Using the Prayer of Examen to Assess Our Heart and Soul

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Holly and Glenn Packiam practice life-giving rhythms to experience freedom and abundance as they abide in Christ. In this excerpt from their book, The Intentional Year, Glenn and Holly teach us about the Prayer of Examen, and how they use it as they reflect on their past year and plan for the next.


Years ago, Holly and I discovered a practice that helps us to discern God’s presence in our lives. This ancient tool comes from Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who encouraged fellow believers over four hundred years ago to become aware of God in daily life.

One of Ignatius’s most helpful practices is known today as The Prayer of Examen. This practice is designed to help Christians prayerfully reflect on the events of a day and to help them sense where the Lord is leading. Many use this tool on a daily or weekly basis, which we highly encourage. But it can also be used as a tool for reviewing a month or a season. We have found it to be particularly powerful when used to review a whole year. When you use the Examen to review larger chunks of time rather than a moment-by-moment review of the day, you tend to notice major themes.[i]

Let’s walk through it together.

One: Rest


Before you begin, sit in silence for three minutes. Slow down your breathing. Welcome the Holy Spirit. Remind yourself that you are in the presence of the living God. The Holy Spirit lives in you and is working through you. He desires to have a living relationship with you. 

If this is a new practice and you are struggling to focus your mind, you may want to visualize a peaceful place with Jesus sitting beside you. What would he be doing or saying to you? I often imagine sitting next to Jesus on a beach as we listen to the gentle roll of the waves on the shore and feel the sun shine down on our faces. 

Sometimes, I also say “breath prayers” over and over in my mind. A breath prayer is a prayer that can be spoken in one breath and repeated over and over. Many, including the Desert Fathers, (monastic Christians in the third and fourth centuries) prayed the prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” A longer form of this is known as the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I often say, “Abba Father, I am yours.” Others pray breath prayers like “When I am afraid, I will trust you,” from Psalm 56:3 or “Not my will but yours,” which stems from Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in Luke 22:42. 

Two: Review

Before you begin a review of the year, sit quietly and pay attention to how you are feeling. How are you feeling physically? What emotions are you aware of? Are you feeling happy, sad, angry, anxious? Write down what you observe. I might write something like: “8:30 a.m., stomach feeling unsettled, anxious about being away from the kids, joyful to see the snow-capped mountains out my hotel window.”

Next, write down what significant things happened this year. Reflect on your thought processes, your conversations, your actions. This might seem like a huge task, but write whatever comes to mind. 

As you are reviewing the year, prayerfully ask God to bring things to mind. Ask the Lord to help you remember where you have fallen short of his plan for your life this year. Ask where or how you were able to give and receive love. Ask the Lord to help you notice where you failed to give and receive love. What good could I have brought to someone, but chose not to?

A simple way to pray about this is to ask, “God, where have I said yes to you this year?” And, “Where have I said no to participating with you?” 

Some example questions to review the year:

  • What were some of the high points/mountain tops of the year?
  • What were some of the low moments/valleys in the year?
  • What was an average day like? Do you remember how you felt in the morning and in the evening?
  • Were there any issues or problems that you struggled with or that were recurring problems or tensions or struggles throughout the year?
  • Where did I discover gifts of joy in the past year?
  • Where did I experience sorrow and grief?
  • Where or how did I give and receive love?

Three: Rejoice 

Practicing gratefulness is something you can do daily, verbalizing it to a spouse or friend or writing in a gratefulness journal, but it’s also a wonderful practice to do as you review your year. Reflect on the previous year, month by month. What seemingly small things are you grateful for in January, February, March, and so on? What are you grateful for that had a significant impact on you this year? 

Write down anything that comes to mind. Thank God for the gift of his presence, for blessings, for the gift of relationships, for the ability and opportunity to give and receive love. Nothing is too small or insignificant to list here. 

Writing down what you are grateful for helps us to delight in all of God’s gifts, to savor each one.

I remember as I practiced gratefulness last year on the retreat, I struggled to remember all the things I had to be grateful for. As I continued to sit in silence and ask the Lord to help me remember, things started coming to my memory. The more I pondered his goodness, the more things came to my mind. And my heart was filled with gratitude for all he had done.

I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 9:1

Four: Repent

Now here comes the difficult part of this prayer of reflection. We move from telling the Lord how we are grateful for all he has done in our lives to being willing to accept where we have fallen short. Here, we ask for forgiveness for the ways we did not cooperate with the Holy Spirit, for the ways we failed to give and receive love. This is not a fun part for me as I am one to focus on what has gone well and where I’ve seen God working in his world. I have a friend who has expressed the Prayer of Reflection being difficult for her because she goes quickly to guilt and condemnation when focusing on where she has fallen short. If you resonate with this, ask the Lord to show you what is his voice and what is possibly your own voice of self-criticism.

I’m reminded of the phrase from the Prayer of Confession when we pray every week in church: “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” As we enter this part of our reflection, we can ask ourselves, How have I not loved God with my whole heart this year?

Five: Request


As you end your prayer of reflection, ask for the grace to grow, to participate with the Holy Spirit’s work. Where do you sense the Holy Spirit leading you to grow this year? This might come to you easily or it may take some time for this to come to the surface. 

Recently, I heard the Lord inviting me to relinquish control. My desire to plan and script the day or shape things can lead me to be quite tightly wound and live with a bit too much stress. The resolve was to not share every observation or opinion I had. There were times to speak up, and there were times to tell myself, You don’t need to have an opinion about that. My resolve was not to be passive, but rather to share power. And as a result, I reduced my own stress. I was, as counselors sometimes say, “over-functioning.”

Reflection and Renewal

The goal of reflecting on the past is to hold up our lives to the light of God’s presence. We are presenting our whole selves to God. We often only bring to God the stuff that’s going on right now, or the stuff that we want to see happen. But the present and the future are only two-thirds of our life.

Inviting God into the past—even the recent past—is a way to “finding God in all things.”

We may have missed the little signs of grace that were there like little breadcrumbs to lead us home. We have not noticed the slight deviations in our habits or the callusing of our hearts. Usually, by the time life forces us to notice, it’s too late—like the driver who starts dozing off at the wheel and then jolts to attention when he finds himself drifting into oncoming traffic. The resulting action is often an over-correction and has disastrous effects. But safe and smart drivers handle the changes of the road with small, frequent adjustments with their hands on the wheel. In a similar way, the Prayer of Examen, applied to the previous year, can help us present our lives before God, become aware of both how God is at work, and discover what intentional adjustments we might make to join him in it.

[i] Strobel and Coe, p. 151

Glenn & Holly Packiam

Holly Packiam holds a Master’s Degree in counseling from the University of Colorado. She is Pastor of Parenting Ministry at New Life Downtown, in Colorado Springs. She educates their children at home.

Glenn Packiam is an author, speaker, and associate senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the lead pastor of New Life Downtown, a congregation of New Life Church. Glenn earned a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Durham University in the UK and is a senior fellow at Barna Group as well as an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary.

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