Last week, during one of the many Martin small groups currently meeting weekly online, someone confessed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep a good attitude, a clear mind, a peaceful soul with the beginning of the 5
month of Stay Apart, Together on the horizon and no visible end in sight. Others chimed in, murmuring their understanding and acknowledging their own struggles. The truth of it is that more of us are struggling with this ongoing disruption and the waves of worry, empathy and grief it produces than aren’t. The mountain ahead feels like one great big obstacle, moving it beyond possibility.
Google “dealing with stress during the pandemic” and you get and endless repeat of same suggestions: exercise regularly, eat healthy, drink water, sleep well, and keep your stress hormones under control. Or so I’ve been told. (wink wink)
As I alluded to Sunday, I’ve struggled with all of those things recently. I’d not been exercising enough; my eating had been less than stellar and my caffeine intake too high. I wasn’t sleeping well and my stress hormones, well…let’s just stop there. Doing any of the things on the "should do" lists required motivation and discipline that I found waning with each passing week of confinement. Nothing I resolved to do made it any better; nothing made the mountain move. But then I re-membered something I had relied on during another intensely stressful time in my life: one of the central practices in Jesuit devotion — the one that Ignatius of Loyola considered indispensable —the prayer of Examen. St. Ignatius believed that the key to spiritual growth and staying in union with the movement of God was to cultivate an awareness of when and where God had been present in the course of the day. In fact, he believed it was such an important practice that he urged his followers to do the Examen, even if they had to use the precious time they might have reserved for other forms of prayer.
Fr. Dennis Hamm called the Examen “rummaging for God” because, he said, “it is an expression that suggests going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be in there somewhere.” Rummaging is an activity we have all experienced as we've rifled through drawers, gotten lost in an old photo album or looked for something we knew we had but just couldn't quite remember where.
The Examen is a practice that reorients us and helps us remember that the purpose of spiritual practice is to cultivate a sense of God’s presence. Spiritual practice doesn’t require that we read another devotional book, nor does it care how many hours we’ve spent in religious activity or the work of the church. It isn’t an anxious, endless effort to earn the love of God. The spiritual life is about cultivating a habitual awareness of God’s presence that shapes and informs the lives we live, even (especially) in the midst of chaos. Without that, there can't be enough water consumed or miles walked to make us feel more grounded, centered, whole.
St. Ignatius recommended asking yourself two questions every day. I've paraphrased them for our modern ears:
- What were the events in your life today – the conversations, the activities, the choices, the activity of your heart and mind– that drew you closer to God and to others?
- What were the events in your life today – the conversations, the activities, the choices, the activity of your heart and mind – that drove you away from God and others?
The answers to those simple questions help us evaluate our lives from a spiritual center. The answers aren't about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good. There are some things like the Blue Bell ice cream I’d become far too dependent on for a quick “high”, that feel good at first, but invariably isolate us from God and others; and, by contrast, some things that don’t feel good, like asking for forgiveness that can actually draw us closer to God and to those around us. These questions raise our awareness of the ways in which patterns, habits, and choices shape our lives and how, armed with that knowledge, we can learn to be more readily available to both God and others. By extension, we become more readily available to be better stewards of ourselves.
Rummaging around in our lives for God can be the source of inspiration, encouragement, strength, gratitude, and renewed purpose. I've been rummaging with Ignatius' two questions for a couple of weeks now and I can feel it making a difference. Would you join me?
With much love,
aka "The Vicar"