The Daily Examen: waking the conscious sleeper

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Photo: Byron Howes

“The majority of people are sound asleep more than half the time!”
So complained the famous American writer Henry David Thoreau in his bookWalden, published in 1850 but perhaps even more relevant in 2016. Thoreau built a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in beautiful rural Massachusetts and lived there alone for two years. His purpose, he said, was “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau consciously practiced awareness. In his time at Walden Pond, he became more and more wide awake to the amazing life around him — bugs, tiny animals, fish, plants — the world became alive to him in a way he had never noticed. And when he went into town, he noticed the interesting people he met in a way he had never done before.
“Consider how the wild flowers grow,” Jesus said. “They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these” (Luke 10:27).
Consider. Be aware. Wake up and look.
But most of us are “sound asleep” or unconscious to our surroundings much of the time. We make ourselves so busy as we rush from one thing to another (or from several things to several other things as we multi-task) that we have no idea what we are missing.
I have found a simple prayer exercise which wakes me up to the reality of God’s presence in my life, in the lives of those around me, and in the incredible beauty of the natural world. It’s called the Awareness Reflection (or, more traditionally, the Consciousness Examen). Its purpose is to heighten our awareness of God’s presence and activity in our lives, in order that we might live more fully, more consciously. We are always in the presence of God, but we are not always aware or conscious of that divine presence. In the words of St. Richard of Chichester, this kind of prayer can help us “see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, day by day.”
Here is a very simple approach that you might find helpful. Many people do this at night before they go to bed. I usually do it first thing in the morning before I have started thinking about the challenges of the day ahead, before any of its cares have made a claim on my consciousness:

  1. Thank God for the day that has passed, and ask for the awareness to see God’s activity in your life.
  2. Think back over the day just past, and ask these questions:
    • When did you feel most thankful (happy, content, satisfied)?
    • Where were you conscious of cooperating with God?
    • How was God present even when you were not conscious?
  3. Then ask yourself:
    • When did you feel most unthankful (unhappy, frustrated, anxious, depressed)?
    • Where were you conscious of putting God out of your mind?
    • Left to right, Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, SSJD, Molly Finlay and Karen Isaacs in front of Wycliffe College in Toronto, on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. Photo/Michael Hudson
      Connie Gefert is a Sister of St. John the Divine in Toronto. Photo: Michael Hudson

      How was God present even when you weren’t aware of it?

  4. Is there anything in the previous day that makes you want to do something differently in the new day?
  5. Conclude with a short prayer of thanksgiving for the past day.

You might want to record the fruit of your prayer in your journal. The important thing is to become more and more aware of God’s constant presence in your life, more conscious of how you cooperate with God, where you put up blocks, and how you can be more open to walking consciously with God alongside you.

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