to take note, perhaps we can do the same.

The gift of the examen is really nothing more than the method Ignatius used to practice noticing his deep and sustaining desires. Ignatius made this a habit for himself, often pausing once at noon and again at the end of the day to notice where he had accepted and moved toward his sustaining desires and where he had chosen to move away.

In teaching the practice to others, he would recommend five steps. Today, when we teach it to the students here at Creighton or practice it ourselves, we describe them like this:

  1. Invite: Begin by inviting God to be with you, asking the Holy Spirit to guide you. Especially ask that you be able notice and experience again the memories that come.
  2. Remember: A review of the day’s events follows. Trusting that the Holy Spirit is with you, let your minds roam. Let images, scenes, people, interactions bubble to the surface.
  3. Notice: Often there is one scene, one person, one feeling that seems most important or tugs at your attention most strongly. Maybe it was an argument with a colleague or a spouse, maybe a smile of support given by a friend. Whatever it is, the invitation in this third step is to remember and to notice the gratitude or sadness, the joy or frustration.
  4. Share: Then turn to God, sharing with God how you feel about that moment, that person. Was it a time when you said yes to a sustaining desire in you? Maybe you are moved with gratitude and want to celebrate or say thank you. Was it a time you said no and turned away toward fleeting joys? Give yourself a chance to feel that sadness and frustration — and to invite in some healing.
  5. Ask: End by looking to the afternoon or to tomorrow. Tell God how you feel about what is coming and what you need to remain in your sustaining desires as it comes. Is there a presentation you’ve been anxious about giving? Ask for calm. A friend coming to visit who you haven’t seen in a long time? Share with God your excitement.

We hope these steps are helpful — maybe it’s helpful to tick them off your fingers — but don’t let them trip you up. The point is not to complete a task, it’s to notice where God is opening a path for you by showing you what your deep desires are — and being honest about when we say yes to those desires and when we say no.

With time, we think you’ll find the examen to be a gift that keeps on giving. It will be easier to face the uncomfortable questions with confidence that God is with you now, pointing out to you a path of life.


Introduction to Contemplation and the Examen from Mission and Ministry on Vimeo.

Contemplation from Mission and Ministry on Vimeo.

Examen from Mission and Ministry on Vimeo.