Hello regular readers of Pastor Chris’s blog!
Have you ever heard of St. Ignatius of Loyola?
Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish knight who lived in the 16th century. On May 20, 1521, he was wounded by a cannon ball while defending Pamplona from French invaders. During his recovery, Ignatius entertained himself by reading a biography on Christ and past saints. He became fascinated by the lives the first Christians led and experienced a spiritual awakening. Once recovered, Ignatius began imitating the saints; he lived as a beggar, fasted regularly, and spent seven hours a day in prayer! Later in life, Ignatius became an ordained Catholic minister and founded the Society of Jesus, known today as the Jesuits. His most famous work, and the one that inspired today’s post, was approved by the Pope for study in 1548. It is called The Spiritual Exercises.
First, jesuitresource.org says we must pause, breathe, and allow ourselves time to enter the presence of God. As I sat on my bed, crisscross apple sauce, I tried to empty my mind to focus on my quiet time. And while I thought about emptying my mind, I realized I was thirsty. And then I remembered I hadn’t had much water that day. And then I felt guilty for not watering the body God gave me. And then I felt guilty for entering the presence of God thinking about water when the Living Water was right there . . .
Frustrated, I decided to start over. Every time I drew air into my nostrils, I imagined my lungs swelling behind my ribs like balloons before gently emptying the air back through my nose. I counted fifteen breaths before I was finally calm and quiet. Step one: pause and breathe complete!
Step two is a bit more involved. Now that we have acknowledged we are in the presence of God Almighty, Creator of the Universe, it’s time to thank Him. Thibodeaux writes, “I allow my mind to wander as I reflect on the ways God has blessed me on this particular day.” It doesn’t matter how big or small the blessing is, recount it. As I moved through the week, I had fun remembering my day and picking out the smallest details. Some nights I would say, “God! Thank you for sending that scarlet Cardinal to perch on the tree at the end of the deck. He was beautiful!” On my birthday I said, “God, thank you for my parents! They had to work, but they still managed to make my day special with red roses and two cakes!” I relished in the diversity of His blessings, and even felt myself smiling as I told God the ways He’d delighted me that day.
Warmed up with thanksgiving, we turn to step three: invite the Holy Spirit to illuminate your mistakes and failures of the day. Ugh. Failure is my worst nightmare; it’s embarrassing, you disappoint yourself, and sometimes you even let other people in your life down. So, it’s better to just keep moving, letting mistakes glance off your back without a second thought. Right? Nope. St. Ignatius’s ancient method doesn’t allow for anything to be swept under the rug, shoved into the closet, or discretely hidden in a drawer. It is not in the Holy Spirit’s nature to hide, and we don’t want Him to! We need this daily inspection to keep us in tip top spiritual shape.
After humbly submitting to the Holy Spirit, we can move to step four. It’s time to review and recognize our mistakes for what they are. I remember feeling my smile stumble as I remembered the times I’d gotten angry when someone wasn’t driving the way I thought they should, or the times I’d allowed cynicism to erode my spirit while reading the news. As Christians, we are meant to be gentle, optimistic lights that point others to God. I can’t be a beacon for Heaven if I’m defeated by one news article or incensed by another motorist’s negligent use of their blinker! And, if I cannot recognize and admit these moments of weakness as failures, how will I be able to admit to worse sins? Even though these two steps in St. Ignatius’s Examen are arduous, they are crucial! Without them we become blind to our imperfections and our pride begins to whisper “Oh, but see, you’re doing well! What do you need the Spirit for?” And that, readers, is a dangerous thought.
But take heart! Step five is easy. Now that you’ve been searched and admitted your failures (good job), you can repent and ask our gracious Father for forgiveness. Thibodeaux makes it sound so simple. If you’ve made a mistake, tell Him and then ask for help moving on and the wisdom to better handle similar moments in the future. That’s the lovely thing about what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. Because He covered my sins as a sacrificial lamb, I can sit on my bed, crisscross apple sauce, and ask the God of the Universe for forgiveness . . . and He grants it! The debt is paid!
Now that we’ve thanked God for our daily blessings, been searched and admitted our failures, and been forgiven, we can turn to tomorrow. Step six says to imagine the next day and ask for help making future decisions. Do you have a long commute? Ask God to soothe your frustration before it can boil into anger. Do you find yourself extremely distressed while reading the news? Ask God to help you pray through each headline. If you know you have a big test or interview or presentation the next day, ask God for clarity and calm in the moment. Step six is not an excuse for us to dwell on the future. I can’t teleport to 2023 to find myself a job after grad school, so I leave that problem out of my nightly prayers. A time will come when I begin praying through that anxiety, but I since haven’t even stepped foot on campus as a grad student yet, I know that time is not now. The Examen calls us to pray for tomorrow’s small worries, so we can give them to God and get some much-needed rest.
At the end of the week, I feel my prayer life has been refreshed by this streamlined, introspective approach to prayer. I deviated from the method a bit and chose to perform St. Ignatius’s Examen as a journal prompt after two nights because, as I’ve learned, writing improves my focus. I enjoyed this prayer method because it included God in my day. Every morning, God makes sure we have something beautiful around us whether it’s an emerald green hummingbird hovering above my mom’s hot pink roses or short, encouraging text messages from friends. The Examen helped me remember to thank Him for taking time to fill my day with bursts of joy even as I faced the ugly truth of myself every night.
I’ve learned, over the course of this three-week experiment, that prayer is a process just as much as it is a conversation, but it never has to be perfect. God is the Father of Lights and the Lord of Armies, yes, but He is also the Wonderful Counselor and our Heavenly Father. Whether you journal or speak into silence, He just wants to communicate with you. What an honor! Ultimately, I feel encouraged in my journey, and I hope you feel the same.
Ryan, Edward A. “St. Ignatius of Loyola.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 January 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/St-Ignatius-of-Loyola. Accessed 27 June 2021.
“The Examen: A Daily Prayer.” Jesuitresource.org, Xavier University, n.d. https://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/jesuit-a-z/terms-e/daily-examen#:~:text=The%20Examen%20is%20simply%20a,the%20presence%20of%20the%20Holy.
Thibodeaux, Mark. “Try the Daily Examen.” Loyola Press, n.d. https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/ignatian-spirituality/examen-and-ignatian-prayer/how-can-i-pray-try-the-daily-examen/