It was Easter afternoon and the ham was cooling in the oven when it happened. I was offered a ride from one room to the next in a wheelchair. I could barely walk after falling down the stairs during church (while carrying and then wearing communion juice) and suffering (what was later discovered to only be) a severe contusion on my left foot. I was invited to ride as I could barely stand. The nurse said “You don’t get offered a free ride often. You should take it pastor.”
It was Easter evening and my wife was sitting on the couch after a very long day. She looked exhausted. She said to herself “I wish he had emptied the trash or changed the litter box before hurting himself.” It was Easter evening when I slid down the stairs on my bottom cradling a garbage bag full of kitty litter before limping it to the garbage. My wife chided me but I kept listening to the rock and roll in my ear buds as I fought my way through the task.
In hindsight, I am glad that both things occurred. A big portion of that relief comes from the fact that it is two days later and I’m doing significantly better after resting and icing my bruise. A bigger portion of the relief comes from what I see when I look at these actions.
The Examen is a spiritual discipline connected to many different sources but especially to the practices of the Roman Catholic leader St. Ignatius Loyola. I know, I’m United Methodist. Why am I pointing towards the practices of a Roman Catholic? Well, to over simplify, God is bigger than the denominational divides and wisdom sees wisdom wherever it lies… Anyway…
The Examen is a prayer practice that helps me to personally see what is good in my life by revealing the presence of God in ordinary moments through reflection. IgnatianSpirituality.com (a ministry of Loyola Press) identifies the following as a simplified approach to the Examen:
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
Let me be honest, I obviously ignored the fourth point when I picked two moments out of my day in my reflections on Easter Sunday for prayer. The two moments I focused upon were the moment of accepting the ride and the moment of carrying the kitty litter to the trash to help my wife.
I saw God’s presence in the moment when I was proffered a ride in several ways. First, the nurse was a relative of a church member and I saw the compassion that her parent shows in her life at the church. I saw God’s love expressed through her kindness. I also felt God’s presence in an invitation to practice humility by accepting a ride instead of fighting my way down the hall with my considerable and obvious stubbornness. As I prayed through that moment I found a connection between these actions and God. It did lead to gratitude and to a sense of blessing.
I saw God’s presence in the moment when I was carrying to kitty litter in several ways. First and foremost, I recognized that there was compassion in my heart towards my wife’s plight and exhaustion. The same considerable and obvious stubbornness which had been a hindrance earlier was properly applied to assist someone else in need. In the right context, that stubbornness was a blessing which came out of God’s own arsenal. Was it a bit silly? Probably. Was it unnecessary? Yes. Was it an act of compassion and gratitude for all my wife had done for me that afternoon? Absolutely. I could see God at work in my motivation. I did not do it because I was simply stubborn. I was not upset with my wife for her forlorn statement either. It came out of my own sense of God’s call.
I write all of this down for the internet at large in order to express how taking time to go through the act of the Examen did help me to grow deeper in my faith through a very painful moment. In honesty, I was a bit annoyed with myself and with that staircase before I stopped to engage in this old practice. My prayer changed my day. When It was over I had found my center, found my hope for the next day, and was prepared to move past the pain into healing.
There have been many times in my life when I have been deeply blessed by engaging in the Examen or even in the daily act of journaling the best moments of my day along with my hopes for the next day. I would invite you to take a look at this spiritual discipline if you are struggling to find ways to go deeper or even struggling to find ways to look at your own life with different eyes.
Here are my three suggestions on how to engage in this practice:
- Set aside time in the same place each night. Maybe you travel and it cannot be the exact same place, but even engaging in that old (yet useful) tradition of kneeling at the side of your bed might be a place to start. Starting off with the intention of creating a consistent pattern helps. If you’re married or have a roommate, you may wish to warn them before starting this practice. It is strange to stumble upon someone kneeling in silence–they may think something is wrong. Yes, I speak from experience…
- Set aside a set number of days when you’ll intentionally engage in this practice. I suggest you do this even if you decide to begin with just two weeks of attempting the Examen. Make a plan to attempt this practice and then follow through to the end. I do not recommend just saying “I’ll do this the rest of my life starting tonight.” If you can make it through a week, make it through a week before going for two weeks. Celebrate your successes and a pattern will establish itself in your life in a more natural fashion.
- Ask a religious friend to journey in this practice with you. Get together after a week or two in order to talk about your experience. If you do not have a friend, look into finding a spiritual director who can assist you in this practice. You may even be able to find a spiritual director who can meet with you mainly over the phone and only a couple of times face to face throughout the year. I recommend a group like Spiritual Directors, International to help find a reliable and vetted director.
So, that’s my introduction on this Blog to the Examen. By the way, I grabbed the kitchen trash on the way to the garbage can with the litter. If you’re going to be stubborn, you have to be tough.