Take Time for a Yearly Examen

Franciszek Ejsmond, "The Anchorite" (1881)
Franciszek Ejsmond, "The Anchorite" (1881) (photo: Screenshot)

At the end of each December many of us have high hopes for what could happen next year. We may want to exercise more, get a better job or receive an answer to a prayer. Whatever it is, we look at the future with hope and believe our lives will get better.

While it is not bad to focus on “what could be,” it is more important to be thankful for “what was.” We may have had a bad year, but that is only because we are looking at it from our human perspective. Instead, we must look at the highs and lows from the past year in light of God’s divine providence.

To do that, we must make a Yearly Examen.

Some of you may be familiar with the “Daily Examen” that is a part of Ignatian Spirituality. Typically it consists of stopping two times during the day (at midday and at the close of the day) to examine God’s activity and to recognize any sins committed.

While it may seem simple, St. Ignatius divided up the General Examen into 5 parts:

  1. The first is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received.
  2. The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.
  3. The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts, in the same order as was mentioned in the Particular Examen.
  4. The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.
  5. The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace.

This practice is a wonderful spiritual exercise to do on a regular basis and greatly prepares us for the sacrament of confession. But let us take it one step further and examine our entire year. Here is my own adaptation of the Examen, set in the context of a yearly review:

  1. First, give thanks to God for all the many blessings received over the past year. Go through each month, dwelling upon the good and thanking God for it.
  2. Second, ask for the grace to know your sins and failings and renounce them. Go through each month and do this. 
  3. Third, review your year again, month-by-month, and recognize your feelings, thoughts and movements of the heart. There will be certain people and events that strike a cord (for good or for ill). Bring those people or events to God and ask Him why they stand out. Ask God for the grace to see His providence in all things. Nothing happens by chance.
  4. Fourth, ask pardon of God for any sins. Also, do not only ask God for forgiveness, but also ask God for the grace to forgive yourself.
  5. Fifth, look forward to the next year and ask God for the grace to amend your life.

If we want to progress in the spiritual life, we must learn from the past and our mistakes. But we should not simply dwell upon on our sins, we must also see God’s guiding hand and recognize His activity. Our God is not passive in any way. God is with us during our lowest of lows and our highest of highs. Most of the time we never realize it.

During our Yearly Examen, we should also recognize what held us back from devoting our time to prayer. Often there can be many distractions that dissuade us, or we may not have been committed to a daily prayer schedule. Whatever it was, we must recommit ourselves to conversing with God on a daily basis. The most powerful type of prayer is consistent prayer. If you don’t know where to begin or are struggling to find time for prayer, try praying every day for 15 minutes. I recently came across an excellent book entitled The 15-Minute Prayer Solution: How One Percent of Your Day Can Transform Your Life. We live in a busy world and a daily holy hour can seem daunting. However, everyone can find 15 minutes. If you don’t know what to do during those 15 minutes, practice the Daily Examen.

As the year comes to end, we close another chapter in our lives. Let us remember that each year is exactly that, a chapter, in a much larger story. It is up to us to recognize the part that we play in the great drama of Salvation History.