The New Year is upon us, and with it, heaps of resolutions to become our best selves over the next 12 months. Everything we’ve always said we’ll do, but haven’t gotten around to yet? This will be the year.
If you’re anything like me, though, your well-intended New Year’s resolutions are usually discarded by February 1. I would suggest that the reason so many of our resolutions actually fail is that they’re too superficial. Of course, we want to be the best versions of ourselves. That is, we want to be healthy, both physically and mentally. We want to know we are reaching our full potential in our careers and callings. And we know that achieving these goals enables us to better serve others and glorify God.
So, how can we make a New Year’s resolution that recognizes that responsibility and connects our innate desire to improve with God’s purpose for our lives?
St. Ignatius of Loyola has the answer for us in his trademark prayer for the busy person and self-improvement devotee. Called the Examen, the prayer encourages us to take a thoughtful look at our day through five steps, examining the highs and lows of the day, and recognizing where and how God may have been working through those moments. Through careful consideration of how we can be more welcoming of God’s love, the Ignatian Examen offers an alternative to typical New Year’s resolutions. It’s an opportunity to re-calibrate daily to God’s will by helping us identify the places where we most need to improve in drawing closer to God.
If you only make one resolution in 2018, then praying the Examen daily should be the one. Here’s why:
The Examen gives us a prayerful space to express gratitude.
New Year’s resolutions often focus on the lack of what we desire rather than on the abundance of God’s blessings. For example, we might resolve to become more organized, to exercise more, or to make more money, but the Examen encourages us to take some time to ponder what’s already going well for us. In doing so, it shifts our focus to joy and praise, rather than complaint. Maybe I didn’t run several miles, but I sensed God’s presence during a leisurely walk in my neighborhood. Maybe I was particularly short on cash, but a friend surprised me by treating me to lunch or coffee. Praying the Daily Examen has a way of opening my eyes to everything I can already be grateful for.
The Examen allows us to become aware of God’s presence and to shift our priorities accordingly.
It’s helpful to humble ourselves in the face of New Year’s resolutions, many of which might be prompted by a desire to fix everything that’s wrong with us: Lose the weight. Spend less time on social media. Learn a new skill. The Examen, which begins with recognizing that we are in God’s holy presence, can help us remember that we are loved, that we are instruments and recipients of God’s love in our lives, and that we don’t have to do anything different in order for God to meet us here. Instead of distressing about how we didn’t stick to that diet, for example, we might look back on our day and see the friend who complimented something (great listening skills, perhaps) that, when cultivated, will strengthen our holiness.
The Examen leads to more meaningful, Christ-centered resolutions.
Once we’ve invited God into our imagination and asked him to show us where he has manifested his grace and presence throughout the day, God leads us to areas of potential spiritual improvement. These “resolutions” help us to live our fullest lives in Christ for others, rather than just for ourselves.
The Examen supports concrete micro-resolutions, rather than broad, wishful ones.
Expert goal-setters recommend setting specific goals that can be easily managed and tracked. So, when the Examen ends with a specific prayer to improve in the areas where we failed to notice and respond to God’s love today, we are focusing our improvement within a short period of time and on a single area of spiritual growth. One day at a time, backed by prayer and grace, sounds so much more reasonable than an entire year of striving independently to live a better life, doesn’t it?
I’ve personally found that it helps to journal when I pray the Daily Examen. Doing so helps me identify patterns of personal prayer, God’s intervention, and subtle transformation that have occurred over the course of weeks or months. (I also find I’m better at remembering the changes I want to make when I write them down!) I would recommend using this journal to kickstart your Daily Examen habit in 2018, as you begin to notice all of the ways in which God is moving in your life, too.