We are in the middle of the long green season now—the season after Pentecost, sometimes called Ordinary Time. Unlike the shorter liturgical seasons with clear themes and narrative direction, Ordinary Time is different. It circles, it spirals, it reflects on the same thing every day: how to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.
There are seasons of parenting which also feel long and green, when the days and moments blend together in one continuous stream. During one such season for me, when I was a stay-at-home parent, I found help in a prayer practice made for ordinary days: the Ignatian Examen.
I originally found this prayer through a helpful daily examen podcast from Fr. James Martin. In this prayer (usually prayed at bedtime) you look back on your day with God, and ask for God’s help in your upcoming day. Each of the five steps of the prayer has shown me, in different ways, how to go about the repetitive and often overwhelming work of parenthood.
There are many different descriptions or translations of the examen’s five steps. Rhonda Mawhood Lee, an Episcopal priest and Ignatian spiritual director, sums them up in five shorthand phrases: Hello, Thank you, Take a look, Sorry, and Help. Here are the gifts each step has given me as a parent trying to be faithful. I hope this prayer will be a gift to you too.
Step 1: Hello
“First, take a deep breath. Just relax. And ask God to be with you.” (Martin)
Rest is in short supply for a parent on the go. Keeping in mind all of the things for which I’m responsible—bedtime routines, toddler safety, and the numerous needs for snacks. The examen gives me a chance to take off my responsible “mom hat” and remember that despite all my responsibilities, I am ultimately not the one who runs the show. I can simply rest in the presence of a God who loves me.
Step 2: Thank you
“Start by thanking God for two or three good things that happened in your day, for which you are particularly grateful. As Ignatius would say, savor these things as if they were a treat.” (Lee)
My gratitudes in this step are often little things: something endearing my kids said or something beautiful we saw in nature as we went about our day. The examen invites me not to brush past these small moments of joy, nor to just list off the things I know I should be grateful for (the way we might have been told as kids to be grateful for our veggies because the starving kids in other lands didn’t have such nutritious broccoli). Rather this is a chance to glory in the beautiful things of the day, as gifts from a loving God.
Step 3: Take a look
“Try to notice where God has been. Where did you accept God’s invitation to be loving, to be grateful, to be yourself? And where did you turn away from it?” (Martin)
Every time I look back, with God’s help, I see the day’s events in context. Both the context of the day (for instance, connecting harsh or stressful moments with how well we’d slept or how soon we’d eaten) and in the greater context of God’s invitation to us. The day turns into more than a list of successes and failures; instead I’m reminded that God desires moments of joy for me, and for my kids, and is constantly inviting me into that presence throughout the day.
Step 4: Sorry
“As you look back over your day with God, you probably noticed things you regret, because none of us are perfect. Remember those things, even your sins, and express sorrow to God…. Ask God for forgiveness and the grace to do better.” (Martin)
This is my chance to practice what I’m working on with my kids: how and when we say sorry. Just like my kids, I fall into reflexive patterns of shame or defiance when I notice mistakes and moments of meanness. Confessing gives me an alternate route out of these feelings, the knowledge that even my sins and mistakes are also held in God’s loving presence. In this step I find freedom and strength to try again tomorrow.
Step 5: Help
“The next step is to ask God’s grace for tomorrow…Be as open and honest as you can about how you are feeling and what you need.” (Lee)
Often I ask for the same thing every day: the patience and creativity that it takes to lead my kids through another day. But after taking the time to notice all the ways that God has shown up for me already, that doesn’t seem as tall an order as it did before I sat down to pray. I end my prayer looking forward to how God will answer it tomorrow, in the ordinary moments of the upcoming day.
Author’s Note: Descriptions of each step are taken from Fr. James Martin’s podcast and from Rhonda Mawhood Lee’s book, Seek and You Will Find.
Anne Benson says
Thank you, Margaret, for such a great and specific summary ! You write so well…..thanks!!
Mary Lee Wile says
Thank you for your heartfelt reminder of how the Ignatian Examen can be healing, centering, and hopeful — for this aging grandma a well as for young parents. It’s a practice I’d done years ago but let fall by the wayside; you encourage me to pick it up again.