400 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola crafted a genius way of prayer. His method helped a person reflect back upon their day and their life in terms of how one experienced God. He developed a prayer called, The Daily Examen. It is both a challenging and comforting way to trace the movement of God in one’s life. After having spent a solid year in study, reflection and prayer using Ignatius’ method of prayer, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ignatius was a genius. I only wish now that I had known about this decades earlier. Never before, had anyone in the history of the church, shared such a bold new way of spending time with God, ourselves and our own hearts. This Great Annual Examen is based on Ignatius’ way of reflection and prayer.
Ignatius developed a prayer called, the Daily Examen. It’s a method where we take the past 24 hours to think and pray through our day to raise the awareness of our own hearts of how God has moved within the past 24 hours. This method was something I made a commitment to do for one hour a day during every day of 2017. It’s been revolutionary. (At the bottom of this blog, I offer you a link to some resources that i recommend). But I wanted something more as a review of our year–a way of thinking and praying through the past 12 months as a way of giving us a sort of GPS–a way to really see where we are right now on life’s journey and by God’s grace and help–to get to where we want to go!
As we all have our pro’s and con’s with New Year Resolutions, I wanted to see if I might develop what I want to call The Great Annual Examen. It’s a simple question and answer exercise where you work through some questions to help you reflect on the past year and anticipate the next year to come. It’s called the “examen” because in this exercise we take an examination of how we’ve “done” in life—on the journey and in different aspects. In some ways, many of us will admit that this past year has “undone” us—we’ve felt spent, done or only surviving and perhaps barely surviving at that! However you reflect upon this past year, it’s my hope that you’ll have a GPS—a sort of marker that will help you discern where you are and how you are and where you want to go this next year.
It is a way of reviewing the past 12 months but in doing so, to allow ourselves to evaluate our life in 5 major categories: our physical health, our emotional health, our relational health, our vocational health, and our spiritual health. While every part of life is indeed spiritual, we may find it helpful to break down life into a few major categories. I’ve done this for you here and given you a final category of your spiritual life to help you reflect more in a focused way on you and God.
Sit with each category and work through the questions slowly. Slow is the key. This is not an exercise where the “first response is the right response.” In fact, in thinking more deeply about each question, you will probably find that a longer look—and a lingering reflection will allow issues and concerns to rise that a quick response will simply negate.
Take a few days to do this rather than one sitting. Take the days between Christmas and the New Year for example. By looking back and gaining insight, we will not be so apt as to repeat the mistakes we made this past year.
Section 1: General Examination of My Life
These 10 questions will help prime the pump for you to be reflective and mindful of your past year
What are the most important events that have happened to me or in me this past year?
What are the greatest breakthroughs in any category of my life this past year? (physical, emotionally, relationally, vocationally, spiritually, with other people)
What has been my greatest struggle in my life this past year?
What has been my greatest and deepest loss this past year?
What has been the area that has consumed my thinking, attention and focus this past year? (health, relationship, future, etc)
Where have I felt most vulnerable in my life? (What area of your life do you feel the most naked, susceptible, and exposed?)
Where I have I most experienced the presence of God this past year and why?
In the past 12 months, where I have experienced the greatest sense of consolation (peace, happiness, contentment, shalom, serenity, beauty, etc).
In the past 12 months, what area of my life has given me the most desolation (pre-occupation, distress, sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, brutality, etc)
What ONE word would tend to sum up this past year?
Recommended Resources and Practices
Below are recommend the top books I believe are good for the soul to read; and I give several spiritual exercises including the Daily Examen for your consideration:
Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You by Stephen W. Smith (We recommend this as an introduction and overview of what soul care is all about.)
Embracing Soul Care: Making Space for What Matters Most by Stephen W. Smith ( Use as a daily devotional with penetrating questions at the end of each reflection. Ideal for individuals, couples, friends or small groups.)
Invitation to a Journey: A Roadmap for Spiritual Transformation by Robert Mulholland Jr.
Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri Nouwen
The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer by Henri Nouwen
Coming Home to Your True Self: Leaving the Emptiness of False Attractions by Fr. Albert Haas
Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard
The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call of Self-Discovery by David Benner
The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich
Section Two: Five Categories of My Life
My physical health:
List five words that describe my physical condition and well-being this past year.
How many hours of sleep can I honestly say I get each night? (8 is recommended).
What choices have you given attention to regarding your health this past 12 months?
What specific goals do you want to achieve in the future 12 months (better blood pressure, weight management, exercise, etc)
My Emotional Health
List five FEELINGS that you believe had dominated (positive or negative from your perspective) your life this past year:
What were you doing; who were you doing this with and where were you physically when you believe you were the HAPPIEST this past year:
What were you doing; who were you doing this with and where were you when you experienced the greatest feeling of SADNESS this past year:
What area of your life gives you the greatest sense of internal stress?
How do you feel about your emotional well-being this past year?
My Vocational Health
List five words which best describe your job/vocation/career?
This past year, have you lived to work or worked to live? Circle one or the other.
How are you feeling about your vocational journey:
I want to make a change this next year.
I want to continue as I am and just as I am.
I would like to use this next year to study and prepare for a vocational change.
I want to reassess and evaluate my vocational journey this next year.
I want to re-position myself in regard to my work this next year.
I believe I work ____________ hours a week. Next year, I would like to work ___________ hours a week. To do this, I will need to :
Is your job right now giving you a sense of contentment and satisfaction? Why or why not?
My Relational Health
List the names of people who have been life-giving to you this past year:
Give a letter grade to your over-all sense of having community—a sense of sharing life with a few other people. A-Excellent, B-Very good. C-Average D-Really lacking in friends
If your life style and work schedule and present realities conducive to having the relationships you feel you both want and need. Explain more in a few sentences.
My Spiritual Health
List five words that would describe your spiritual health: (distant, intimate, excellent, very poor, no time for God, etc)
How would you describe your prayer life this past year?
How do you feel about how you have worshipped this past year?
Describe how you are feeling about your church experience:
What feels lacking to you in terms of your relationship with God?
How has your image of God changed or matured this past year?
List five words that would characterize your image of God?
How has your relationship with God been challenged this past year?
What are the 3 most important spiritual take-a-ways from this past year that you never want to forget:
Where was your deepest spiritual struggle—the place of the greatest wrestling with God or the place of your deepest lament?
What people do you feel the most spiritually connected to in your life:
Prayer of Gratitude
End your time of The Annual Great Examen in a time of prayer.
Express your heart in gratitude for all the specific things, events, people, and growth you’ve experienced or witnessed.
Be specific in your thanksgiving.
Consider doing a Prayer of Gratitude using an acrostic of G-R-A-T-I-T-U-D-E. With each letter of GRATITUDE, express thanks for something specific. Example: G- I am grateful for my sister G-loria.
Prayer for the Future Year:
Spend some moments asking for God’s blessing on the future 12 months.
Consider praying the beautiful prayer of Thomas Merton:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Consider the Blessing - by the Irish Priest John O’Donohue
blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.
may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.
may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.
Developed by Stephen W. Smith, President and Spiritual Director of Potter’s Inn (The Great Annual Examen is version 1:1, December 2017, All rights reserved and Copyrighted @2017. Stephen W. Smith Links are provided for further reading and study and books recommended are found at the bottom of this document).