Monday, 23 January 2012

The Examen

Hello, Father God.

The other day I went on another Quiet Day. I think it might be addictive. The first time I was a bit apprehensive for reasons I couldn't quite explain (there are those who thought it was simply because I doubted my ability to shut up for a whole day but that wasn't it) but this time I have been really looking forward to it. 

I must admit that after last time, I had a sense of expectation. Last time you touched me and you taught me some things that were really significant for me and I was hoping that you'd do it again. I have spoken to wise friends about Quiet Days and retreats and the like and received very sensible advice that it doesn't matter if the only thing I 'get out of it' is a bit of peace and quiet, or even a nap, so it's a good idea not to go with any ideas of what I want. 

That's hard. I want to hear you. I want to learn to listen. I want to experience you. To feel you. All that touchy-feely stuff where I go away feeling amazed and blessed and awed. Who wouldn't like that? Maybe I'm still just a baby at heart and I want to cuddle close to my Daddy. 

So there I was with hopes and expectations. You didn't disappoint me. No, you weren't there in a vision or a glowing neon finger pointing to a signpost in my life and you didn't speak to me in a booming voice, or a still, small one, for that matter, but still you did speak. 

It didn't start out so well. I forgot my journal and I'd been planning to bring it up to date and do a bit of writing. I meant to bring another bit of writing to work on as well, and I forgot that too. As I sat in the little service at the start of the day I was a bit narked with myself because it wouldn't all be 'perfect' as I'd planned little activities and I was annoyed by my own lack of preparation in waiting to pack my bag till my lift had arrived. As you know, I don't handle this sort of loss of perfection, self criticism and thwarting of plans particularly well. It was like a dark cloud in my head for the first bit of the day even though I knew that I was being ridiculous. 

Then I started to wonder if it wasn't a good thing. I had come here be quiet. To think, to pray and simply to be. I'd planned to fill the day with activities and maybe this was my way of staying safe and keeping control. So what would I do with the day now?  Or rather, what would you do with it?

So I sat for a while. I wasn't moved to tears like last time, and I gazed at the oak tree that spoke to me last time and although it is still a beautiful oak tree, it didn't say anything else today. I gave the day to you. 

Over lunch I picked up a book to distract me from other people's crunching. (Why do they supply us with crisps on a Quiet Day? Or is it only me that notices? I can't eat crisps in a quiet room despite my love of them, sadly. Far too self conscious.)  Anyway, there I was with my parma ham, cheddar and rocket sandwich and slice of cherry genoa cake and I picked up a book called, 'Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life' by Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn. 

I read the whole book. That is not an enormous feat as the book is short and there are big pictures and I had a couple of hours. It was easy to read and fascinated me from the outset. The title relates to the plight of some children orphaned in the bombing raids of the second world war who were eventually found and placed in refugee camps where they were so traumatised that they couldn't sleep at night lest they wake in the morning to find themselves lost and hungry again. Someone came up with the idea of giving them a piece of bread to hold as they went to sleep and it worked. The bread reminded them 'Today I ate, and I will eat again tomorrow.'

The authors wrote this book to explain something called 'The Examen' which is a prayerful reflection at the end of each day. What today gave me life, and what took life from me?  

Apparently St Ignatius, in his 'Spiritual Exercises' said that he expected you to speak through our deepest feelings and yearnings - what he called our 'consolations' and 'desolations'. Our 'consolations' are the parts of the day when we feel most 'connected' to the universe, and 'desolations' where we feel most disconnected. 
'Church tradition, religious authorities and the Bible are sources of divine revelation. Our life experience, as expressed through our consolations and desolations is also a source of divine revelation. The examen can help us to be open to all these sources of truth, since the examen helps us to listen to all that life is saying to us. For this reason Ignatius encouraged his Jesuit theologians at the Council of Trent to do the examen each day as a way of listening to God's truth.'
D, S, M Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, 1995. 56/7

I like this idea of truth. For a while now I've been keen to find my path in life from here onwards by learning how to discern your voice; whether in the world around me, or through other people, things I read, sermons, advice of other people; and now I learn that you can use the day to day things of my own life and the experiences I have to help me find my way.

There are several different ways of phrasing the same question and the idea is that you choose the one that speaks to you:

For what moment today am I most/least grateful?

When did I give/receive the most/least love today?

When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me?

When today did I had the greatest/least sense of belonging to myself, to others, God and the universe? 

When was I happiest/saddest?

What was the high/low point of my day?

What do you think? I must admit, this appeals to the analytical side of me. The bit of me that goes over and over things and tries to extract meaning and significance from things. So that in itself I thought I might find therapeutic. It appealed to me as a way to calm, to find peace and stop dwelling on things. To help me learn to meditate and live reflectively. Also to help me focus on positives more as I tend to see the bad things in a day more than the good. 

Some time ago I started writing down Good Things in my life in a book that I have come to know as my Happy Book - it has snippets of things that made me smile at the time - things the children said, good times, answered prayers, ideas, insights, moments that I want to remember - but I only write in it now and again when it occurs to me. The idea of a routine (another one of my buttons!) appealed. Also the idea of making it a discipline to write down the best bit of the day. To insist on locating the positive and remembering it. To make a daily practice of discerning what I am most grateful for.

The other side of things I was less sure about, but it intrigued me. Should I dwell on the negative? It seems that rather than dwell on it, over time noting the life-giving and the life-sapping components of a day will reveal a pattern, the authors said. 

I like the idea that by allowing you to show me my responses to the bits of my life, you will, over time, give me an insight into the way that I'm made, which will give me guidance of what you want for my life. 

'The Will of God is that we give and receive more love and life,' say the authors. They argue that life itself is divine revelation if only we give you a chance to reveal yourself. If I were to note over an extended period the things that lift me up in a day and the things that weigh me down, I might come to see a pattern of what you have given me a desire for, what my life is about; and what I should do less of. What I am not meant for. Where my heart really is.

I'm not really sure about all aspects of this; I still don't really know where obligation and routine and unselfishness come into this new awareness, or for that matter where the demands of daily life as a wife and mother and daughter and friend and so on tie in... but I am learning that if I wait until I understand it all, nothing will ever be started or tried. So, push on. 

It's about awareness. I want to be aware. I have been saying for a while that I want to notice. To mark. To observe and preserve, be aware. I don't want to miss a single thing that you say to me. I want to find all the clues; to act on all the cues. I want to learn to hear your voice in whatever form it might take and to see you in whichever way you want to reveal yourself. I think I'm going to have a go at The Examen.

So, I find myself thinking, what do I need to get started? The people who wrote this book say that you should do the examen with someone else so that you can reflect and share. There's only me. Never mind, I can write it down. Do I need a new notebook? A dedicated pen?  What about their suggestion that I use a candle to help me focus on you as I ask you to bring to mind my consolations and desolations? I haven't got a candle, or a candle-holder for that matter. Do I need to go shopping? Can I do this in bed at night or do I need to find a special place? If I'm in bed the examen might well go the way of my prayer time - starting out in a comfy position and never actually reaching 'Amen'.


There I go over-complicating things again. Making excuses to put something off because 'I'm not ready'. 

Here I go:

Today I felt most grateful when I got back from an errand and my daughter rushed from the sitting room into the hall when she heard the front door close behind me and threw herself at me with the cry, 'Mummy! I'm so glad you're home!' As I hugged her on my knees on the door mat I closed my eyes tight and thanked you for the moment. God, it was beautiful. I had both my arms wrapped around her little body and she had hers wrapped around me. It was wonderful. It was special. I don't ever want to forget that feeling.

Today I felt life sucked from me when her teacher told me conversationally that the same child is quiet and withdrawn in the classroom, never contributing spontaneously, never volunteering anything. This is so unlike the little girl I have at home. I worry about what's going on in her head. Why is she so quiet at school? Why does she not feel settled? Why do we still have tears sometimes? This made me feel concerned and anxious. I was uncertain of how to respond to the teacher and all churned up in my tummy. This feeling lasted quite a while and I can still feel it if I think about it now.

So. Is that right? Did I do it right? 

I'm not sure if you can make anything of these things or even if I'm getting it right, Lord. It doesn't seem as if this sort of thing could reveal a pattern in my life, just that I love my girls and I worry about them. Still, I've made a start. Notebook or no notebook, candle or lamp. 

Thankyou for bits of insight. 
Thankyou for wise people who write books and for opportunities like this Quiet Day to sit, undisturbed, and concentrate on you. 
Thankyou that when I look for you, you let yourself be found. 

Thanks for Ignatius, for my children and for my comfy bed. 

I'm off there now. Would it be wrong to say that climbing into bed is the most life-giving bit of my day, and getting up in the morning the least life-giving? 

Or maybe that's not what Ignatius had in mind.


  1. Thank you for explaining this and including the questions to consider at the end of the day. I think I might give this a whirl...certainly seems worth a try! How are you getting on with it?

  2. Well, I don't think I've got the hang of it yet. I think NOT getting into bed before I start might be key to staying awake for the whole thing so I might try that. :-)


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