The Word Among Us

July/August 2021 Issue

Waking Up to the Water

The Power of St. Ignatius’ Examen Prayer

Waking Up to the Water: The Power of St. Ignatius’ Examen Prayer

Two young fish were swimming along in the ocean one day when they encountered an older fish, who said to them, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swam on, and eventually one of them turned to the other and asked, “What the heck is water?”

The point of this story? The most important realities are often the ones that are the hardest for us to see and talk about. For Christians, that means that we can “swim” through life without recognizing the presence of God—and live an unexamined life. But as Socrates once famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Fortunately, the sixteenth-century Spanish saint Ignatius of Loyola offered us a tool for seeing the water, that is, God’s presence in our everyday lives. This method of prayer has been used by countless Christians over the past five hundred years to help them live the examined life, and it can help you as well.

In the articles in this issue, I want to guide you through two Ignatian prayers: the Examen and the Suscipe. Although these are two separate prayers, they really comprise one method because they are both part of a single way of praying. I want to unpack these prayers through the lens of the life of Ignatius. That’s because I’ve found that using his life as an example can be a particularly fruitful way of seeing the positive, concrete effects that these prayers can have in a person’s life.

The General Examen. Let’s begin with the General Examen. A simple and straightforward examination of conscience, it consists of five steps: (1) I give thanks for favors received; (2) I ask for the grace to know my sins; (3) I examine my thoughts, words, and deeds from my rising to the present; (4) I ask for pardon; and (5) I resolve to amend with God’s grace and close with an Our Father.

And that’s it. But the simplicity of this tool belies its power. For St. Ignatius, the Examen was a way to wake up and live a life conscious of the presence of God. Writing to younger members of the religious order he founded—the Jesuits—Ignatius said they should especially

practice seeking the presence of our Lord in all things: in their dealings with other people, their walking, seeing, tasting, hearing, understanding, and all our activities. For his Divine Majesty truly is in everything by his presence, power, and essence. This kind of meditation—finding God our Lord in everything—is easier than lifting ourselves up and laboriously making ourselves present to more abstracted divine realities.

The Examen teaches this practice of “seeking the presence of our Lord in all things.” That is why one of Ignatius’ greatest disciples, St. Francis Xavier, taught his fellow Jesuit missionaries to “take care never to fail to make it [the Examen] twice a day, or at least once, according to our common method, whatever business you have upon your hands.” Not even a missionary as busy as Francis Xavier could omit the Examen! After all, what could be more fruitful for a missionary than to take a moment in his day to identify the presence of God and the movement of his Spirit in order to better follow his lead?

Before we take a closer look at the Examen, let’s take a look at Ignatius’ life to see how he himself slowly woke up to the “water” of God’s presence.

Attention-Seeking Vanity. Iñigo (St. Ignatius’ baptismal name) tells us at the beginning of his autobiography that until his twenty-sixth year, he was a “man given over to the vanities of the world.” He went after these vanities with relentless pursuit, a man driven to receive praise and affirmation. His mother, Doña Marina, died when he was very young, and his father, Beltrán de Oñaz, passed away when he was about sixteen. Ignatius was five feet two, a runt among Spanish Basques, but also quite proud of his long blondish hair and shapely legs. He was also the youngest of thirteen brothers and sisters. Perhaps it was the loss of both parents early in life, coupled with having so many siblings to compete with, that made him so driven to seek attention.

In fact, it was this very attention seeking that caused him foolishly to convince his fellow soldiers to attempt to defend the fortress of Pamplona during an uprising in 1521. Everyone else saw “clearly”—in St. Ignatius’ own words—that it could not be defended. But his honor was at stake—which translated in this case to his vanity.

In the battle, Ignatius was struck in the leg by a cannonball. But it was his vanity—not a cannonball—that laid him up in his bed in the castle at Loyola. Lying there, he may have recalled the words of his aunt, Sr. Doña Marina de Guevara, who once told him, “Iñigo, you will not learn nor become wise until someone breaks your leg.” But even that was not enough. The doctors set his leg, and it healed, but an “unsightly” bone protuberance remained visible through his tights. This Iñigo could not bear. And so, a martyr to his vanity, he underwent the “butchery” of having the bone sawed off—without the benefit of anesthesia! It was this second surgery that turned his bed of convalescence into a bed of conversion.

This is a graphic example of how Iñigo’s “core defect”—his desperate need for the attention and affirmation of men and women—dominated his early life. He needed men to admire and respect him. He needed women to find him handsome and attractive. And he needed these things, as he would later articulate, in a “disordered” way. Iñigo would have to go through torture before he was to learn that God is enough, that “your love and your grace are sufficient,” as he came to write in his Suscipe prayer.

Living in His Imagination. While convalescing at his family’s castle in Loyola, Iñigo spent a lot of time living in his imagination. As he relates in his autobiography (which he wrote in the third person), he sometimes imagined himself in the stories of Amadis de Gaul, the fictional knight-errant, and sometimes in the stories he was reading about St. Francis and St. Dominic.

When he was fantasizing about Amadis de Gaul, he could spend “two, three, or even four hours on end thinking of it, fancying what he would have to do in the service of a certain lady. . . . He was so enamored with all this that he did not see how impossible it would all be, because the lady was of no ordinary rank.” (We don’t know who this “lady” was.) But then he would spend hours imagining himself living a life like that of the saints: “What if I was to do what Francis or Dominic did?”

One day he began to notice that his fantasies about women and fighting battles left him “dry and dissatisfied,” while imagining living like the saints left him joyful and peaceful. This was the beginning of the reflective Iñigo, the St. Ignatius who would eventually give us a method for praying with our imagination.

A New “Examened” Life. Looking back, however, St. Ignatius described himself at that time as “still blind.” Indeed, as he rode away from the castle at Loyola toward the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat where he was to begin his new life, he was still daydreaming about Amadis de Gaul and the great things he was now going to do for God instead of for a woman. His daydreams were moving in the right direction, but they were still filled with ego and self-will.

From Montserrat, Iñigo journeyed eighteen miles down the river to the small town of Manresa. It was there, as St. Ignatius recalls in his autobiography, that “God treated him just as a schoolmaster treats a little boy.” It was there that the key experiences would occur that would train the impulsive Iñigo to begin a new “examened” life. It was there that Ignatius would begin to learn all that would become the core of his teaching—Spirit-filled insights that we are still benefiting from today. Now let’s turn to the next chapter of Ignatius’ life to see how this unfolded.

Articles in this issue are written by Fr. Nathan O’Halloran, SJ. Fr. Nathan is assistant professor of religious studies and director of the Catholic Studies Program at Loyola University New Orleans as well as a theological advisor for The Word Among Us.