One of the many blessings of being Catholic is the rich tradition we inherit. There are no shortages of saints, spiritualities, prayers, rituals or advice for any contemporary Catholic. As a Missionaries of God’s Love sister, I find great comfort in knowing I have our ten patron saints always ready to offer spiritual wisdom and encouragement. One of these patrons is St Ignatius of Loyola, born in the late fifteenth century. In our formation, we were introduced to some of his spiritual writings, such as his rules for discernment and his examen. We were told that Ignatius instructed his Jesuits that if all else should fall from their prayer routine, the examen should remain, so highly did he regard its importance for relationship with God and personal growth in holiness. If it’s that important to Ignatius, then I do well to make it that important to me.
The examen has been formulated in many ways over the years, always offered as a prayer of reflection to help us notice where God is speaking to us in our lives. In fact, if a young person comes to me asking for advice around discernment, the daily examen is the first thing I offer to them—if we learn to hear God’s voice in the small, ordinary, everyday things, we will be so much more attuned to his voice when we seek it in the larger decisions of life. I believe the examen isn’t just a prayer for every day, but a prayer for everybody. Last year I was working with some primary school children in rural South Australia and developed a simple form of the examen to use with them in prayer. I told them that their hands go with them wherever they are, and they can always turn to their hands when they want to have a way to talk to God. The ‘hand examen’ is what I offer now also to you, with each finger representing a movement of the examen.
The thumb, our opposable digit, reminds us of what is fundamental. Before all else, prayer is a soaking in the love of God. Spend some time noticing your breathing, with each breath a sign of your dependence on and relationship with God. Allow yourself to be present to God, and to yourself. Open up your heart to God’s love, and let it seep into the very depths of you.
Our index finger is what we use to point things out to people. Spend some time reflecting on your day, and point out everything that you’re grateful for. A delicious meal? Point it out. Good conversation? Point it out? Wonderous nature? Point it out. As you notice each element of your day and your life that you’re grateful for, allow that gratitude to be directed towards God. Gratitude expands our heart to receive gifts lovingly, and makes us receptive to all the ways God wants to pour out his love into our lives.
Our middle finger is generally the longest, the one that stands out. Review your day, almost as a movie, with the Holy Spirit as your companion. Notice what happens in your heart as you review the moments of your day, and where an emotional response seems to stand out. A jolt of anger you’re ashamed of? An unexpected peace following a conversation? At the end of the review, ask the Holy Spirit to highlight one of these instances, the one he wants to have a conversation with you about.
The ring finger is the one where lovers place their rings of commitment. This finger is an invitation to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the God who loves us. Take the moment highlighted by the Holy Spirit into a conversation with God. Spend some time talking to God about what was happening, what you noticed, what you were feeling. Then spend some time listening to God, and asking him what he wants to show you about that situation.
Our pinky finger is the one we learn to make promises with. When my two-year-old Goddaughter asked me to come for a sleepover, I said I’d try. Instantly her hand reached out, pinky extended: ‘Promise?’ There’s something beautifully childlike about commitment. Even at a young age, we know the power of making a resolution; somehow by saying it, it makes it a little bit more true. What is the loving resolution you want to make to God moving into tomorrow? What do you want the fruit of your conversation with God to be? A simple resolution every day shapes a lifetime of daily walking in holiness.