An Examen for Times of Illness

An Examen for Times of Illness - words over image of someone taking blood pressure of a patient

Physical illness, whether chronic or acute, can render us too distracted and exhausted to keep up with normal activities, among them prayer. Not only do pain, other discomforts, and fatigue sap our physical resources, but they also put a strain on our interior resources—our emotions, our ability to think, and our spiritual attentiveness.

And yet, we are so in need of prayer when physically distressed. While ill or injured, we are likely to make mistakes, revert to immature behavior due to frayed emotions, miss important interior clues, and descend into despair. At such times, we need to cling to prayer, not drop it.

As someone who can become incapacitated by a sinus headache, I know how little inclined to prayer a person can be when she’s not feeling well. So the prayer should be easy, short, and to the point. Why not an Examen designed for times of illness?

Step 1: See yourself in God’s presence, bathed in God’s loving gaze. I’ve found it helpful to huddle on the bed and, rather than dwell in self-pity, imagine God looking down on me as a parent gazes with compassion on a child who is hurt. I curl up, cry or whimper if that’s what I feel like doing, and pray something like, “Lord, I feel so bad!” This might sound like self-pity, but when it is directed to God, it becomes a statement of faith in God’s concern for us.

Step 2: Bring to mind one bright, good thing from the past 24 hours. When we feel horrible, we’re tempted to see only what is horrible in life. This is what the enemy of our human nature wants us to do—descend into total negativity. But in the past day, the sun has shone into your room, or you’ve had a moment or two of relief, or another person has done something kind, or . . . Your memory of the good is a weapon against despair. Think of that good thing and say, “Thank you, God. I know that wonder and beauty and goodness continue to do their work.”

Step 3: Ask God to show you something you can improve. I say “improve” because it does not help to pile condemnation on yourself while you’re suffering. And Jesus made it clear that sickness is not God paying us back for our sins. If you remember an angry remark you made to a family member, you might identify that as sin and make it right. But ask God to show you anything that’s in your power that might help. Are you trying to do more work than your body will allow right now, and is this causing you anger and frustration? Have you refused the help offered by family, friends, and colleagues? Would it help if, instead of reading the letters of St. Paul, you spent a few days in the Psalms? Would you rest better if you shut down e-mail and social media two hours before trying to sleep? Alternately, your “improvement” may be as simple as repeating the phrase, “This is not all up to me,” throughout the day, because you tend to think that you must fix everything and feel guilty if you don’t see results.

Step 4: Anticipate what you will need tomorrow. There’s another medical procedure or a long drive to the physical therapist, or the medical paperwork must be faced. Look honestly at the challenges—or, to keep it simple, one particular challenge—coming up and place them before God, asking for specific help.

Step 5: Thank God for the divine love that surrounds you and holds you up, in whatever way it manifests. Sometimes, this is pure discipline, because you don’t feel loved. You may feel that God is ignoring you or has forgotten your situation. But try to say, “Thank you. I believe that you love me; help my unbelief.”

About Vinita Hampton Wright 173 Articles
Vinita Hampton Wright has served as senior editor at Loyola Press for 16 years and recently became managing editor of the trade books department. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places with HarperOne, Days of Deepening Friendship and The Art of Spiritual Writing for Loyola Press, and most recently, The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book for Paraclete Press. Vinita is a student and practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, and from 2009 to 2015 she blogged at Days of Deepening Friendship. For the past few years, she has co-led small groups through the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises. She lives in Chicago with her husband, three cats, and a dog. In her “spare” time these days, she is working on her next novel.

23 Comments on An Examen for Times of Illness

  1. Thank you for the inspiring article. Just in time before i sink deep in sadness and desperation. God bless you madam.

  2. Thank you. That was exactly wha I needed. I had spine surgery last week and I have been too busy focussing on myself that I became indifferent to God and His blessings. It was so good to stop and take some time to be in His presence and to be comforted that He is with me through it all. Praise be to God.

  3. I am trying to deal with the Big C, along with the injuries of a soldier.

    While my prayer life is better than it was, it seems I am paying closer attention than I used when I was a child.

    Mobility is a problem; and eating (or lack of appetite). There are times when I am not too sad that there isn’t much gas left in the tank. Your reminder of first things is well-placed. M. Aurelius wrote: “Of each thing, what is its particular nature (?).”

  4. I agree that it is so hard to pray when we’re in any sort of pain. This examen is really helpful and I intend to keep it in my prayer journal. I have recently been through a time of mental pain and prayer seemed almost impossible. At best I managed to sit holding my little cross and hoping that God could feel my distress.
    Thankyou Vinita for this

  5. Thank you for passing on your inspiration. For me one lovely thing to be grateful for was at about 6am today when I was lying awake. I became aware of the Presence enveloping me and I was able to stay with it for what seemed quite a while. Blessings still come to those whose old tired minds seem to be dulled for keeps! Thank you Vinita!

  6. Ditto to what Judy said.
    Even though I give spiritual direction, this is one area in which I have struggled for a long time and constantly been so hard on myself for not being able to be the loving person I want to be. Chronic illness has not made me more compassionate. It has made me angry, bitter, frustrated, lonely, and grieving. It is so easy for the evil one to convince me that I am no longer even worthy to place myself in God’s loving presence. When I think about it, if one of my directees came to me with this, I would immediately tell her that she is being swindled by lies. Thank you for sharing God’s kindness, mercy, and grace, as we are all beloved children whom God desires to hold and gift with good things as the rain pours down on the just and the unjust alike.

    • Thank you for posting. You certainly are not alone in your response to chronic illness. And spiritual directors have blind spots, like all the rest of us! Glad the post was helpful. Peace to you.

  7. Thanks for this post, my daughter, Djoane will undergo an ovarian cyst and endometriosis operation tomorrow at 10:30 am. Please, I am requesting a prayer for her safety and successful operation. Thank you.

  8. Thank you so much. I have chronic pain from previous injuries. Arthritis is in many parts of my body
    I forget just what that does to me and needed your reminders.You are a blessed instrument from our loving God who accepts what I can do and doesn’t zap me for what I Can’t. I look forward to your articles.

    • Thanks for your post. I think we will all spend the rest of our lives learning to believe that God reaches out to us in love and not punishment. Peace to you.

  9. We are in the process of trying to sell our home and it is less than easy. The process is draining, emotional and filled with prayer. Building on your reflection, I created an Examen to support this journey.
    The selling of the house is a spiritual journey. I thought about creating an Examen to try to give the process perspective.
    1. Be in God’s presence – come before God with all my feelings, emotions, and events of the day – no judgement. Accept His love and understanding.

    2. Call to mind a good from the day. Today and yesterday the weather cooperated for Alpine to complete exterior house and window cleaning.

    3. Ask God to show me something I can enhance/ improve. Adjust my sense of duty from realtors to the reality of the market. Try to accept the “wait” as necessary and consider other periods of life waiting. Seek patience in what is rather than be frustrated with what is not.

    4. Consider tomorrow and ask for what is essential/what is needed. May I be mindful of my tone, my response, my anxiety. Ask for the ability to be rather than become agitated or ungrateful.

    5. The following I borrowed: “Thank God for His divine love that surrounds and sustains, in whatever way it manifests.” Draw upon God’s love to replace doubt, worry and fear.

    Your writing and reflections offer nourishment. Thank you.

  10. Thank you for this reflection. It never occurred to me to tell God how bad I feel at times so I used this examen today. At step two I remembered yesterday when I accompanied our priest on a visit to administer the Anointing of the Sick to a fellow parishioner. While we were praying I felt a peace come over me that I did not expect. God holds us up when we least expect it and surrounds us with His Divine compassion and love.

  11. An excellent Examen, Vinita. May I also add when ill or injured and feeling alone keep in mind the Communion of Saints, both here on earth and in Heaven are joining their prayers to ours. We do not pray alone.

  12. Thank you, Vinita, and thank God for the gifts of kindness and wisdom he has given you and that you pass on to your readers. Your posting of an examen for times of illness was exactly what I needed to hear today, and put into practice.

    • Judy, I’m so glad this was exactly what you needed! However, if you were not already open to the Holy Spirit, kindness and wisdom might not reach you where you need them most. So, thanks for your willing spirit!

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