Last time we talked about what the Ignatian Examen was and how to apply it in our own lives. This time we're going to talk about getting your students involved.
First, a question: Why teach your students about the Examen?There are lots of reasons! It is a valuable tool for self-assessment, which is a critical skill for developing spiritual independence. It draws students towards silence and solitude, two disciplines that are nearly non-existent in their worlds. For me, the biggest reason is that the exercise fosters spiritual depth. We've found that our students, more than anything, yearn for spiritual depth and authentic experience. If your students are anything like mine, this should be a feast for them.
How do you introduce the Examen to your students?
- Teach them about it. Make the Examen the focus of a lesson. You can give historical background, scriptural support and a detailed explanation of how its mechanics work. After you've taught, walk them through the exercise. You may consider giving them a cheat sheet with instructions to take home.
- Sneak it in. While most of the students in our ministry have participated in the Examen, almost none of them know it. I recently walked them step-by-step through the exercise without ever using the words “Ignatian Examen” or “prayer exercise”. I just explained what we were going to do and then did it. Sometimes the details can get in the way of the simplicity of actually engaging in the prayer
- Be creative. The Examen is much more flexible than it may appear at first glance. As long as you stick to the three main guidelines (invite God, review and thank God) you can apply the Examen almost anywhere. For example, try using the examen as a conversational tool when your hanging out with a student. (If you like this kind of stuff, be sure to check out the next part of this series, where I explore some more creative applications of the Examen).
The point is that the only way to learn about the Examen is by actually doing it. Like all spiritual exercises, the Examen is meant to be participated in, so I find it best just to get started.
Make sure that you give them a well-guided experience, especially if it is their first time. I recommend starting the exercise by giving students a brief summary of what they'll be doing in the exercise. The steps from the first part of this series may be a good starting point.
Once you've clearly articulated the whole exercise, start talking through it step-by-step, giving them plenty of time and space to pray and reflect. Afterwards, be sure to give them opportunities to further reflect on what they've learned. I usually encourage them to write down their thoughts, or share them with an adult volunteer.
A few things to keep in mind:
- You can't lead them somewhere you haven't gone – I cannot overemphasize this point. If you haven't dug deep into the Examen yourself, don't try to teach others about it. A bad first experience with the Examen could turn your students off to it forever.
- Take your time – This kind of exercise demands patience. It should move slightly slower than which your students feel comfortable. That way you can be sure that you aren't moving on before your students are ready. It also teaches patience to students who may want to rush through the exercise.
- Don't predict their response – Don't assume that your students will react negatively (or positively) to the exercise. Present it to them and let them decide for themselves. If you decide your students are going to think its boring, chances are you'll be right. I've found that if you give your students the benefit of the doubt, they will often impress you.
- Give permission to fail – It is not uncommon for students, especially beginners, to have a hard time with the exercise. For many, sitting still, being quiet and reflecting are new skills that requires practice. I usually wrap up by telling them that it is alright if they didn't get it, or if they didn't receive any divine revelations. Additionally, be sure to give them plenty of chances to try again.
- We only have a short time with our students, so giving them tools for building their own spiritual lifestyle is essential. The real value in the Examen is that it is a gift that keeps on giving: this one exercise can provide a lifetime of insight into their own souls. Teaching the Examen is a worthwhile investment of your time and, in my opinion, should be a staple in any youth ministry.