The Consciousness Examen: A Practical Exercise as we end the year 2006 and open our hearts to the next.
There is a practice which many religious people are encouraged to do daily: the Consciousness Examen. I would like to suggest this exercise as we close the year 2006, and open with hopeful hearts the coming year. The Consciousness Examen is different from the Examination of Conscience which many of us do to prepare for confession. The Examination of Conscience has a moral quality to it: the primary concern is what good or bad actions we have done in our lives.
But the Consciousness Examen is a discerning prayer: the primary concern is how God is affecting and moving us spontaneously in our affective consciousness! In other words, the Consciousness Examen helps us see how God relates to us, how does He show His love for us in our lives and how He touches our hearts. It is like seeing how a friend shows his care to us, how he touches our hearts, how he moves us in his own ways, according to our unique personalities and gifts. Thus the Consciousness Examen draws our attention not on our own self --- it begins by seeing how another loves us, and how we respond in return. It is not one of those self-indulgent reflections, or unhealthy self-centered reflections we are all prone to. Its basic objective is to form or “develop the heart with a discerning vision to be active not only for half-an-hour” or during prayer time, “but continually” (George Aschenbrenner SJ).
There are steps. The first is to pray for enlightenment. The Consciousness Examen is not a matter of our own personal ability to reflect and look back at our experiences and be able to analyze them, as many blogs, journals and diaries are prone to do. It is a Spirit-guided insight into our life and sees how we are growing in sensitivity to God’s movements. In other words, it is about seeing our life as God sees it; and seeing whether our hearts are able to detect the stirrings of God when He makes Himself felt to us in our daily lives. So, we ask for the grace (because to do this needs God’s grace!) that we may see our lives as God sees it.
The second is to pray for gratitude or thanksgiving. The attitude of Christians in this world is the attitude of a poor person, “Blessed are they who are poor in spirit.” At the heart of this attitude is the realization that everything is gift; that all that we have or are comes from God; and yet in our poverty, the Lord has gifted us through everything. In the prayer of gratitude, we look back at the year and ask, “What are the gifts that the Lord has given us? I suggest not focusing on the large, grand gifts we received, because obviously we are aware of them, but scour and glean through your life and locate the tiniest, smallest gifts that we have been unaware of. Our faith should help boost our sense of poverty and humility as we center on the concrete, unique and personal gifts that each of us are blessed with. Of course, do count the large ones: but don’t end there.
The third is to survey our actions. But before we do that, we remember that the objective of the examen is not an effort to make a list of all our sins and vices, as in one by one (as the Examination of Conscience does with a list of sins, categorized under the 10 commandments). But, we are challenged to see -- in the background of God’s love for us and in the attitude of gratitude – what areas in our life that are deficient, and needs change. However, the Lord does not want us to handle all of them at once. Usually there is an area in our hearts that he is calling for conversion: these are the issues that suddenly nudges or assertively vie for your attention. Sometimes, the area that needs conversion might be very challenging, but we do not want the pain that comes with it, so we would rather go to a safer, lighter area that also, undeniably, needs attention. For example, the issue of the growing coldness between you and your wife: it needs painful attention, but you would rather talk about the children or business. Ito yung mga iniiwasan niyong issues na umiipon nang umiipon.
Fourth, if the gratitude is taken from the realization of all gifts; the next step is the feeling or attitude that comes from the realization of our sinful tendencies and deficiencies. When the Christian praises the Lord, the adoration becomes more genuine and deep if it rises from the fact of our sinfulness, and yet, despite it, we are still being loved. In other words, the adequate feeling of one who sees this constant love despite one’s sinfulness and deficiency is sorrow and shame --- not guilt that condemns; but sorrow and shame that exposes our real nakedness before God and at the same time, draws us closer to Him: yung damdaming nahihiya ka sa kabila ng kanyang pagmamahal.
Finally, a hopeful resolution for the future. If the Consciousness Examen flows from an attitude of thanksgiving to the gifts given to us who are poor; then sorrow for our sinful tendencies; then see in the deepest part of your heart how you now face the future. Are you discouraged or fearful about the future? Or are you acquiring more hopeful vision of the future?
I guess with the steps given above: enlightenment, gratitude, the survey of actions, sorrow & contrition and the hopeful resolution for the future, we may face the coming year with courage and assurance; that just as God had been with us in the past, He will accompany us, and not abandon us, in the future.
Note: The Consciousness Examen is done by every Jesuit, every day, usually 15 minutes before half of the day is over; and 15 minutes before retiring. Fr. George A. Achenbrenner SJ wrote an article on the Consciousness Examen in which this homily is based. The article, written in the Review for Religious, Vol. 31, 1972, is given to novices who are beginning their life as Jesuits. (In fact, a first-year novice, Sherwin – a UP Engineering graduate – lent me his article.) This is one of the first things we learn in Jesuit prayer. In the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, the Consciousness Examen is a non-negotiable: cannot substitute or forego even if one is super-duper busy. Personally, it is in the Consciousness Examen that I often ask myself what would be the Jesuit way of proceeding or responding when confronted by challenges and difficulties especially in UP and the Jesuit Music Ministry. Thus, through this exercise, the Lord subtly deepens and develops my religious identity.
*I took this photograph in Mirador as a proof of a growing sensitivity to the work of the Lord in nature.