THE year was 1521. A "dapper young Spanish courtier" named Íñigo
de Loyola had been wounded in battle, and, as he "lay in bed, his
thoughts alternated between the prospect of worldly glory and the
following of Christ" (Spiritual Exercises). What should he
We have all experienced such times of uncertainty and doubt.
Which way should the path of our lives lead? How is God calling us?
When St Ignatius of Loyola faced his moment of indecision, in a
gift of sheer grace he made a stunning realisation. Surveying his
options, Ignatius noticed that "the secular romances left a certain
dryness and restlessness in their wake, whereas the sacred
scenarios left him peaceful and contented" (Spiritual
The latter set of feelings, Ignatius observed, were similar to
the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23), whereas the former
were not. He recognised that God had designed his being in such a
way that it gave him hints to which choice was from God and which
was not. This understanding formed the core of Ignatius's masterful
work The Spiritual Exercises.
Ignatius's prayer of examination (the "examen", as it has come
to be called) is a prayer practice that seeks the immanent -
meaning close-by, near, or indwelling - aspect of God. This is the
God who is with us always. Yet even in this nearness God remains
hidden, and so we need a method of prayer that brings the light of
God clearly into focus; this is the point of the examen.
At every moment, millions of bits of sensory data bombard us,
and with them we make sense of the world around us. We organise
these data in a coherent manner, and the pattern of this
organisation depends on our habits and dispositions. One person
sees a sunset and appreciates beauty; another curses the sunset
because it is getting dark too early. The sunset is the same, and
yet the observers interpret it differently.
The power of this process is so great that we are not even aware
of it. The examen seeks to answer the question "Where is God in all
this?" Whereas silent prayer seeks to move us beyond this world,
the examen helps us find the God who is reaching into our world to
It is important to realise that at the core of the examen is the
notion that individuals engage in actions that move them either
towards or away from God. But - and this difficulty lies at the
heart of finding God in the present - movement in either direction
can appear "good".
In modern-day language, we use the word "denial" to describe
being involved in activities that are bad for us while convincing
ourselves that these behaviours are not a problem.
To find God in the present, Ignatius begins by looking at the
past: how did his thoughts and feelings unfold over time? What were
the results of his desires and actions? Ignatius sees that,
although in the mind of the beginner the evil spirits can hide in
the moment, they cannot conceal their purposes for ever. At some
point, they reveal that they are leading a person away from
By looking back at his experience, Ignatius is able to review
any part of his life, and notice whether this review gives him a
sense of "consolation" or "desolation".
Whatever the chosen period, take a while to review the whole
experience. What were your feelings during that time? What are your
As you perform this reflection, you may begin to see patterns of
consolation and desolation emerging. These patterns represent the
flow of good and evil spirits that Ignatius described. At first,
they may be hard to see clearly; as time goes on, however, you will
develop a sense of which experiences are "of God", and which are
This is the second of four edited extracts from
Creating a Life with God: The call of ancient prayer practices
by Daniel Wolpert (BRF, £7.99; CT Bookshop £7.20);