Since How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard came out, I have occasionally been asked which of the “forty tips for faithful college students” is the most important. If someone were to pick one and do it, which one should it be? I’ve always answered, “Go to Mass, every Sunday at least and on weekdays if you can.” I have been fortunate working at The Catholic University of America for the last year because there are ten Masses a day on campus that I can choose from. However, for some students and young professionals, it simply isn’t an option. In this case, my advice changes a bit: if you can devote five minutes of your day to prayer (which you can), the Ignatian Examen is a great place to start.
“The examen” was given to us by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus (a.k.a. the Jesuits) in the 16th century. Ignatius was a worldly and self-satisfied soldier before his conversion. Saint Paul just needed to be knocked off his horse to find his faith, but Saint Ignatius was struck by a cannonball. In his long convalescence, Ignatius read the lives of the saints and fell in love with the stories of their virtue and bravery. Ignatius’ charism reflects both the discipline of his military background and the docility he gained from his injury and recovery. Ignatian spirituality has become one of the most versatile and enduring forms of prayer in the Church, and the examen is its foundation.
Everyone does it a little differently, but the basics of the examen are straightforward. It begins with an invocation, asking God for an awareness of His presence and for His guidance. This is imperative. I used to really struggle to do a nightly examination of conscience because I was asking, “Okay, where did I mess up today?” It was something I avoided doing because I didn’t want to go to bed thinking about all of the mistakes I had made. The good news is that I was doing it wrong: that’s not the Ignatian examen.
The examen will sometimes highlight areas for improvement, but it’s really not about what you’re doing. It’s about what God is doing in your life. When you look back on your day with the examen, it’s less like an athlete reviewing game footage and more like sitting by a pond and observing where ripples emerge on its surface. It requires trust that God will show you what you need to look at.
I ask one very simple question in this process: “God, where are you today?” Sometimes I’ll find that it was in an encouragement I received from a friend that day. Sometimes it’s the peace I feel in that moment, often while walking my dog. Other times, it’s the sense that I could have done something more — some small courtesy I could have offered a stranger but did not because I was in a rush. For the blessings, I offer thanks; for the mistakes, I ask pardon. And finally, I try to carry a better awareness of God in my life forward to the next day.
All of this, when done with the right mindset, is edifying. It helps us see where God is at work, where we may have overlooked him, and prepares us to see Him there the next time. And finally, it gives us hope and consolation. The Ignatian Examen shows us that God is always with us, always ready to forgive us, always wanting to bless us. In the bustle of everyday life, whether as a student, professional, or parent, it is helpful to bear that in mind.
AURORA GRIFFIN, a featured speaker at the 2018 Legatus Summit, attended Harvard University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in classics in 2014. There she served as president of the Catholic Student Association. She was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where she earned a graduate degree in theology. She has been working at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. for the last year and will be matriculating to the Stanford Graduate School of Business this fall.