I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to direct Ignatian retreats at the Jesuit retreat house in Guelph, Loyola House. I’ve learned a tonne about Ignatian retreats as well as about the complexity of the human experience. This includes the “characters” whom I’ve encountered. After I’ve given enough of these Ignatian retreats, I begin to see certain patterns in peoples’ lives. I’d like to share with you a significant pattern that I’ve been noticing in a large part of my retreatants: it is the challenge to live a balanced life.
Sure, it sounds easy when people throw that kind of talk around: live a balanced life; do this, do that, don’t forget the golden mean, and you’ll be all right! We know this lingo all too well; nevertheless, we don’t realize that our lives are in desperate need of balance.
When someone goes on a retreat, one of the first things that I ask her is about the common everyday things that should be taken care of: are you eating well? Do you do exercise regularly? Are you sleeping okay lately? How has been your workload these days? Have you been stressed out lots? Are you finding time for personal prayer and reflection? And so on. It is important to ask these questions early in a retreat because it will often tell you a lot about a person’s state as she comes on retreat. And quite often, if something isn’t going right, it is because something in their life is out of sync.
We keep thinking of ourselves as these spiritual beings that will still be okay if we don’t take care of our bodies. We think we’re invincible and nothing will really affect us if we’re very focused and committed to the spiritual life. Folks, we’re not Platonists! The soul does not exist on its own – it is very much in union with the body, and whatever happens to the body affects our interior state, for better and for worse.
For example, people who come to retreat tired and stressed out have a very hard time praying and keeping focus during prayer in the first few days. They have to switch gears upon coming to Loyola House – a couple of days of relaxation and rest are necessary to get some energy back for praying. After all, praying four times a day for an hour each is quite energy-consuming!
Having a balanced life may seem simple enough; but in reality, it takes a conscious effort to enter into the habit of keeping a balanced life. We complain that we don’t have energy to pray, to spend time with our children or spouse, yet we ignore the elephant in the room: our need to restore balance into our lives.
Much has already been written about the Examen prayer and its merits on this blog, but I would like to emphasize that the Examen prayer is an indispensable tool to recognize our imbalances and to commit ourselves to change. Imbalances tend to creep up on us in a subtle way, much like mundane addictions that we pick up here and there. They are in fact very connected. They are habit formers that have the power to knock us off track.
Imagine a boat sailing towards its destination. If its navigation is off by one or two degrees when it is still very far from its destination, it will slowly but unnoticeably drift away from its destination. This is also the case with our imbalances. We first surf the internet for thirty minutes; in a month’s time we realize that we spend almost an hour and a half on it. How did that happen? The Examen will help us pay attention to such things on a daily basis. What is pulling us away from a balanced life? How often do we reflect on the different aspects of our lives and whether they are indeed balanced?