The initial part of this practice is the “Examen of Consciousness,” wherein we go over the day’s happenings to detect God’s active presence within them. The second movement is the “Examen of Conscience,” during which we go deep within ourselves and ask God to show us clearly what is there. The Desert Fathers and Mothers (fourth-to-sixth-century Christians who pursued holiness in small desert communities) made their own extreme experiences a laboratory for understanding both temptation and transformation. Thoughts, they believed, come unbidden, but each of us has a choice whether to dwell on them. It’s when we wallow in a destructive thought that it develops into what the Desert Fathers call a “passion”: an emotional state, attitude, orientation, or habit of being that pulls the heart away from love.
Abba Poemen, for example, believed that a passion develops in four stages, from our hearts, to our facial expressions, to our speech, and then to our deeds. “If you can purify your heart, passion will not come into your expression; but if it comes into your face, take care not to speak; but if you do speak, cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil” (quoted in Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves).