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Examining our Lives (January 18, 2019)

The last few weeks, I’ve written some columns about a life worth living. I’ve quoted Jean Vanier, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and Michael Josephson. All had some valuable insights into what makes a life valuable. It reminds me of a wonderful quote by Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

There is at least one more element which deserves some reflection. In order to live a life worth living, we will need to take time to reflect on our lives. While the three people I mentioned above give helpful insights, they do not offer cookie–cutter approaches to how we can do it. Each of us is responsible for reflecting on our own lives, setting our own priorities, and determining what would be most important for us in how we live and how we can make positive contributions to all the different communities of which we are a part.

How might we go about examining our lives? How might we find ways to reflect on our lives so that we can move forward in a more intentional way?

Let me suggest a tool which has been helpful for me. It arises from the Spiritual Exercises developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. If you’re not a spiritual person, please read on anyway, because I’m convinced that this process can be used in any number of different ways.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish priest and theologian who lived from 1491–1556. He is best known as the founder of the religious order called the Society of Jesus, commonly called the Jesuits. This order was a missionary order, and is well–known for establishing colleges and universities such as Gonzaga University in Spokane.

Jesuit spirituality is a very concrete form of spirituality, which is grounded in the conviction that God is active in our world. As the great Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — and my heart and my thoughts.” The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a way of discerning God’s presence in our everyday lives, and doing something about it.

One of the most popular Ignatian exercises is called the “Daily Examen”. It’s a spiritual review of ourselves which involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way.

In this way, the Examen is concrete. It focuses our minds on the day just past and the feelings which were stirred within us at those specific moments.

To put this in less overtly religious language, this kind of spirituality allows us to examine our lives so as to discern ways in which our lives will be of benefit to others. We review each day, remembering moments of gratitude, moments in which we acted according to our highest and best instincts, as well as moments in which we failed to do so. This kind of daily review is a helpful way of discovering the patterns of our lives with gratitude, and also provides us with opportunities to correct what needs to be corrected. We examine our lives so that we might live with greater intentionality.

St. Ignatius recommended a five–step process to help us meditate on our lives at the end of each day. (I’ll use less religious language in brackets in each step.)

  1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you. Be aware of the Light in whose presence we live. (Become aware that we live in a vast universe in which we do not live for ourselves alone, a universe which we share with other people, other creatures, and forces which we cannot see or understand.)
  2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life. Seek to discern the movement of God’s Spirit in our actions and words. (Become aware that our actions and words are determined by our upbringing, our culture, our origins, and that they have an effect on other people and indeed all of nature.)
  3. Review your day. Recall specific moments and your feelings at the time. (Review your day. Recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.)
  4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away? (Reflect on what you did, said, or thought. Were you becoming more clearly the person you wish you could be, or were you regressing?)
  5. Look toward tomorrow. How might you collaborate more effectively with God’s gospel purposes in life? Be specific and conclude with prayer. (Look toward tomorrow. How might you continue to be a force for good in your world? Be specific, and conclude with silent reflection.)

This form of the Examen places a special emphasis on gratitude and feelings. The heart of the practice is step three — review your day. James Martin in “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” suggests that we think of it as a movie playing in your head. “Push the play button and run through your day, from rising in the morning to preparing to go to bed at night. Notice what made you happy, what stressed you out, what confused you, what helped you to be more loving. Each moment offers a window to where God has been in your day.”

This kind of self–examination has gotten a bad rap in the last while. People have become too focused on self–criticism. But if we focus on gratitude and growth in our lives, it becomes a very helpful tool.

And in that, for me at least, God is present.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt