Using the Means at Hand for Spiritual Growth

When retreatants ask for suggestions about how to deepen their prayer and to grow in their spiritual lives, their directors might have suggestions about some new approach to try. But often it is better to encourage people to work patiently at what they are already doing, especially when it comes to forming a real relationship with Jesus. Learning how to talk with him and how to listen to him may come easier for some than for others.

Imagine the situation of an individual who is committed to some form of daily mental prayer as well as to some form of examination of conscience. The very regularity of these practices can easily mean that they do not get much special attention. We are creatures of habit. We fall into certain patterns, and that is not all bad. A routine can carry us through even the busiest and most trying seasons of our lives.

It could be, for instance, that the person tries each day to pray about the Gospel passage that will be used at Mass, but may not have much time to prepare in advance for prayer, or may not have the habit of doing so. Sometimes merely staying awake for the whole of the meditation period can prove difficult! Thankfully, reading over the Gospel and reflecting on it for a while can be of real help to our concentration later at Mass. But a good way to grow in the spiritual life comes by way of doing some preparation for mental prayer.

Suppose also that this individual tries to keep a few minutes of silence at some point each day for a brief examination of conscience. The benefits of this practice include becoming mindful of various sins or weaknesses. For them we ask God’s forgiveness by reciting the act of contrition. Another benefit is the help that a regular examination of conscience can provide in preparing for our next confession. Here too there can also be great help for the spiritual life by improving what we do when we examine our consciences.

In both these areas, even without adopting wholly new practices, there are ways to advance in the spiritual life by using what is already at hand. Doing so does mean becoming a bit more deliberate about what we are doing already—for instance, regularly taking the time to do a good examination of conscience and then using the resolutions that we make to name the graces that we will ask of God in our mental prayer. Let’s consider a way to do this that is connected with the spiritual tradition of Saint Ignatius.

1. Identifying the Grace to Pray For
During an Ignatian retreat, the person giving the Spiritual Exercises generally works out with the retreatant what grace to pray for during a particular period of prayer. In a retreat that is following the Exercises closely, Saint Ignatius himself proposes a series of specific graces. During the First Week, the grace could be a sense of the hideousness of sin and liberation from our disordered attachments. In the course of the Second Week, the grace could well be a deeper knowledge of Christ our Lord, the better to love him and more closely to follow him. In the Third and Fourth Weeks, the graces that Saint Ignatius recommends that we seek include compassion with Christ suffering and joy with Christ risen.
But in addition to using the formulas for requesting grace that Saint Ignatius crafted for specific moments in the Exercises, it is also good practice to personalize the graces that we ask for. This could mean finding a way to express our request in a way that is personally meaningful. Sometimes it means being more concrete and specific about the graces we want to pray for. And there are times when retreatants find themselves in the position of not yet desiring one or another of the graces that Saint Ignatius names. For this reason the director may have retreatants consider praying for the desire some day to desire a grace that they cannot yet honestly say that they want.

After a retreat is over, however, it is not infrequent that people lose track of this practice of beginning a prayer period by asking for a specific grace. During the retreat, the director is there to remind a retreatant of the need to ask for some specific grace near the start of a prayer period. But while this may come easily during the retreat, the habit of asking for a grace can fall away once we resume the busyness of daily life. So, when someone asks about how to grow in prayer or deepen one’s spiritual life, I find it helpful to offer a reminder of the value of doing what one did while one retreat. In daily prayer it is good to spend some time asking for a specific grace right when one starts a period of prayer, even before one start to meditate on whatever content one has decided to use in prayer.

But what should we ask for, and how should we do it? Maybe we already know what we want to ask for. We are free simply to present our request to the Lord directly and simply (e.g., “Lord, give me patience today!”). But our prayer for the grace that we want can also be something more extensive. As is clear from the teachings on prayer in the eleventh chapter of Luke, the Lord is pleased when we tell him what we need, and why we feel that we need it.

Even when we feel eager to plunge into a Gospel text that we have chosen for our meditation, we do well to talk with the Lord about what we want to ask from Him. There is no reason to be shy about explaining ourselves. It is not that He does not already know, but that He is pleased when we ask! In this way, our periods of daily mental prayer will have a focus on praying right from the start, even before we turn our minds to pondering whatever text we had chosen to use, or reflecting on whatever mystery of the faith we had decided to consider.

What grace should we ask for? In a way it is often easier to know this during a retreat because of the help that retreat directors can give to their retreatant about this. How to do this on one’s own? One reliable way to do this would be to use the resolution that we formulate in the course of our examination of conscience (what Ignatius calls “the examen”). If we are doing the examen regularly, we can use the course that we have charted for the next day to name the grace that we will ask for when beginning a period of mental prayer. Of course, to do this requires that one be regularly doing an examination of conscience!

2. Connecting the Examen with Preparation for Mental Prayer
Let’s continue to consider the case of a person who has some commitment to a daily examination of conscience. To be honest, even for those with the best of intentions, the grind of daily life can wear us down in our efforts to persevere in this practice. Hence, the need to suggest that we take the time to tune up our examination of conscience, and doing so can also help with one’s preparation for daily mental prayer.

There are various fine ways of making an examination of conscience. In the tradition of Saint Ignatius, the standard form for a daily examination of conscience (what he calls “the general examen”) has five parts. A bit later in this essay we will give some attention to the practice of “the particular examen” (his name for a practice that has special valuable for making progress in the cultivation of specific virtues, and the eradication of particular vices, by focusing on just one type of action or attitude rather than reflecting on everything that comes up in the course of a day).

As a daily prayer of five to ten minutes, the general examen is primarily intended to help us to identify our sins so that we can make an act of contrition and ask God for forgiveness. The general examen also serves to prepare us for our next confession. Depending on how we do our general examen, however, it need not be restricted to this purpose. It can also help us to formulate a resolution in light of what we noticed about our conduct and our inclinations. It can alert us to things that we need to watch for in the future. The course that we chart for ourselves can involve being ready to maintain our current course by doing what already worked well for us, or it could be correcting our course in some specific way.

In our effort to make good use of the means already at hand for the improvement of our spiritual lives, it is important to see that the resolution that we formulate as part of the daily examen can help us to identify the grace for which to pray during the next day’s meditation. Let me use the standard five-part structure of an Ignatian examen by way of example here. We first offer thanks to God for something specific. Second, we ask for God’s light to examine not only the choices and the outward events of the day but also the reasons that we had for making these choices and the rest of one’s inner life—one’s attitudes, emotions, worries, and the like.

The third part of an examen done in this fashion will be a review of the day. For myself, this usually means a relatively quick effort (perhaps a minute in length) to remember the various things that I did in the course of the day, and then I try to settle on one or two things that I want to examine at greater length. To make this portion of the Examen more prayerful, and not simply analytic, I generally do it (about five minutes or so) by telling Jesus what occurred. This means telling him what I said, and what I did, what other people said, and what they did, as well as what I was thinking and feeling. I find it helpful to bear in mind that I do not tell all this to him because he does not already know—in fact, he knows better than I do. Rather, by telling something to someone who already knows the truth about the matter, I am encouraged not to shave the truth but to get to the heart of things as well as I can.

In the fourth part of the examen, there is time for an act of contrition for any sins and faults that I have found, but there is also an occasion for charting a course, whether by continuing on some course that I want to retain for the next day, or by correcting my course in light of what the analysis revealed. The fifth and final portion of the examen is a moment to pray for the grace to be able to carry out whatever course I charted. Much as I might try, I cannot do this alone. I need Jesus’s help.

To make good use of the means at hand for making progress in the spiritual life, it can prove valuable to take the course that we chart to indicate the grace that we ought to ask for during our upcoming periods of daily mental prayer. We do not have to come up with something totally new every day. The very fact that we see the need for it when doing our examen means that it is related to our actual situation. In this way two different parts of our prayer lives will be connected.

3. Reflection on a Specific Prayer Period
Another one of the retreat practices that can easily fall by the wayside afterwards is reflecting on how a specific period of prayer went. This is, of course, readily understandable, for busy people seldom feel that they have time to do this sort of reflection when they get back to their regular schedules. Yet, how valuable it would be if a person doing regular mental prayer could manage to keep up the practice undertaken during a retreat.

When we do this reflection during a retreat, we are making a record of how things went for us during our times of prayer. We can use it for our discussions with the retreat director. But in addition to providing a set of notes for our conversations, there are other advantages that come from this practice. It can help us to see certain patterns in our praying that we might not otherwise notice when our attention is only on how this or that particular period of prayer went. The patterns that we can notice from a review of our periods of mental prayer over the course of a week, or a month, might be about the type of choices that we make during prayer, or perhaps about the type of fruit that comes during our prayer. But they can also show us one thing or another about how God tends to deal with us. Knowing this sort of pattern can help us to be more attentive to when God is speaking to us, or causing some sort of spiritual movement within us. Something similar can be noticed about the ways in which the evil spirit can be trying to distract us or desolate us.

Here are some questions to ask ourselves after a period of prayer:

  • What grace did I ask for? So far as I can tell, did I receive this grace? If I have been asking for the same grace for some days or weeks running, is there any indication that I received this grace later, outside of prayer time, perhaps in some way that I did not expect?
  • Were there any other movements of spirits during the time of prayer? The first step in differentiating spiritual consolations and spiritual desolations is simply to notice that some movements of spirit occurred. As I start to become more sensitive and alert to the fact that such stirrings took place, I will be in a better position to identify them as cases of spiritual consolation or of spiritual desolation.
  • What choices did I make when I noticed any such stirrings? What were the fruits (good or bad) resulting from the choices that I made? When something stirs in my heart in the course of prayer, there is often need to decide whether to stay with it for at least a while longer, or to move on to something else.

In the course of praying on one of the stories of Jesus doing a miracle, for instance, there might be an inclination of gratitude to God for the help he has given me, and this is presumably an indication to stay and pray in this spirit awhile. There could, of course, be quite a different sort of stirring—for example, a feeling of self-pity might sweep over me during a meditation, or a feeling of exasperation that other people seem to get healed but that no one seems to care about me, not even God! In that case, it might well be the better choice for me to decide to move on with the meditation rather than to stay and dwell on that feeling right then, for it does not seem to be the sort of thing that God would send me. Even if I decide to move on and not to stay with a given stirring during the prayer-period, it will help to jot down the fact that I felt such a movement of spirit. I can decide later whether I need to talk about it with somebody, or decide to make it something that I pray about in the future.

In giving these examples, my point is not to try to reflect here on how to make the right choices when these questions come up. The criteria for making these decisions are discussed in Saint Ignatius’s Rules for the Discernment of Spirit. But that is a topic that would need more discussion than can be given here. The above examples presumably illustrate a reasonably prudent set of choices. Rather, my point is to stress the importance of spending a moment after the prayer period is over, reflecting on any choices that we made, and on the consequences of those choices. In the above example, did the choice to stay and to pray in gratitude prove to be fruitful? Did the choice to make an act of will, and quickly to move away from a moment of self-pity, have a fruitful result? If so, we have learned something in the practical order about how to grow in our prayer lives.

Suppose we made the opposite choices. That is, suppose that we chose not to stay with the gratitude that suggested itself. How did the rest of that prayer-period turn out? Did it lead to something else that it was actually important to pray about, or was there simply a sense of a missed opportunity at the end? One can learn something by this reflection on the prayer period about how God tends to deal with me, and on how I tend to operate in prayer.

Likewise, suppose that we chose to dwell on the resentment about not being healed that surprisingly popped up when trying to pray on the miracle that Jesus did. Did choosing to continue in the spirit of resentment lead me deeper into self-pity, or did it help me to confront a proclivity to self-pity in myself? Here, too, doing the reflection after the prayer can help me to see how the evil spirit uses a weakness in me, and this would be an important thing to know for the future, to help guide my prayer aright.

To sum up, the practice of reflecting on how my prayer went on a given day can be helpful in understanding what I experienced that day. But it can also be useful for teaching me things about how God, and his angels, tend to operate in me. It can show me something about how I am inclined to experience things, and how I tend to make choices. I would encourage a person willing to undertake this sort of reflection, after a period of prayer, as a practice that is specially valuable for the long haul. It is not just the particular situations that we want to look at, but the patterns over the course of time. For the purposes of this essay, what I can learn from looking back at the distance of (say) a month, over the record that I create by daily entries, can show me what I need to do to enhance my practice of mental prayer.

4. The General Examen and the Particular Examen
By this point, it is probably clear that making a serious effort to improve our spiritual lives can be helped by the general examen. A way to make further progress would be to include in the examen some question about whether, in the course of our whole day, we received the grace for which we prayed. Grace is a gift that we ask for from God. We should not presume that God’s timetable is the same as ours. Whether and when God’s grace comes is his decision. Our task is to take notice and to show our gratitude by making use of what he gives.

In considering here how to make good use of what is already at hand, we should also reflect on some ways of using what we discover during our examination of conscience for making our decisions about what grace to ask for, and about how to devise better strategies to cooperate with the graces God gives.

Suppose that in the course of reviewing the notes that we have made over the month during our daily general examens, we find that on (say) twelve days out of the month we have made more or less the same resolution. The recurrence of the same item so many times is a good indication of what grace we ought to pray for when we begin our periods of mental prayer. It can also help us to see a good topic for the particular examen. Doing so could be a route to real progress in the spiritual life, and a way to give our prayer even better focus.

There are some reliable strategies for using the particular examen that deserve attention here. If, for instance, the resolution that we repeatedly made during the general examen concerns our practice of shaving the truth (if not outright lying), and we need to achieve greater truthfulness, we have identified a suitable area where we can formulate our request to God in our prayer. We can ask to be truthful even in the smallest matters, let alone on bigger questions.

In our particular examen, we might do well to spend the first week simply trying to understand the matter, even before formulating a specific strategy or practice. It might help, for example, to spend the first week asking ourselves just when it is that we stray from the truth. Is it at work, or at home? Is it with everyone, or with some people in particular? Perhaps with a boss or with a superior? Is it to gain some advantage? To escape the risk of being blamed?

Perhaps the issue that we face is one of resentment, and an unwillingness, or an inability, to forgive some old insult or injury. Once again, if we find this same entry in the notes that we have made in the course of a month of general examens, that is reason to select it for special attention. Mindful of the need for God’s help, we would do well to formulate a request for the grace that we feel we need: the grace, for instance, actually to forgive someone, or at least to be ready to forgive that person, or perhaps even to do something that might elicit a change in the conduct of a person whose repeated misconduct is actually what has triggered the resentment, or the hard feelings.

Mindful that genuine progress also means really dealing with our own situation, we can select this same topic for our particular examen, as well as choosing it as the grace that we will request during our periods of prayer each day. Once again, I would urge that we spend a week or so trying to understand what the issue is more deeply, and not simply presuming that we have already understood it. When, for instance, do we feel the resentment? All the time, or when certain triggers get pulled? At whom do we feel it? Is the source something from long ago, or more recent? Is it something that was done to us, or is there any way in which we, too, may be at fault? Might it even be that there is something for which I need to apologize, or some type of conduct that I need to change if there is ever to be a reconciliation?

Once we have a better understanding of the situation, we might try (let’s say, in the second week) to put it to practice. If by the end of the second week our solution is working, we would do well to thank God, but also to continue with the practice for another two weeks or more, so that it really becomes habitual. If at the end of some reasonable period, our strategy is not working, we may need to stop, do some further work at understanding the situation, and then try again with some different course.

In regards to the technique for doing the particular examen, let me mention one that I have often used, adapted from the one that Saint Ignatius mentions in the course of the Exercises. In my journal, I draw a line. During the particular examen, I place a circle on the line each time the occasion comes up—e.g., for each of the times when I feel the urge to shave the truth, or when a certain kind of resentment comes up. Then, if the strategy works, I fill in the circle. If not, I leave it blank. Getting a record like this can prove a wonderful help to my memory. A technique like this makes it easier to be faithful to the particular examen without adding excessively to the time or energy required.

5. In summary
Real progress in our spiritual lives depends on deepening our relationship with Jesus, and in being willing to make the effort to use the means at hand. For those who are already committed to enter into some daily prayer, and into some form of the examination of conscience, I hope that this essay will provide some helpful ideas. We do well truly to ask for what we need, and we can get some guidance about what to ask for if we are making a good examination of conscience regularly. If we have a style for the examination of conscience that encourages us to chart a course, and to make some practical resolution, we stand likely to make the progress that we desire. We will do this by having a growing relationship with Jesus in which we ask him to give us what we need. And we can do our part by having a practical strategy for taking the means necessary to reach the goal that we desire. In this way, we do not so much need to learn wholly new practices so much as to take the means already at hand.

Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. About Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.

Father Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. is a Jesuit priest of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. He has been a member of the Philosophy Department of Fordham University since 1992, and is the editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly. He served two terms as president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Among his recent publications is An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy: Some Basic Concepts (2009). On the Fordham campus, he serves as master of Queens Court Residential College for Freshmen. For The Teaching Company, he has produced lecture courses on Aristotle's Ethics, on Natural Law and Human Nature, and most recently on Biblical Wisdom Literature.


  1. All of this sounds terribly complicated.
    James 3:17 states: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy”. I encourage people to go directly to Scripture for the answers to spiritual growth. At least you’re getting the original instructions. I don’t believe that anyone has improved on them.
    “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).


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