An examen for a COVID year as we look ahead to post-pandemic life
I do not know about you, but I am tired of the pandemic problems. I am tired of not having people in our home for dinners and fellowship. While I am not a person who doubts the benefit of the restrictions that have been placed on us over the last year and still follow them, I am tired of them. The increasing numbers of people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 might be the harbinger of the end of at least some of these restrictions in the near future, and I am really looking forward to that day.
Which prompts the question, should we just get back to the way things were before the pandemic, or is this a unique opportunity for us to spend a little time to make adjustments in our lives before we reengage the post-pandemic world? Obviously, I am advocating the latter, and I have a suggestion that might help in that endeavor: the examen, part of the spiritual exercises first proposed by Ignatius of Loyola.
Looking for God’s Hand in our Lives
The examen is normally done as a twice–daily exercise, but it can be used to review a longer period of time. All of us fall short and all of us have problems in our lives. The purpose of this exercise is not to figure out all the ways you have disappointed God, all the ways you have fallen short, or all the things you should feel guilty about; we usually do not need a lot of help seeing them. Rather, it is meant as an exercise to help you review the year, experience God’s love, see His hand at work, and listen for His thoughts and direction in your life.
First, set aside several shorter or a few longer periods of time when you will not be interrupted. Take a short amount of time to relax and become aware that you are in the presence of God. This is important and should not be rushed. I would like to add a side note here: it is not uncommon to have difficulty staying awake in this portion of the exercise when you are coming out of a high stress period in your life. If you do nod off, there is no reason to feel guilty. You probably needed the rest in order to complete what is to come. Simply start again.
Second, review the past year searching for things you are grateful for. Paul continually admonishes us to have a grateful heart, to give thanks without ceasing, and to express our gratitude and thanks to God. To that end, ask yourself the following questions: What events took place that blessed you? These do not have to be big events; they could be something as small as a beautiful hike or watching the antics of the neighborhood squirrel in your back yard. How did you receive and give love and support? Ask God to bring these to mind. They can be as simple as calling or texting somebody when they come to mind through the week. In what areas did you especially sense God’s hand in your life? Write these down and give thanks for them.
Third, ask for the grace to see your life as God sees it. Ask God to help bring to mind things you may have forgotten. Ask yourself, where have I experienced joy this past year? Where have I experienced sorrow? What challenges have I faced? What still causes me unease? Where am I confident in God’s grace and where am I still struggling? Give God both your griefs and your joys.
Fourth, go over the above two lists and ask God to show you His presence in these. Intellectually, we know that God is always with us, but were there times where you especially noticed his presence? Were there times where you felt that he was absent? Is there a pattern to what you are seeing in the past year? Are there questions you want or need to ask God after this review? Write them down. Ask those questions over the next few weeks.
Fifth, ask God how you should respond to what insights you have gained. What are things He may be asking you to add into your life? All of us have busy lives, and for most of us in order to put something new in our lives, we need to take something else out. Therefore, ask Him if there are things that should be taken out of your life? You may be way too busy and need to take more things out than you are putting in — be open to this possibility. Are there things that you need to seek advice and counsel about?
Finally, ask for God’s grace, guidance, presence, and peace in the coming months. Give thanks for his concern for you. This exercise may open up a lot of questions; keep a list of those and seek answers to them. Spend some time in silence enjoying His presence as you finish your examen.
A Foundation for Praise
The above is meant to be a guide to begin the examen process. You may find that you need to adapt some of the steps or that you find your time being focused on one or two things that need more attention than others. Feel free to spend that extra time. We are so programmed to be busy all the time that doing an examen time usually has its difficulties with distracting thoughts. I recommend keeping a second notebook or notepad to jot down things that come to mind while you are reviewing your year that have nothing to do with the review (e.g. the vacuum needs to be run, or dishes need to be done, etc.) You can write these down to be finished afterward and return to the exercise.
Again, I would like to emphasize that this practice is meant to help you evaluate your past year and see God’s hand in your life. It is meant to help provide a foundation for praise, thanksgiving, and gratitude as well as to help you discover places where you might want to make some adjustments in your life.
May God bless each of you as we (hopefully) come out of this pandemic year.