Always We Begin Again

I’d like to report that my first week practicing the Prayer of Examen was flawless in execution, spiritually enlightening and emotionally fulfilling. I’d like to, but I can’t.

Being the impatient overachiever that I am, I imagined myself immediately getting into the groove of this daily spiritual inventory.  I figured it was a matter of putting myself the right place at the right time, following the proscribed progression of prayer, and voila!  A deep spiritual experience.  A refining fire. A revelation of seeing myself as God sees me.  The reality?  Sadly, none of those things.  At least not yet.  
The idea of the Examen is to invite God to review your day with you to see where you have experienced God’s presence, absence, joy or sorrow.  Ideally, this is done at day’s end, which has proved to be a challenge.  It’s gone something like this:  at the end of the day, I try to quiet my mind. I close my eyes to avoid distractions. I breathe deeply and slowly, conscious of each inhale and exhale.

I invite God to help me see the day through His eyes.  Breathe in, breathe out.  

I give thanks for the day’s blessings. Breathe in, breathe out.

I begin to review the day.  Breathe in, breathe out.  

And as the movie of the day plays in my mind . . . I fall asleep.

Although I love the idea of falling asleep in the company of the Holy Spirit, I feel I am failing at my assignment.  So, although it’s not ideal, I might try shifting my review of the day to the next morning.  I also need to be more patient and humble, acknowledging that, like all prayer, I must abandon myself to the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit. Although there is a structure to the Examen, it is not a mechanical exercise.  As Richard Foster says in his classic Celebration of Discipline, “By themselves the spiritual disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us the place where something can be done.”  

In the meantime, I came across this beautiful description of what I hope my Prayer of Examen will be. As I begin again, these will be my words of inspiration:

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.

 

My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector; these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.

 

My God and I are horsemen galloping in the burning sun or under drizzling rain. Pale, starving, but unsubdued, we ride and converse.

 

“Leader!” I cry. He turns his face towards me and I shudder to confront his anguish.

 

Our love for each other is rough and ready, we sit at the same table, we drink the same wine in this low tavern of life.“

          from The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises

                                               by Nikos Kazantzakis

 

 

 

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True Love is a Folded Newspaper

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If you dare to open a newspaper, watch TV or venture into a store in the frenzied run up to Valentine’s Day, you’ve probably run the gift gauntlet between the sublime (anything with diamonds) to the ridiculous (silly silk boxer shorts printed with large red hearts). Perhaps you’ve had the overwhelming feeling of shame that comes from believing that if you don’t get or give the perfect gift, or arrange The Bachelor’s idea of a romantic dinner, you have failed at this love thing.

To hear the world tell it, Valentine’s Day is the Ultimate Love Litmus Test,

whether you’re in the early stages of love or have been together so long your wedding video is on VHS. The size, cost, or intimacy of the gift is supposed to tell you something about the relationship. Did he give you jewelry? He’s a keeper. A toaster? Generally, not a good sign, although I once got a cordless drill for my birthday and I was thrilled. Every gift, every card, every part of The Valentine’s Day Experience is scrutinized for clues and hidden meaning about the relationship. That’s a lot of pressure on something so delicate as love.

Valentine’s Day can be particularly tricky if you’re married to someone who chafes at being told to be romantic on command by Hallmark and 1-800-Flowers. My husband is, by nature, a generous and caring person; he just doesn’t like having that generosity and care dictated and scheduled by someone else. When the whole world has gone Valentine-mad, it can be easy to forget the flowers he brings me for no reason or the fact that the cat that he wasn’t thrilled about adopting is nevertheless sitting in my lap. No one ever asks me about those things. Instead, people want to know, “What did he get you for Valentine’s Day?” What I want to say is, “Let me tell you about the time he handed me a folded newspaper.”

Like most couples, we have different ideas about how things should be done. For instance, how to read the newspaper. We get three papers a day, and I read them in the same order every day. First the local paper. Then the New York Times. Then the Wall Street Journal over lunch. With each paper, I begin with Page 1 and read in the order in which the editors put it together. Being a writer, and a respecter of authority, I figure that a professional put the paper together in this particular way for a reason, and that’s good enough for me. In other words, I read the paper the right way.

Now — how shall I say this delicately? — my husband is a newspaper anarchist. He’ll read sections out of order. Within sections, he’ll pull pages out of sync. He’ll even mix and match from one paper to another. You can imagine what I think of this.

Then one day, this happened: We were riding on a crowded train together and found seats far apart from each other. I took one paper, he another to read on the ride into the city. When we got off the train, we exchanged papers. The paper he handed me was in pristine condition: perfectly folded, sections in order, not a page out of place. There was only one explanation.

“Why didn’t you read your paper?” I asked.
“Oh, I read it.”
“But it’s in perfect order!”
“I knew you were going to read it next and I know how you like it.”

I just about cried, right there on Track 24 of Grand Central Station. He folded the paper for me, even though my rigidity is as annoying to him as his anarchism is to me. It was a trivial thing — a tender, loving, selfless, trivial thing. That day, hundreds of commuters brushed past us on that platform, not knowing that the Ultimate Love Litmus Test was unfolding right before them.

I will spend this Valentine’s Day with a man who folds the paper for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I like getting jewelry. I love roses (just not red). I even like flowery cards and candlelit dinners. And I did love that cordless drill. He gives me all these things, maybe not on proscribed days, but according to his own Romance Calendar. But as much as I love those things, I don’t want my head to be turned by them. I want to hold fast to the words of St. Paul, who couldn’t have had newspapers in mind when he wrote this, but who nevertheless lays down the challenge of loving God’s way:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This kind of love is more costly than anything Tiffany’s has to offer. It can be elusive and sometimes downright impossible. It asks us to think less of ourselves and more of the other, and not just when we’re feeling all lovey and besotted with them. Especially when we’re not feeling lovey and besotted with them. When, by the grace of God, we manage to be patient and kind, when we do not insist on our own way (even though we’re clearly right!), when we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things— well, then we get a glimpse of True Love. Not Hallmark love. Not Hollywood Rom-Com love. Not even Top 40 Romantic Ballad love.

True. Love.

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A Road Paved with Questions

 

“You sure do ask a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey.”

Saturday Night Live fans of a certain age will recognize Rosanne Rosannadanna’s response to all those letters from Mr. Richard Feder of Ft. Lee, New Jersey. Like the fictional Mr. Feder; I sure do ask a lot of questions.

It’s like part of my brain is still two years old, constantly asking Why? Why not? Where? When? Who? How? What if…

When I was in the corporate world, this held me in good stead. A client once told me, “At the beginning of a project, I always know that sooner or later I’ll get The Phone Call From Laura. You know, the one where you ask lots of questions, usually questions that no one had thought of. Or worse, questions that exposed the weakness in the product design, marketing strategy or communications plan.” My litany of questions helped me craft the right message for the audience, and sometimes helped my clients rethink their products and strategies. 

On the homefront, my husband will tell you that any story he tells will spawn a series of questions: “Did she say why?” “Did you ask if she needed …?” “What did he say” “What did you eat” “What was she wearing?” “Do they need us to call/go/do/something?”  Every one of his sentences seems to give birth to three of my questions.  Did I mention the man is a saint?

I ask God lots of questions, too. There are the Big Questions that are cosmically important, the ones every one asks: “Why is there evil and suffering”. “How do I forgive?” “What is your purpose for my life?” Then there are less weighty ones, really born more of curiosity than theological moment, like what was Jesus like as a child, do dogs go to heaven and will I have this body in the resurrection or dare I hope for a better one?

Here’s the weird thing. For someone so inquisitive, I’m oddly uncurious about myself. Days come and go and I do what I do, say what I say, feel what I feel, and don’t really stop and ask any of the questions I’d so readily pepper someone else with: “Why did you do that? How did you feel when that happened? Could you have done that better/different/not at all?” I don’t examine my day to see where God was, where God wasn’t, where I stumbled, where I soared. Of course, sometimes, God’s presence or absence is very obvious, in a burning bush sort of way. When I witness a miraculous healing, there’s no need to look very hard for God; there He is, plain as day.  When I see cruelty or violence, I don’t need to do an exhaustive search to know that God isn’t in it.  

But often, God’s presence is hiding where I don’t think to look.

Often my motivations are a mystery to me and my actions are a disappointment.  I often find myself baffled by the disconnect between my intentions and my actions.  But at least I’m in good company — St. Paul tells us he had the same frustrations: 

“For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
                                                           Romans 7:19

And so, this Lent, I’ve decided to turn the questions on myself, using an ancient spiritual discipline called the Prayer of Examen.  In his delightful book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin says, “God is always inviting us to encounter the transcendent in the every day.  The key is noticing.”  

And the key to noticing is to take stock, performing a daily, prayerful spiritual inventory. The Examen begins with gratitude for what the day has brought.  It continues by asking the Holy Spirit to come and shine a light on the day past.  We ask the Spirit to show us where we have honored God and where we have failed Him. We ask for forgiveness where it is needed.  The point is to help us see ourselves as God sees us, rejoicing where He rejoices, to feel grief over where we have grieved Him, and to accept his grace and forgiveness.  

I know that doing this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is crucial, particularly when it comes to acknowledging where I have fallen short.  Often, I think I know perfectly well what I need to repent.

But there’s a weird Catch-22 of the spiritual life: my consciousness of sin is clouded by my sinful nature.

 How do I repent what I’m not even aware of?   I need the power of the Holy Spirit to help me see clearly what needs to be confessed and forgiven. I need the power of the Holy Spirit to reassure me that God knows that I am better than my worst moments, more than my sins.  God doesn’t want my confession to gather evidence for my prosecution; he wants it to exonerate me, to make me whole. I can feel safe making this searching and fearless inventory because I know God rejoices over every prodigal who wants to come home.

If you’d like to join me on this road paved with questions, here is one version of the Examen: 

The Examen Prayer Card

(For a wealth of resources on the Prayer of Examen and Ignatian spirituality, I recommend visiting Ignatian Spirituality.)

 

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