My grandparents might have been uncomfortable knowing that I share a spiritual practice with the pope. They grew up in an Ontario where Protestant and Catholic divisions were still sharp, and good Methodists regarded Catholic rituals with suspicion. It’s unlikely they would have approved of their granddaughter following a practice first introduced almost 500 years ago by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.
Times change, sometimes for the better. It was a United Church minister, Rev. John Buttars, who introduced me to the Ignatian “examen” some years ago. This elegant form of prayer is a regular practice of noticing how God speaks through our experiences: times when we feel grateful, loved and loving, alive and connected to what is holy; and times when we feel ungrateful, unloved and unloving, drained and disconnected from what is holy.
Jesuits, including Pope Francis, practise the examen twice a day. Individual practices may vary. The examen invites us to dedicate time at the end of a day, week or year to become aware of our experiences — both good and bad — and what they reveal about our lives.
Over the past several months, for example, my family life has included the birth of a new granddaughter, the death of my elderly father-in-law, and the joyful challenges of accompanying family members through their older years.
My practice of the examen helped me realize that I was grateful for times when my work schedule allowed me to be with them, and not so grateful when a too-packed schedule jeopardized family time. Through the examen, I felt a deeper sense of God’s intentions. This led me to more carefully weigh my work invitations, sometimes declining good work for the sake of preserving more openness.
It’s not easy to do this. In my years of self-employment, I’ve learned you never say no to paying work. But thanks to the fruits of this spiritual practice, I now do so with less hesitation.
I have a clearer sense of my gifts and limitations. I feel greater energy and a deeper sense of wholeness, for myself and those I love.
Ignatius of Loyola reported even more dramatically on the fruits of the examen: it helped convert him from warrior to saint. While recovering from a battle injury with only two books available to him, one about the life of Christ and the other about lives of the saints, he found himself reflecting on how dissatisfied he was with the pleasures of the world, and how cheerful he was when reading about the saints. Through this reflection, which he later named the examen (literally “weighing”), he heard the voice of God.
If you’d like something more contemporary than a 16th-century life of Christ to help you learn more about the examen, I would recommend the same accessible and enlivening book that Buttars recommended to me: Sleeping With Bread by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn. The title comes from a story of the Second World War. Refugee camps were full of orphaned children who found it difficult to sleep for fear they would awaken hungry and alone. Then someone had the idea of giving them a piece of bread at bedtime. “Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate, and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
Many people have found that the examen can offer this same kind of peace. Perhaps you might be among them?
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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