Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The daily prayer that can change your life - the Daily Examen, the Spiriitual Exercises of St.Ignatius of Loyola

How an ancient spiritual practice called the Daily Examen can transform your busy days

My days seem to fly by in a blur of commuting, work meetings, laundry, frozen meals, freelance projects, emails, visits to the grocery store, and trying to get a wired kindergartener to go to bed. Some days I don’t have a moment to think.

I try to carve out time to read and write in the mornings—but often I waste this extra hour by scouring Facebook. Then I kick myself and vow to do better the next day. I know I’m not alone. Many of us are living on autopilot, going from one urgent task to the next, not really allowing ourselves the time or space for contemplation, or whittling away our extra time on unimportant things.
The poet Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Sometimes, I think, Is this it? Am I going to be 80 and realize that my life has just been a blur of activity?

Learning from the saints

I never paid much attention to the lives of the saints until I became Catholic five years ago. Now, during Mass at Old Saint Patrick’s, a 170-year-old parish in Chicago’s West Loop, I look up at statues of the saints that line the walls. The way Catholics seemed to focus on the saints bothered me at first. Shouldn’t we be focusing on Jesus instead? an old Protestant-fundamentalist voice said in my head.
But the more I learned about the saints, the more I saw the value in trying to emulate them. When I was confirmed in the Catholic church, I chose Saint Clare as my patron saint because she gave up all of her wealth to follow Christ. At the time, my husband and I were struggling financially, and I learned from her that financial wealth (or striving for wealth), can often get in the way of our true calling.
Saint Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish priest, theologian and founder of the Jesuits, is another saint whose example has influenced my life. He wrote the Spiritual Exercises, which are a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises considered among the most important works of spiritual literature. They remain an important part of the novitiate training of the Jesuits—who are required to spend 30 days of silence and solitude and up to five hours a day in prayer to help them discern Jesus in their lives.
Imagine praying for five hours a day for 30 days! Thankfully, the Spiritual Exercises have been adapted so people like me can do them. In the past few decades, lay people—Catholic and non-Catholic—have started to practice The Spiritual Exercises by participating in a “retreat in daily life.” Instead of praying for five hours a day over the course of a month, the Exercises are stretched over about nine months. Participants meet with a spiritual director, pray for an hour a day, and often meet with others on the same journey.

Finding God in the details

It’s still a big commitment. The year before I converted to Catholicism, my church announced it was hosting a retreat, and I signed up. As a group, we met on Tuesday nights to discuss the weekly readings, we each had weekly sessions with a spiritual director, and “homework” consisting of readings, prayers and meditation.
At the time, my husband was in school and my career was in flux and we were struggling. We were also trying to adopt a child. I couldn’t see God in any of it. Where was he? I started calling him “Ghost God.”
It was the middle of a frigid and hard Chicago winter—one where you don’t see the sun for weeks on end—and I was commuting downtown to a freelance job. But every night I would pray the Daily Examen, which is an integral part of the Spiritual Exercises. The simple process consists of five steps:

  • Become aware of God’s presence by looking back on the events of the day. Ask God to give you clarity and understanding.
  • Review your day with gratitude by focusing on the day’s gifts. Notice the small things—God is in the details.
  • Pay attention to your emotions. St. Ignatius believed that we detect the presence of God in the movements of our emotions. By reflecting on our feelings we can become more aware of ways God is leading us.
  • Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that God thinks is particularly important.
  • Look toward tomorrow. Ask God to give you light for tomorrow’s challenges. Seek God’s guidance. Ask him for help and understanding. Pray for hope.
This simple daily exercise helped me to see my life more clearly, and helped me to live more intentionally. I started noticing God everywhere—in a conversation I had with a friend, and the bright red cardinal perched on a branch on a cold winter day.
While I tended to focus on, and lament, the big dreams I felt were dying, Saint Ignatius taught me that when we’re focused on the “big” things, we often overlook the little ways God is working in our lives. And once you start seeing the small movements of the Spirit in your life, it can add up to something much greater. For instance, noticing the frustration you have in your job—and praying about what that means—may lead you to a whole new career. Or paying attention to that conversation with your friend over coffee may lead to a greater understanding about your purpose in life.
Spending a few minutes examining your day is a great way to help you stay awake to your life, and not let it slip by without paying attention to those meaningful “God moments.” After all, as Socrates once said so famously: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

How to get started
These days, there are many different versions of the Daily Examen. It’s flexible and adaptable. You can pray the Daily Examen at work over your lunch hour, there’s an app you can download on your phone, and you can even pray the Daily Examen with your kids.
Read more about the Daily Examen and learn how to participate in this every day life retreat.

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