Year-End Examen

Many of us, especially those whose spirituality is Ignatian, engage in a daily Examen – a process of prayerfully reflecting on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.

As we approach the end of the year, you might consider a year-end look back at this past year. Adapted from a common method of doing a daily examen, this method was posted on the Ignatian Spirituality website. It might provide fruitful prayer over the next couple of days.

Step One: Become aware of God’s presence.

One way of doing this is to ask the Holy Spirit to help you review the year with a holy perspective—with wisdom, grace, and faith. Ask for the grace to tear yourself away from your own patterns of thinking and seeing so that you can see your life more as God sees it. Of course you will see your failings—but God sees you as a beloved daughter or son who has a future and a hope. Of course you will see your accomplishments—but God sees your deeper self, the person behind all the activity, a person made in God’s image.

Step Two: Review the year with gratitude.

As you use this holy perspective to review the year, pay attention to the good gifts from the year ending. Name specifically those that come to memory now, and thank God for them.

Step Three: Pay attention to your emotions.

Think over the year again, and notice your emotional reactions. What memories speak most loudly to you? What events, conversations, relationships, or activities bring up the most emotion now, as you remember them? Ask God to help you linger with these emotions, whether they are pleasant or disturbing. Ask for help in understanding why you feel as you do. What can you learn about yourself or about your situation as you dwell in your emotional responses?

Step Four: Choose one feature of the year and pray from it.

While you are lingering with your memories and emotions, settle on one feature. Perhaps it is a single event, or maybe it’s a pattern of your own behavior that has come to mind as you reviewed the year. Whatever it is that has emerged, allow it to fuel your prayer. Don’t worry about the many other aspects of the year that you could think about right now; stay with the one thing that has come to you with the most power and pray from those thoughts and emotions.

Step Five: Look toward the new year.

Imagine what challenges and blessings might await you in the coming year. Think of important relationships, major (and minor) decisions to be made, skills to learn, habits to build, healing to seek, good work to accomplish. Make a simple list of highlights—matters that you expect to take prominence in your life in the new year. Bring them to God now, and ask for the graces you will need.

End your prayer, thanking God for love and life and holy possibilities.


Deepening Your Experience of The Spiritual Exercises

I’m very excited about this upcoming monthly program at St. Catherine’s University that I will be co-facilitating with Cristina Luna Munger (with whom I am also co-teaching a one-credit course this fall on Group Spiritual Direction). It is aimed at people who have had some experience with the Spiritual Exercises – perhaps by attending a preached Ignatian weekend retreat or doing an Ignatian retreat in daily living in their parish. The program grew out of my discussions with my friend Meg Mannix, who coordinates the semiannual Women’s Ignatian weekend retreats sponsored by the Jesuit Wisconsin Province.

Please feel free to share the flyer and the link with folks you think might be interested.

If you have trouble viewing the flyer here, you can find it online here.

Not Whether, But How God is Present

The other day, the priest celebrating a Mass I attended began his homily with the story of a man seeking God. The man climbed to the top of a mountain and cried out loudly, “Lord, let me hear you.” A bird flew by singing.

Still longing for God, the man cried out loudly, “Lord, let me see you.” He noticed some children playing nearby.

Still longing for God, the man cried out loudly, “Lord let me feel your presence.” A gentle wind caressed his face.

Still longing for God, the man cried out loudly, “Lord, let me know you are present.” A beautiful butterfly passed immediately in front of him.

The man came down from the mountain bitterly disappointed that he had not experienced God. He came home to the daughters he loved, and still did not recognize the presence of God.

My spirituality is heavily Ignatian, an approach that presupposes that all of our experience has a religious dimension. All the world – all that exists – is suffused with the reality of God’s presence. This is not pantheism. I’m not saying the world is God or the trees outside are God, the way a pantheist would. Rather, that God’s spirit impregnates everything. This is sacramentality at its fullest; in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

For me the Incarnation is about a God that desires to be united with us in our entire experience of life. Meaning that God is present in every human experience. That means we are never listening for whether God is present but for how God is present.

In each moment of our existence, God is communicating to us who God is, trying to draw us into an awareness, a consciousness of his presence. Whether or not we are aware of it, at every moment of our existence, we are encountering this God who is continually trying to draw our attention to relationship with God.

Our task is to become more aware of the presence of God in our live so that we can deepen our conscious relationship with God who is always present in everything.

St. Ignatius and Pilgrimage

Yesterday I gave a Day of Reflection for the Twin Cities Ignatian Volunteer Corps. It is a group I have presented for before and I always enjoy my time with them.

Every year, the IVC has a book that is the focus of discussion at their monthly meetings, and this year the book is An Ignatian Spirituality Reader (ed. Traub), which contains essays on various aspects of Ignatian Spirituality. Pulling themes from the chapters they have read thus far, my theme for yesterday’s day of reflection was The Wisdom of St. Ignatius.

One of the themes that emerges from the portions of the book the IVC folks have read thus far has to do with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was something that meant something to Ignatius. Howard Gray, in one of the essays in the Ignatian Spirituality Reader, called Ignatius a pilgrim of God. Gray refers to pilgrimage as the central metaphor of Ignatius’ life. Ignatius himself referred to he and his companions as pilgraims constantly ont eh move.

In my two talks on the subject (in my first talk of the day I talked of God’s Love as both Necessary and Suficient) I focused on three things implied by this pilgrimage metaphor that was so central to Ignatian Spirituality. The first (which I addressed in the first talk) is the idea of traveling light. The other two, which I addressed in my second talk are: first, a patient willingness to find God through the journeying, and, second, working for the kingdom in the midst of the world, not secluded from it.

You can access a recording of the two pilgrimage talks I gave here and here or stream it from the icon below. (The first podcast runs for 29:32 and the second for 26:40.)

Ask Big

I’ve talked before about the importance in Ignatian prayer of asking for a grace. St. Ignatius recommended that we begin each prayer period by articulating what it is we want from God, what is the grace we seek. And he encourages us to be bold in our requests for grace. As one of the people involved in my training in retreat work would say: Ask big.

I thought about that as I was reading online a sermon given by Rev. Mariann Budde, outgoing rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. (“Outgoing” because she is about to take over her new duties as Bishop of the Episcopal diocese in Washington, D.C.) In one of the sermons she gave recently, she told a story about a former British ambassador to the United States.

At the height of the Cold War, he was asked in an interview for a Washington Post feature article around Christmas what he wanted for Christmas. He replied that all he really wanted was a jar of fruit preserved in ginger, apparently a favorite of his.

The feature article was published a few days later, highlighting what various members of the diplomatic corps wanted for Christmas. The article reported that one said peace and goodwill, another said disarmament, another peace it the Middle East. And the British ambassador, reported the article, asked for his jar of gingered fruit.

Rev. Budded notes, “Sir Nicholas was surely the only one of those interviewed who got what he wanted that Christmas; but by comparison his hope, his desire, seemed to lack a bit in imagination and courage… While sometimes we may want too much; other times we don’t want quite enough.”

I think it is right to say that often we don’t want quite enough. Be bold. It is true that we need to ask the right things. But ask big when asking God for God’s graces.

Being a Contemplative in Action

The phrase “contemplative in action” is a commonly-used description of Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality. It conveys the idea the contemplation is fulfilled by action, that prayer is complemented by our actions of love in the world.

It also conveys something about how we are in the world. I read a wonderful statement that conveys beautifully what that means. It is posed in the form of a question I read in a back issue of Listen, a newsletter for spiritual directors. The question is:

Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s one the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest?

Although framed as a question (the answer to which is yes), it lays out some qualities that describe one who is a contemplative in action: Alive. Active in the world. Possessing an inner openness and presence. Alert. Completely at ease. Completely at rest.

Some of those sound, at first blush, to be contradictory. But they really aren’t. At our best, when we are being contemplatives in action we can be, at one and the same time, active and alert (being Christ in the world) and at ease and at rest (secure in God’s presence in and with us). Busy with our hands, but peaceful in our hearts.

I say “at our best” because we don’t manage to unite those seemingly contradictory elements all the time…maybe not even most of the time. But it is a worthy goal.

Being A Mirror of God

“Contemplative” is a word that makes many people uncomfortable. “I’m not a contemplative,” many people have told me, adding something like “I can’t really sit still and be quiet.”

There is an important place in our lives for quiet prayer with God. But living a contemplative life means something far broader than taking that quiet time with God.

I received a mailing form the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living which had a piece titled, Contemplative Connections: Being a Mirror of God. The title comes from a line in Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude: “We find God in our own being which is the mirror of God.”

It is a beautiful image and one that helps us to understand more broadly what it means to be a contemplative. Merton’s quote continues: “We find God in our own being which is the mirror of God. But how do we find our being? Actions are the doors and windows of being.”

What Merton was expressing was what Ignatian spirituality would term “contemplative in action.” William Barry, S.J., explains:

This Ignatian notion [or contemplative in action] can be understood as analogous to the kind of friendship that develops over a long time between two people. They are aware of each other even when they are apart or not engaging directly with each other. Although they may not be talking, at some deep level they are in touch with each other. Ignatius’s contemplative in action has such a relationship with God. Engaging closely with God over time, we allow the Spirit to transform us into people who are more like the images of God we are created to be—that is, more like Jesus, who was clearly a contemplative in action.

Being contempetive means letting our thoughts words and deeds mirror God’s love and compassion. We won’t do so perfection – being human means we will fail miserably at times.

But I think the reason I love the image of a mirror of God so much is that I think if we consciously see ourselves that way, that itself will help us better actualize the reality. If I am conscious of myself as a mirror of God, perhaps I can be more aware of of what I am projecting by my thoughts, words and deeds.

A Spirituality for Real Life: Understanding Poverty, Chastity and Obedience

I just finished reading James Martin’s most recent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. Although the book makes for a wonderful introduction to Ignatian spirituality and to discerning what is of God vs. what is not from God, it is also a wonderful and thought-provoking read even for those who are familiar with the subject and/or who have done the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. For such readers, it is also a good “brush-up”; I found myself noticing things that I once loved that had fallen out of my prayer of late…not to mention realizing that my daily examen has become a bit too routine to be as helpful an exercise as it can be.

One of the things I found particularly beneficial in the book is Martin’s discussion of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and particularly, how those vows, which are taken by members of religious orders, can have meaning for those who are not members of a religious order. As Martin observes, the words sound threatening, but understood properly, they open the door to greater freedom.

Accepting a vow of poverty (voluntary poverty, as distinguished from the involuntarily poverty suffered by billions) is about a “sensible simplicity.” Martin is clear that he is “not suggesting that all people need to sell everything they own, beg for alms, let their hair and fingernails grow, and live in a cave, like Ignatius did after his conversion.” Rather, voluntary poverty is about not being controlled by our possessions: “the more you stop buying stuff you don’t need, and the more you get rid of items you don’t use, the more you can simplify your life. And the more you simplify, the freer you will feel, and be.”

Chastity, Martin reminds us is different from celibacy (which is also part of the vows of monastic life). Chastity is about love. Quoting Jesuit professor of moral theology Vincent J. Genovesi, Martin explains that “living as a chaste person means that our ‘external expressions’ of sexuality will be ‘under the control of love, with tenderness and full awareness of the other.'” This is a chastity the Church calls everyone to: a sexuality “guided by love and care for the other person.” (After discussing chastity and celibacy, Martin also has a really beautiful discussion about friendship.)

Obedience is a word people find even scarier than chastity. It sounds so unfreeing. However, as Martin explains, obedience is as much about freedom as poverty and chastity. Obedience in daily life lies in accepting what is presented ot us at the moment. For most people, Martin observes, obedience “is stepping onto the path of daily life and continuing on it.” It is accepting that what we face “is what God is inviting [us] to experience at this moment. It is the understanding that somehow God is with [us], at work and revealed in a new way in this experience.

Martin’s fuller discussions on these three vows are worthwhile reading in their entirety.