The Prayer of Examen is more than the typical pre-confession conscience exam. It´s really a prayer, described by St. Ignatius as a key to the spiritual life, that moves from thanksgiving and petition to review, repentance and a resolution. In this blog I explain what it is, and how you can use it with teens in youth ministry, retreats, camps and even at home with your children.
My Experience with “Conscience Exams” for Teens
I have always been taught that at retreats, camps, mission trips, etc., a thorough “conscience exam” at night with the group is an excellent idea. By “conscience exam” I mean a specific prayer based on the person´s reflection of their experience so as to maintain a clean conscience before God. It´s much like going through a confession preparation guide.
I quickly learned that doing these conscience exams, especially at night, helped my group of teens to slow down before going to bed and improve their interest, attitude and behavior for the next day.
Reading about this theme I discovered what is called the “examen prayer”. It brings the “conscience exam” to a whole new level! Below I present you with an overview of this prayer in case you´d like to use it with your own teen groups. I strongly recommend it if you´d like to improve the spiritual quality of your youth events and the spiritual depth of your teens!
Saint Ignatius´ “Examen Prayer”
I learned that St. Ignatius highly esteemed what he called the “prayer of examen”, or “examen prayer”. You can read how he developed this prayer into a cornerstone of the spiritual life in the book The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today by Timothy Gallagher. However, in this article I´m applying Ignatius´ principles for teens.
Ignatius proposes 5 steps in the prayer of examen: show gratitude to God for the blessings of the day, petition for the grace to see and overcome your failings, review the day to see the spiritual experience throughout it, seek God´s forgiveness where necessary, and renew yourself for the next day.
So, in short, the steps are: gratitude, petition, review, forgiveness, renewal.
It´s not just an exam to find what went wrong, as we often do in conscience exams, but also to see what went right; in other words, where is the Holy Spirit leading me? Ignatius considered prayerful attention to one´s interior spiritual experience as the key element of the spiritual life. The examen is meant to do exactly this! The consistent practice of examen will reveal God´s work in one´s life and help guide a corresponding response out of love. Indeed, “our hearts are an arena where many different movements occur”. (St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises)
This is why the fundamental attitude for a successful examen prayer is to “seek and find the divine will in the disposition of our lives” (Spiritual Exercises, 1). In other words, the sincere desire to know God´s will in my life.
A Very Beneficial Prayer for your Group
The prayer of examen may help teens in many ways, for example:
- recognize how much God does in their lives
- learn to be grateful to God
- understand faults and weaknesses better
- take down masks and live authentically before others
- discover new resolutions they could try
- learn to speak (more) to God
- grow in one´s image of God
Leading the Examen Prayer
It´s important to look concretely at the time frame you are reviewing. Since this is an exam for teens during a retreat or a camp, (I think) it´s best to do so at night before going to bed. This is a good way to review the entire day, set the stage for a good night´s sleep, and prepare for the next day.
However, you could also do so before lunch, or at some point in the evening, or perhaps at the end of the retreat, or scattered throughout the camp. In short, you can experiment a bit with the timing to suit your group´s needs.
The exam can progress in different ways. This will change depending on the style of the leader, the length of time you want the exam to last, and of course the needs of the teens. Here are three ways:
- randomly, as the teens recall significant events to them in the day, or,
- chronologically, beginning in the morning up through the night,
- selectively, if the leader wants to highlight specific moments in the day.
I highly recommend that a qualified adult guide the examen prayer. It´s much easier if it´s guided, especially for teens!
In a one or two night retreat, and even in a one week camp, it´s just too little time to give teens the training and experience they need to actually guide it. Here´s what I recommend as the best way:
- the adult leader guides it completely,
- he can set an example by leading a prayer of his own at some or all of the steps,
- he invites the teens to contribute out loud (perhaps raising their hand for big groups),
- (he can even use an examination of conscience video for step 4).
If you have a large group and several qualified adults, dividing the teen participants into smaller groups may help quite a bit.
Always keep in mind the whole examen is done in the form of a prayer!
Some Extra Tips
For teens new to the exam you may want to focus more on gratitude. This will help the teens recognize God´s love for them, and hopefully help them better welcome the later tougher steps.
If your group does really well at a particular step, take note of that, and consider allowing them to continue expounding on it. This may be how the Holy Spirit wants to work in their souls.
If your group suffers during a specific step, then consider taking the reigns by leading the prayer yourself, or by asking specific questions they can answer.
Keep in mind that you have to battle against the clock and the teen´s desire to pray and examen themselves. Depending on their age and spiritual openness, you may have from as little as 5 minutes and as much as up to 25 minutes. Perhaps you could start out short, and over the length of the camp expand the exam time. In any case, the exam, especially if done at night, becomes a spiritual reflection/prayer of its own to include in the schedule.
Here is a short video I found that might help you understand the examen prayer:
- Jesuit Examination of Prayer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io1w1AWs_Gc (3:46)
Other Ways to Use the Examen Prayer
Some other ways to use the examen prayer are:
- to prepare your group for a large session of confession
- you can use video “conscience exams”, which you can find on youtube
- presenting it and leading it during your youth ministry or CCD night, especially to teach teens to pray it on their own
- teaching parents to pray it, so they can lead the prayer at home for their own children
- leading it during adoration (students pray silently as you lead, the leader offers moments of silence at each step)
- training young adults to lead the prayer in small groups during a retreat, camp, etc.
- doing it at the very beginning of an event, so as to create the right disposition of heart
- …any other ideas?
Next Blog: Examples of Leading the Examen Prayer
Since there is too much material to cover in one blog post, in my next blog post I went over each of the steps in more detail. You’ll find there sample questions and responses, as well as some videos you can use. Click below:
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