How to Pray the Examen with Your Children

“I think the examen protects our children not only from drinking and premature sexuality, but also from getting caught up in the violence of our culture…the examen has taught our children to face the violence of their own shadow sides and bring it into the light for healing.” Sleeping with Bread

sleeping-with-breadMy oldest son just turned 12, and I’ve seen a lot of changes come quick.

He’s starting to notice more of the world.

He’s becoming more influenced by his friends and what they do. Being popular and well liked has become an issue now.

And, along with that, the latest shooter video games, pop music, and more adult movies occupy his mind.

But as these new interests capture his attention and imagination, I’ve also noticed them dulling his enthusiasm for God.

Religion is not as exhilarating. Video games are engrossing, the Mass is not. God is doing amazing things in his life, but they are harder for him to see.

So, I’ve been thinking lately about how to foster more of a relationship with Jesus in my son and help him recognize God in his life. To do that we started praying the examen prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola.

What is the examen?

The examen is an integral part of Ignatian spirituality. It’s a way of understanding how God is present and active in your life.

In the examen, you reflect on what happened during the day with an eye toward figuring out where God was influencing you. At every moment, God is actively working to guide you on a path toward himself.

Like Israel in the desert, God is still leading his people to spiritual freedom. You just have to know how to listen. God’s influence is felt in what St. Ignatius calls consolation. It’s a feeling of comfort, security, love, happiness, and peace.

Recently I started using a small book on the examen called Sleeping with Bread. While the authors can be a little wonky and I don’t agree with everything they believe (see my note below), they do explain the examen in simple terms that a young teen can understand. They describe consolation as the things that give you life.

The title comes from a story about child refugees during World War II. Even after they were safe and had plenty to eat, the trauma of living with severe hunger haunted them so much they couldn’t sleep. The only thing that gave these children peace was sleeping with a loaf of bread. It gave them security and comfort knowing they would have food when they woke up. The bread gave those children life.

Similarly, we want to hold onto those things that give us life. That’s God speaking to us and showing us the path to abundant life.

How does it work?

Every night, I get together with my son and we answer two questions. What am I most grateful for today? What am I least grateful for today?

Sleeping with Bread suggests other ways to can ask these questions:

  • When did you feel the most alive today? When did you feel life draining out of you?
  • When were you happiest? When were you saddest?
  • What was today’s high point? What was the low point?

You get the picture. God’s will lies in the things that give you the most life or gratitude. Whenever possible, you should try to do more of that and stay away from the things that take away life.

It’s taken a while for him to figure out what to look for. At first his answer was always, “I don’t know.” I had to help him some to get the idea of what to share, and I had to share my own most and least gratefuls, as well.

But slowly he’s more able to think back during the day and recall his best and worst moments. After a while of doing this, I started reading Sleeping with Bread to him. I think he understands the process much better now.

The family examen

Perhaps the most intriguing story in Sleeping with Bread is of a family that does the examen together.

The parents say it’s taught their children to know themselves and have confidence in what is right for them. They tell the story of their 15 year-old daughter turning down a party invitation because there would be alcohol and sexual behavior. “I think Beth’s inner strength has come from all these years of doing the examen and learning to trust that she knows what gives her life and what doesn’t,” said the father.

That’s what I’m counting on for my son. We’ll see. I’ve just started it and he’s just beginning to understand what it’s about. However, I can already see more awareness of spiritual things in him.

He’s expressed a desire to be on God’s side several times in these examen discussions. Hopefully, it will lead to more.

This post originally appeared on CatholicMom.com as part of my Parents as First Educators series.

Note: It’s been several years since I read this book all the way through. I read the first part that described the examen with my son but didn’t re-read the rest. Some readers pointed out to me that the authors disagree with Church teaching on page 58 saying, “Like many Roman Catholics, we disagree with our Church’s prohibition of all forms of artificial birth control.” I forgot about this. 

I’m definitely not one of those “many Roman Catholics.” I completely agree with the Magisterium and support the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and artificial birth control. I do not agree with the author’s personal views in this regard.

I think this book is a useful resource in as much as it explains the examen and spiritual discernment in terms a young teen could readily understand. Despite the author’s personal beliefs, I believe the examen is an excellent prayer practice. If you want to delve into this subject on an adult level, I recommend Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s books on Ignatian spirituality, The Examen Prayer and The Discernment of Spirits. They will blow you away!

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Comments

  1. Suzanne Walsh says:

    Marc, thanks for sharing this. I picked up the book based on your blogpost recommendation. It’s a great idea to use this with kids and an opportunity to provide for good dialog between parents and children. I’d like to find a way to introduce this to parents at the beginning of the school year when kids return back to our faith formation program. Will let you know if we come up with a good approach to do this. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • That’s a great idea to introduce this to the parents in your faith formation program. I would definitely be interested in knowing if you find a good way to do that. Thanks for sharing that idea.

  2. Michael Madden says:

    Thanks for this article. Matt is a Jesuit priest and I lived with him briefly while I was in the novitiate. He and I never spoke about birth control (and I’m sad to read the note above) but I have been to confession with him and more than a couple of Masses and I can speak, from personal experience, to the fact that he wants to bring people closer to Christ’s healing and nothing more.

    • Thanks for the feedback Michael. That comment saddens me too because I can tell he has a huge heart for the Lord and a love of helping people. His book introduced many people to the examen prayer, including me. I’m very grateful for that. So I’m sure you are right. That book was written a long time ago. Perhaps his views have changed.

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