In the novel The Second Coming, Walker Percy follows the story of Will Barrett, a man who was too busy to live in the present moment and simply “missed” his life. In light of this, Percy asks: Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way one misses a plane? In his words,
“Not once in his (Barrett's) entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream.”
To me, Barrett's reflection on his life emerges as an invitation to live in the present moment and to pay attention to the ways God dwells and labours in us. At the very core of Ignatian spirituality is the belief that God is found in all things. This belief denotes that a major part of our human vocation is to find God in all things. According to St. Ignatius of Loyola, God communicates directly with each of us in our minds and hearts. God communicates through what Ignatius called “movements of the heart” or “motions of the soul”; namely, our thoughts, feelings and desires.
With this in mind, Ignatius invited us to pay attention to our interior movements. He called us to prayerfully pay attention to the way in which the Spirit is moving in our lives. We are invited to discern how the God is empowering us and inspiring us to build the Kingdom, to recognize the ways we are drawn into a deeper relationship with God and with others, and also to notice how we are being drawn away from our mission to build God's kingdom or how we increase or decrease in faith, hope and love. Ignatius knew that we lead busy lives, as he himself did in the latter part of his own life when he served as the General Superior of the Society of Jesus; that is, the Jesuits. He knew we need to make time to pay attention and to discern the motions of our souls. For Ignatius, the examination of consciousness (or the Examen) was the best tool to do this. In fact, he once told Jesuits that if they could not pray in any other way due to a lack of time, they should at least pray the Examen.
The Examen is a meditative reflection on your day. It is an opportunity to recognize the graces and blessings and to learn from the challenges and burdens. There are many versions of it because it has been adapted by many people throughout the years, but basically it begins with gratitude and ends in a conversation with Jesus. For Ignatius, gratitude is the first and most important step in the spiritual journey, and intimacy with Jesus is the goal of that journey.
This the basic format of the Examen:
Gratitude: Recall the blessings of the day and thank God.
Review: Notice where you felt God's presence and where you resisted opportunities to grow in love.
Sorrow: Bring to mind anything for which you are sorry.
Forgiveness: Ask for God's forgiveness and/or healing if needed.
Dialogue: Talk to God about what you need for the next day or for your life in general.
Through the Examen, we are called to pay attention and to be renewed in our life of faith. By learning to step back and to pay attention, Will Barrett found peace in terms of his struggle with faith. Ignatius realized finding God in all things is a major part of our human vocation. This Lenten season, let us not miss the plane. Let us follow their example and take the time to realize the many ways God is working in our lives. May this realization fill us with gratitude and in turn inspire us to be generous and available to help building God's Kingdom.