Chapter 21 — Dryness, Darkness, or Depression?

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

–Psalm 42:11 (ESV)

Few spiritual concepts are more misunderstood and misapplied than St. John of the Cross’s Noche Oscura (Dark Night).  I have seen people talk about going through a “dark night” after the death of a loved one (that’s called grief) or during an episode of mental illness or just because they’re feeling blue.  Discernment means learning to distinguish between the spiritual and the physical/psychological.  The cure must fit the disease and there is danger in both directions.  Telling someone with depression that they are sinning is monstrous, but insisting that diet and exercise can cure spiritual malaise is also damaging.  We will all face times of trial and we must develop the gift of discernment in order to properly attack the enemy we are facing and defeat it.

The most minor ailment that Haase covers is dryness.  We all go through times when our prayers become rote and the whole exercise seems pointless.  We don’t feel sad or disturbed so much as bored and frustrated.  This is the easiest problem to cure because you don’t have to change anything.  Steadfastness will see you through.  Liturgy is your best friend here as it gives you words to say when you have none of your own.  God is probably teaching you not to rely on your emotions to be faithful.  Continuing to pray, read your Bible, and avail yourself of the Sacraments will pay dividends.  Don’t try to avoid the dryness — use it to learn about yourself and God.  This ailment is temporary, and the consolations on the other side are worth the struggle.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has good advice:  “we can’t go over it; we can’t go under it; oh no, we have to go through it”.

Darkness, on the other hand, requires more careful navigation.  Darkness involves feeling God’s absence in a deep, gut-level way.  Importantly, the dark night occurs without an outward cause.  Experiencing high levels of stress or grief or trauma, or living in a state of sin, can lead to God feeling distant, but that makes sense.  If you address the source of your suffering, the feeling of God’s presence usually comes back.  In the dark night, everything external seems the same, but internally there is a void where God should be.  John of the Cross divides the dark night into two categories: the senses and the spirit.  Let’s dispense with that second one.  It seems that God subjects only his great saints to such darkness (most famously Mother Teresa).  If you are dealing with that kind of darkness, you need someone other than me to give you advice.  So let’s tackle the dark night of the senses.  In this, whatever image we have had of God gets smashed.  God is no longer our buddy or our therapist — He reveals Himself to be an incomprehensible, distant mystery.  If God allows darkness into our lives, it is because He is drawing us past juvenile faith that is based upon what we receive and into a more mature faith of radical dependence.  God is teaching us to rely totally upon Him for everything and is inviting us to sink our roots all the deeper into Him.  In this way, the darkness is a gift that can lead to even greater intimacy with God if we prayerfully walk through it.  The strength you develop in such times can fortify your armor to fight battles you were not capable of before.  The demon Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters warns his young apprentice about such believers:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. (p.40)

The third “d” of the chapter, depression, is a different animal entirely.  Depression is an illness, no less severe (and no less treatable) than a physical illness.  Unlike darkness, depression attacks our emotions, leading to various physical and mental ailments including lethargy, anger, head and body aches, stomach problems, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.  This can lead to intense feelings of guilt and a desire to isolate oneself from others.  Darkness often has no outward symptoms while depression usually does.  Depression can be triggered by a traumatic event or a stressful period in one’s life, or it can be a clinical condition based upon neurotransmitter deficiencies in the brain.  Either way, depression is more than just sadness and should be treated with seriousness.  If the symptoms that I’ve listed and that Haase mentions sound familiar, seek professional, psychological help.  Just gritting your teeth to get through it will probably make things worse.  Do not isolate yourself from others, especially if you have suicidal thoughts.  The devil wants to separate us from each other; don’t let him.  Of course, there are things we can do to combat depression individually such as getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, practicing hygiene, and limiting screen time.  Sometimes, though, more extensive treatment is needed, be it regular therapy or medicine.  Let me be clear: it is not a spiritual failure to take antidepressants anymore than it is a failure to take Tylenol for a headache.  Do what you need to do to feel better.  When your body and mind are healthy, you will be freed to pursue spiritual transformation.

In his article on this topic, Jesuit Fr. James Martin lists four more “d’s” that beset the believer in prayer.  Doubt (intellectual indecision about God) and disbelief (intellectual rejection of God) can both be fought with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17).  Scripture, regular Church attendance, and pastoral counseling can help overcome intellectual barriers to faith.  We all deal with doubt from time to time (Frederick Buechner calls it “the ants in the pants of faith”), so don’t get to upset at yourself for such feelings.  Perhaps God is using doubt or disbelief to move you beyond your current understanding of Him to deeper revelations.  Dealing with doubt is part of being a grown-up in the faith.  Desolation is a feeling of the absence of God coupled with hopelessness.  We covered a bit of this in chapter 19, although severe, long-lasting desolation is one of those ailments that beset only the saintly few.  Lastly, there is despair, a feeling of abject hopelessness.  Despair is a sin because we choose to not have hope, even though sometimes it seems like the obvious reaction to our situation.  It can be a side effect of depression and may be susceptible to treatment, but we must make the choice to hope.  Ultimately, despair is a symptom of pride, for in it we believe that we know our situation better than God, who declares that we have hope and a future and that all things work toward our good.  In this case, I defer to the inimitable words of Martin Luther: “Grit your teeth in the face of your thoughts, and for God’s sake be more obstinate, headstrong, and willful than the most stubborn peasant.”

Pursuing God involves journeying through the valley of the shadow of death.  God does not promise us a lack of suffering, but He does promise to be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  Rather than freeing us from our enemies, He sets a table for us in their presence so that we may learn to trust Him and Him alone (Psalm 23:4-5).  So, when we reach an impasse in our spiritual journey, let us remember to prayerfully discern the nature of the problem so that we may apply an appropriate remedy.  Whether in dryness, darkness, or depression, may we turn to the Lord in our hour of distress and find Him mighty to save (Zephaniah 3:17).

(Suggested Bible reading: Psalm 102)

Chapter 20 — God’s Will and Decision Making

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment

–Philippians 1:9 (ESV)

Do you remember the Magic 8-Ball toy?  It looked like a normal 8-ball from a billiard set, except that it was filled with liquid and had a little window on the bottom.  You would ask the 8-ball a yes-or-no question and then shake it up and turn it over.  A little triangle would appear with answers ranging from “signs point to yes” to “don’t count on it” to the infuriating “ask again later”.  I’m not sure any of us took it seriously, but, then again, where else were you going to go to ask such vital questions as “does she like me?” or “will I have a pop quiz in biology?”  The world is so uncertain and full of so many variables and possible decisions that we often resort to ridiculous methods to make it all comprehensible.  I know people who would laugh at the ancients for consulting tea leaves or chicken entrails to make decisions while reading their horoscope every morning.  We’re all scared and we’re all looking for guidance through the maze of life.  More often than not, our methods of decision-making return the answer “reply hazy, try again”.

I may be the most indecisive person I know, but I’m not sure — I can’t decide.  I tend to overthink everything and try to play out every possible decision I could make to its logical (or illogical or disastrous) conclusion.  I’m paralyzed by doubt and uncertainty in the face of even trivial decisions, and I nearly have a breakdown at large decisions.  So, for me, this chapter tackles one of the central, if not the central, problems of my life.  How do we know that we are following God’s will?  How do we determine what God’s will is in a given decision?  There are so many voices vying for our attention, and so many seem plausible, that it can be impossible to know where God’s voice stops and our own begins.  I think the first step in all this is remembering that God is not a magic 8-ball.  He is not a vending machine where we put in prayers and it spits out answers.  He is a Person who wants a relationship first and foremost.  He wants to guide us, but more than that, He loves us and wants us to love Him in return.  If we treat our relationship with God as utilitarian, as if He was a guidance counselor or career coach, then we are missing the entire point of our lives.  No matter what we do, the purpose of our lives is to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39).  All the rest is details.

Haase makes a hugely important point to start this chapter:  God does not have a secret blueprint for our lives that we have to discover to be successful.  He has plans for us, surely, but He wants us to take initiative in our own lives and to exercise our free will to follow Him.  Following God is not the robotic checking off of a list of duties, but a dynamic relationship in which God allows us the freedom to follow Him in our own way.  Thus, decision-making is not about divination, but discernment.  It’s much less black-and-white then we sometimes make it out to be.  Indeed, the way we make decisions depends on many factors, including our personality (Haase mentions “thinkers” versus “feelers”).  The other crucial point that Haase makes is that major decisions should be made in consultation with others.  Your spouse, trusted friends, your pastor or priest, and other believers should all be used as sounding boards.  I have seen people make huge mistakes simply because they made a decision in isolation or, worse, against the advice of everyone who loves them.  If you’re about to marry someone and all of your friends and relatives are telling you that he’s bad news, you should at least hit pause.  Conversely, if everyone in your life is encouraging you to do something and you are resisting, perhaps it’s time to make a leap of faith.  Either way, being humble enough to listen to the advice of others, particularly those in authority over us, is crucial.

Haase lists five factors that play into discernment.  The first is your past.  Often, we must be freed from the curses of our past in order to make decisions that will improve our future.  Sometimes we must let go of unforgiveness or simply recognize the trauma we have received and how it is inhibiting our lives.  Other times, it helps to remember the good decisions we have made in the past as a guide to making similar choices in the future.  Dealing with the unfinished business of our past can help clear our minds to address the needs of today.

The second factor is our present circumstances.  Sometimes we are “seeking God’s will” simply because we do not want to deal with the challenges that are right in front of us.  Jesus teaches us to pray for daily bread and tells us not to worry about tomorrow.  Quite often, we must keep doing what we are doing, tackling the duties and challenges that God puts before us each day.  Making detailed plans for the future can be good, but it can also cause us to miss what is right in front of our noses.  If the main reason you want to be a missionary is to run away from your problems, then God is probably not calling you to that ministry.  Sometimes, decisions become clear just by becoming aware of our circumstances and the “unmet need or required duty of the present moment”.

The third part of discernment is potential.  I hate that word.  Being told you have “potential” just means that you have the vague pressure to produce something extraordinary with no guidance as to how to accomplish that.  What Haase means by this word is a bit different.  We each have obvious talents and gifts that we can offer to the world, and there are things that we do which bring us consolation (see yesterday’s meditation).  One way to determine if you are in God’s will is if you are using your talents and gifts to build up the body of Christ.  Of course, sometimes God calls us out of our comfort zones, to attempt that for which we feel we have no talents and which we do not enjoy.  But in the overall sweep of our lives, God will ask us to use the gifts He has given us.  There will be seasons where this is not the case, but if you feel that you are never using the talents and abilities that God has given you, then a time of prayer and consulting with trusted fellow believers is called for.

Another step in discernment is whether you feel peace about a certain course of action.  This leads into the fourth factor: passion.  I hate this word, too.  I don’t often feel passion about much of anything.  However, this step is less about feeling heart palpitations and more about joy, peace, and sense of accomplishment.  It’s not about our feelings, which are fickle, but about seeking God’s heart.  We should do that which feeds the fire of God’s passion in our lives.

Fifth, we must always remember our baptismal identity.  That is, we belong to Christ: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  Start by reading your baptismal covenant (click here).  These vows made at our baptism and affirmed multiple times a year are the backbone of our identity.  Our decisions flow out of what we believe and what (and who) we prioritize.  Those five “will you” questions are a great place to start when making a big decision.  We are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers.  We are to resist evil and repent of sin.  We are to proclaim the Good News.  We are to serve Christ by loving our neighbor.  We are to strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of others.  Any decision that contradicts or hinders our primary call is not from God.  We don’t make choices in a vacuum.  Every decision we make builds upon this foundation and upon that which God has already revealed.

I’ll wrap up this long post by simply saying that we have a tendency to try to be more spiritual than God in the process of discernment.  Primarily, God wants us to use our logic and intellect, our intuition and our passion, and the advice of those around us to make sound decisions.  And we must always remember that God can redeem even the biggest mistakes, and, as long as we are alive, it’s never too late for a new start.  Bathe your choices in prayer; remember your identity in Christ; do everything in love.  If we do these things, we cannot go too far wrong.

(Suggested Bible reading: Ephesians 1)

 

Chapter 19 — Discernment of Spirits

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

–1 John 4:1 (ESV)

This chapter begins a new section of the book on discernment.  From here on, we move beyond beginner material and into the skills and challenges of a more experienced believer.  This doesn’t mean you have to feel like an expert (I certainly don’t), but just to say that you will find this material most helpful if you’ve begun attempting a life of spiritual discipline.  As the author to the Hebrews puts it, “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:13-14).  The gift of discernment, the ability to hear the voice of God and follow him, is crucial, but it is also a life-long process of trial and error.  Let us begin moving from milk to solid food as we seek to become more like Christ.

People today like to say that they’re “spiritual, but not religious”.  This is just another way of saying that they want all the consolations of religion with none of the costs.  Unfortunately, wishful thinking doesn’t usually work out; such a life is a house built on sand (Matthew 7:26-27).  It’s a bit like the mania for “all-natural” products.  Saying that something is “natural” has become shorthand for meaning that something is healthy.  But arsenic is just as natural as kale.  In the same way, just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean that it is good.  Of course, this means that we as Christians should avoid New Age practices like Wicca, reading Tarot cards, practicing astrology, or otherwise trying to manipulate the spiritual world.  A spirit that responds to such practices is not the Holy Spirit, who is a person that will not (indeed can not) be manipulated by mortals. The Holy Spirit is God.  He gives us gifts to use, including the discernment of spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10), but we do not use Him and we must exercise our gifts in submission to Him.  This is a crucial distinction.

Most of us, I hope, are not too tempted by witchcraft.  The deeper temptation, I think, is to believe that our reason and our emotions are the best barometer of our spiritual health.  If we can rationally justify our actions and we’re in a good mood, we must be doing the right thing.  But our moods are fickle, based on everything from brain chemistry to what we had for breakfast.  We cannot determine whether or not we are following God based upon our emotional happiness.  Indeed, many people who follow God suffered greatly.  Eleven of Jesus’ disciples were martyred and the twelfth died in exile.  Jesus himself ran the gamut of emotions from elation to exhaustion to anger to great sorrow, yet He never sinned.  Spiritual discernment means looking past our emotions to the deeper work of God in our lives.  This does involve our reason, but, again, we can rationalize anything if we try hard enough (“it’s not really stealing if I need it badly enough…”).  This is why we just spent seven chapters working on prayer and the study of Scripture, which will tune us into the voice of God and help us sort out our own self-seeking ways (and the devil’s lies) from the truth.  This is hard work, and I’m not sure I even begin to have the hang of it.

This chapter of the book mainly serves as an introduction to the concept of discernment, and thus does not provide a lot of practical advice for how to practice this gift (there’s more to come, though!).  Haase differentiates two states: consolation and desolation.  At times when we are truly in the center of God’s will, we can feel a peace that goes beyond dopamine-based happiness and down into our souls.  This is consolation.  It can happen when everything is going well, but often it occurs in the midst of the storm: “And [Jesus] awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).  Hopefully, you have experienced this in your life.  Hold on to such times and remember what they are like so that you may practice the presence of God and so that you can get through tough times.  Desolation sometimes occurs when we are in a state of sin, but sometimes can also just seem to come out of nowhere.  Again, desolation is not the same as sadness or depression (more on this in chapter 21), but rather manifests as what the ancients called “acedia”, a state of spiritual sloth, boredom, and heaviness.  It’s less a feeling of sadness than a feeling of “why bother?”  It’s akin to depression, but, unlike that disease, it doesn’t respond to medicinal treatments or secular therapy.  When we experience desolation, it is good to seek out other believers, a pastor or priest, or a spiritual director to help navigate through the desert and find an oasis.  I like Haase’s suggestion to serve others in times of desolation, even if it feels hopeless, for the simple reason that it gets us out of our heads and into the world.  Simply understanding that our relationship with God, like any relationship, has its ups and downs will help to alleviate the stress of such times and see us through to better days.  Such knowledge will also keep us from complacency during times of consolation, for we know that such feelings do not last forever.

In my marriage vows, I looked at Amanda and promised to “love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her” for the rest of my life (Book of Common Prayer, p. 424).  It was reminder, in the midst of a joyful wedding ceremony, that those bubbly feelings of happiness don’t last forever.  How many marriages have ended prematurely because someone said “I don’t love her (or him) anymore”?  But love is a decision we make everyday.  Regardless of my feelings or circumstances, I choose to offer my wife the same response I gave at my wedding: “I will”.  Well, Jesus is the bridegroom and we are His bride (Revelation 19:7).  We must commit to love and honor Him all our days and forsake all others, no matter how we feel, no matter the cost.  This commitment is the first step of discernment.  For if we can do what we know is right even when our bodies, minds, and souls rebel, then we will be able to discern God’s voice in the gray areas of life.  More on that tomorrow…. 

[For a terrific book on acedia, the great undiagnosed plague of our age, I highly recommend reading Kathleen Norris’s memoir/spiritual examination Acedia & MeIt’s one of the books that has changed my life for the better.]

(Suggested Bible reading:  2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” and how it brought him closer to God.)

Chapter 18 — The Lord’s Prayer Anew

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

–Matthew 6:7 (NIV)

Let me start out by saying that the literal words of the Lord’s prayer, no matter the language, have power.  Any prayer that has been said by Christians for 2000 years, and is still said daily by millions, is worth joining.  The communion of saints is perhaps strongest at this one point — we all say some version of the Lord’s prayer.  Even when my kids are being unruly during prayer time before bed, I insist that we at least pray that one essential prayer.  So I commend Haase’s suggestion to do lectio divina on this particular part of Scripture.  Take an hour with it or just meditate on one phrase.  Recite it when you don’t know what else to pray.  All Christian prayer begins and ends with Jesus, and this is how he taught us to do it.  If you say nothing else to God in a given day, these words, spoken from the heart, are enough.

All of that said, I don’t think the literal words of the prayer were the main point that Jesus was trying to get across.  Jesus wanted to give us a form to use, a scaffold upon which to build our own edifice of prayer.  He said, “Pray then like this” (Matthew 6:9).  He did not say “pray these words”; He said pray like this.  In other words, the Lord’s prayer is a model that can be adapted and shaped to the circumstances of our lives.  So let us look at this passage (Matthew 6:9-13) line-by-line and discover what lessons it contains.

Our Father:  That first word indicates that prayer is always done in community.  Even when we pray alone (which our Lord commends — Matthew 6:6), you are praying as a part of a larger communion, the Church.  We are all part of the body of Christ, bound to one another by His blood.  Thus, God is our father.  The second word is a source of some controversy, as it smacks of the dreaded “patriarchy”.  As I said in my meditation on chapter 6, the image of a father may not be the best one for you.  However, we must remember that we are not praying not to an impersonal cosmic force but to a Person.  Moreover, this person is as close to us as a father; He loves and cares for us as a good parent does.  We can pray with intimacy and immediacy, knowing that God hears us and cares for us whatever image we use.  But do not insist that the Church stop calling God “Father” because you have issues with your own dad or men in general.  Jesus commanded it and we’re going to keep doing it (see Matthew 28:19).

in heaven:  “‘Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the LORD, ‘and not a God far away?’” (Jeremiah 23:23).  Despite being as close as our breath, our Father is not a part of the universe.  We are not praying to some part of ourselves, nor are we praying to the earth.  God was not contained by the temple, and He is not bound by our churches.  He exists beyond and before the universe.  Our prayers are to be directed outward, to “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).  God is like a good human father, but He is so much more than that.  He is our father in heaven.

Hallowed be your name:  “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).  To give reverence to God’s name is recognize his rule over our lives.  In our church, we always bow at the name of Jesus to remind ourselves of this.  A name has power — if you say my name, I automatically turn my head.  Hallowing God’s name turns His ear to us.  Sometimes the only prayer we need to say is “Jesus”.

Your kingdom come:  When Jesus taught, he always spoke of the “kingdom of heaven”, and when asked by Pilate where His kingdom was, He said “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  Good thing, too.  For the kingdoms of this world are defined by corruption, war, injustice, inequality, racism, greed, etc.  We are to begin our prayers by asking God to establish His kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace here that “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven:  This petition reminds us that our prayer does not just look forward to some future time when God’s kingdom is established, but asks for God’s will to be done now.  We are to seek God’s heavenly will in our earthly lives, so that earth may more closely resemble heaven today.

Give us this day our daily bread:  This central petition in the Lord’s prayer reminds us to ground our prayers in where we are right now.  We can become slaves to both the past and the future and forget to live today.  God gives grace for today: “his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  We are to rely on God for everything we need today, and to ask Him for what we need with the confidence of a child asking their parent (Luke 11:11).  Of course, the real bread we are requesting is not food or any other physical need, but Jesus Himself “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51).  We are to invite Jesus back into our lives each day.

And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors:  In order to receive God’s bread and do God’s will, we must be freed from the debt of our sin.  Thanks be to God, Jesus paid that price on the cross and thus all we have to do is receive God’s forgiveness.  But Christ adds one condition: we are only forgiven as far as we are willing to forgive others (see Matthew 6:14-15).  This is not arbitrary.  If we hold unforgiveness in our hearts toward others, we lose the ability to receive God’s forgiveness (cf. Matthew 18:23-35).  Spreading God’s grace into this hurting world is our primary ministry.  That starts with forgiving daily those who have hurt us.  In the words of St. Paul, “owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

And lead us not into temptation:  God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13), so clearly that’s not what this is about.  Instead, Jesus is giving us permission to ask God to remove things in our lives that might lead us astray.  We recognize that we need God’s help to overcome temptation and we are to ask for His guidance away from those things that harm us.  This is a call to self-examination, and to defeating those bad habits that trip us up.  In any case, it’s o.k. to ask God to go easy on you sometimes, even if He doesn’t!

But deliver us from evil:  This final petition is our ultimate prayer.  It ties back to our prayer for God’s kingdom.  All of our intercessions, be it for the hungry or the sick or the oppressed, are really asking the God of peace to crush Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20).  We must never forget that we have an enemy, and that, in the words of Desert Father Abba Agathon, “prayer is warfare to the last breath”.  In the end, we ask God to deliver us from our greatest enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26).  And thanks be to God, He has triumphed over even that!

This outline should help guide how we pray in all circumstances.  From the nature of God to the attitude of our heart to the content of our petitions, the Lord has given us a framework upon which to build our prayer lives.  No matter the form of prayer we use, let us always look back to our Lord’s prayer for inspiration and guidance.  If nothing else, let the brevity and simplicity of these words inspire us to come to God just as we are.

(Suggested Bible reading:  Matthew 6:5-15, for obvious reasons)

Chapter 17 — Praying the Stations of the Cross

And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”.

–Luke 9:23 (ESV)

During a quiet day at my church, the Lord led me to look at our stations of the cross.  As in many liturgical churches, we have icons of the 14 stations positioned around the sanctuary.  I didn’t linger too long with any one station, but I soon noticed something I had never seen before: Jesus doesn’t really do anything in these last moments of His life.  I broke it down into four categories:  (1) Jesus is actively victimized by someone (Jesus condemned to death; the cross is laid on Jesus; Jesus is stripped of his garments; Jesus is nailed to the cross). (2) Jesus is a passive victim of circumstance (the three falls; Jesus dies on the cross).  (3) Jesus is ministered to (Jesus meets his mother; Simon helps to carry the cross; Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; Jesus is taken down from the cross; Jesus is buried). (4) Jesus ministers to others (Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem).  Only in that one station does Jesus actively do anything.  And even then, He is mainly telling them that things are only going to get worse (Luke 23:28-31).  That’s super comforting, thanks Jesus!  I didn’t really know what to do with this information at first.  We’ll get back to this….

It’s no surprise to me that a Franciscan like Fr. Haase would suggest praying through the stations because it was the Franciscans who developed the stations of the cross as we know them.  Since most of us will not be able to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we can do it where we are, in our churches or even in our homes.  Praying through the stations of the cross is a wonderful way to remind ourselves of the need to daily take up our cross and follow Christ.  I like the questions that Haase’s friend Sandra asks at each station.  Allowing ourselves to identify with Christ’s suffering can help us through tough times and convict us when we have become too comfortable in our sins.  The stations help us rein in our pride and reject temptation.  In the words of St. Paul, “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).  It’s a perfect Lenten discipline, but this can be done any time of the year.  I would suggest, rather than trying to always knock out all 14, meditating on one or two stations a day for a week or two.  This will allow time for a deeper, lectio divina style devotion.  Meditating on Christ’s passion is one of the most ancient forms of Christian prayers and we are in communion with the saints when we pray this way.  I commend it to you.

It doesn’t seem very attractive though, does it?  The tendency when meditating on Christ’s passion is to be filled with guilt, like the whole exercise is saying “look what you did to Jesus!  Feel bad about it!”  Or, alternatively, it leads to a morbid obsession with suffering and death that drains the joy out of everything.  Neither of these reactions are healthy.  While we should feel contrition at our sins that nailed Christ to the cross, we also must remember that, because of Christ’s sacrifice, there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  While we should remember our mortality and appreciate the preciousness of life on this earth, we also must remember that death is not the end.  As John succinctly puts it: “And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life” (1 John 2:25).  No, following the stations of the cross is neither meant for self-flagellation or morbid gloom.  Rather, it should be an invitation to rejoicing that “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5b).  It is a realization of the all-consuming love and grace of our God, who became one of us and died for us so that we could be with Him forever.  Hallelujah!  If meditating on the stations does not bring joy or peace, I submit that you are missing the point.  To identify with Christ’s suffering is to be filled with gratitude and reassured that our suffering is not meaningless.  Christ redeemed it all on the cross.  We can shoulder the burden of our day knowing that Christ carries it with us.

But there is one more level here.  To return to my meditation during the quiet day, there is another way to pray through the stations.  Notice that in nine of the stations others act upon Jesus, four times to victimize Him and five times to minister to Him.  The insight I came to is that all the ministry we do in this world, indeed every action, is to and for Christ Himself.  As Jesus said, “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” and “truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).  We have a choice everyday to victimize others or minister to them, to use others for our own purposes or to serve them as we would Christ.  Another way to meditate on the stations is to put yourself in the crowd and ask how you would react to this bloody mess of a man.  Would you be like the women of Jerusalem, weeping uncontrollably (and unhelpfully)?  Would you be like Veronica, wiping Christ’s face?  Would you be a soldier, just doing your job and so crucifying our Lord?  Or would you be like Simon and carry Christ’s cross with Him all the way to Calvary?  All prayer should spur us on to ministry.  Praying through the stations should encourage us to ask: “how can I minister to the suffering Christ today?”  What can we do to help those around us who are hurting?  It doesn’t have to be something big — sometimes a smile and an encouraging word can be enough.  So let us consider what Christ did for us on the cross.  Let it fill us with gratitude and joy and peace, with the blessed assurance of eternal life.  And then let us take that attitude out into the world as we, in the words of Fr. Haase, “respond lovingly to the unmet need or required duty set before [us]”.

(Suggested reading:  See p.108 of the book for a Biblical journey to the cross.  If you do not have a copy of the book, click here for a summary of these alternate stations with their corresponding Biblical citations.)

 

Chapter 16 — Wonder-ing with Creation

[For links to the previous meditations in this series, click here and scroll down}

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

–Genesis 3:9 (ESV)

Yesterday, I walked into my daughter Ruth’s room to see my son Gideon squatting down, bent over at the waist, nose inches from the floor.  Investigating, I saw a stink bug walking across the carpet.  “Spider,” my son said excitedly, pointing at his discovery (all bugs are spiders).  “Yes,” I replied, “it’s a stink bug” (I was much less excited).  Gideon watched as the bug reached the bed frame of my daughter’s bed and began to scale it.  “Ooo!  Spider climbing!” Gideon noted.  This continued for some time until Ruth insisted that I get rid of the bug, which I gladly did.  It reminded me of a time when Ruth was Gideon’s age (about 2 1/2) and she was mesmerized by a procession of ants on our back porch.  In both cases, I saw these creatures as nuisances, another pitfall of  home ownership.  My children saw something else entirely.

In my previous post, I talked about regaining wonder at the Gospel, a story as wild as any fairy tale.  And in the post on meditation, I mentioned how important our attention and focus are to our spiritual life.  Nature, when properly attended to, reveals the unspeakable wonder of our endlessly creative God.  From the vast spirals of the galaxies to the intricate design of a single snowflake, God speaks to us through His creation if we have the ears to hear it.  This is why I always recommend praying where you can at least see something natural.  If it’s warm enough, praying outside while listening to the wind through the trees and a distant thunderstorm rolls in can open you up to God like nothing else.  Even if all you hear are the neighborhood dogs barking, just that can be a spur to praise God for life itself.  Even if you can’t be outside, praying near a window with a view of a tree at least (this was my go-to when living in an apartment) is better than nothing.  Once, while praying with my family, we stopped to admire the full moon outside the living room window.  In the words of Job, “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (12:7-9).  St. Paul says that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).  Watching waves crashing on the seashore or standing on a mountain peak or listening to the hush after a snowstorm all demonstrate the power and majesty of our God.

How do we miss this?  I can think of two big reasons.  The first is societal.  We have done everything possible, through industrialization and technology, to distance ourselves from nature.  Driving through our concrete jungles, you can be forgiven for forgetting that nature even exists.  In the mountains of North Carolina, we have encroached so far into the wild that nature is fighting back in the form of black bears rummaging through suburban trash cans.  At least around here we have the mountains to remind us of God’s majesty.  Even so, the lure of the screen keeps us blind to the wonder around us; we are forever present in body but absent in mind and spirit.  I have seen people standing next to a stunning waterfall scrolling through the feed on their smart phone.  In spiritual terms, we often tell people to “look up” to find God.  Often, that piece of advice should be taken literally.

The second reason for missing God in nature is personal.  When God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, He could not find Adam, whose shame and sin had caused him to hide.  “Where are you?” God called to Adam and Eve and to us.  It’s a good question to ask yourself: “where am I?”  And don’t over-spiritualize the answer.  Literally, what can you see, hear, smell, and touch in your surroundings?  Practice being present; don’t hide from God.  We get so busy and preoccupied that we stop existing in the world as it is and live in our head, dominated by anxiety, doubt, and depression.  Reconnecting with our surroundings, especially with the created order, grounds us back in reality and points our hearts to God.  It can even point our hearts toward each other.  It was while laying on my back side-by-side with a beautiful girl while looking at the stars that I fell in love.  The scent of the grass, the sound of the wind, the awesome sight of the starry host all conspired to open Amanda and I up to each other.  When I proposed, it was outside, under the trees and on the grass, because where else could I fully express my love?  God can shower his love on us through the beauty of nature if we open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to it.

The exact method of praying with nature isn’t super important, although Haase’s four steps of (1) becoming aware, (2) being attentive, (3) assessing what we notice, and (4) adoring God is a good place to begin.  As I’ve said before, the disciplines can bleed into one another, so that adoring God in nature can be a part of a time of meditation or lectio divina.  The only warning I would have is to remember that nature has no power in itself to help us.  Paganism is making a comeback in the 21st century as people try to reconnect with nature.  We see everything from healing crystals to essential oils that supposedly cure cancer and depression to the literal practice of witchcraft in our culture.  Nature exists for us to take care of as stewards, not to wield as some sort of magic wand.  Worshiping creation is not so much going too far as not going far enough.  If we feel wonder at the changing of the fall leaves and the crashing of the ocean waves, imagine the beauty and majesty of the God who created these things!  Meditating on nature should fill us with gratitude for God’s creativity and care, and peace at knowing that the one who created the stars lives within each of us.  So let us become like little children and see God even in the stink bugs.  Remember to look up, for as David reminds us in the psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (19:1).

(Suggested Bible reading: Psalm 19)

Chapter 15 — Imaginative Prayer

All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.

–Matthew 13:34 (ESV)

All children, except one, grow up.  Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.  Call me Ishmael.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  It was a dark and stormy night.  I am an invisible man.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…

Human beings are storytelling creatures.  We do not view our lives as a series of unconnected events and we are not motivated by abstractions.  Consciously or not, we see ourselves as part of a story, a grand narrative, that we are playing our part in and, perhaps, writing.  Why, then, is so much of the modern Church trying to convert the world with abstractions?  We talk about theories of the atonement and justification.  We try to take people on a step-by-step guide through the Bible to save them as if the bloody thing were an instruction manual.  Look again at the last line of the previous paragraph.  The Bible basically starts, “once upon a time…”  The Gospel is, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “a myth which is also a fact…by becoming fact, it does not cease to be a myth: that is the miracle.”  Jesus’ teaching, as indicated in the verse at the top, primarily consisted of stories.  We thrill to tales like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter because they remind us of the truth that our lives, mundane as they may seem, have mythic importance.  All of our myths tell us that a world of wonder is closer than we think, be it down the rabbit hole or through the wardrobe or behind the second star to the right.  You can keep your multi-volume treatises on Church dogma — give me a story of a brave knight who slays the dragon or a boy wizard whose death (and resurrection) sets the world free.  The path to God is a path of sanctified imagination, and if we cannot be like little children we will not enter His kingdom (Matthew 18:3).

I say all of this because the Church has lost its sense of wonder.  We have been accused by the world of following a fairy tale and, thus, we have tried to make the Gospel reasonable, sober, and adult.  In a word, boring.  Perhaps we ought to learn to be foolish “for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).  Our need to be taken seriously comes from a place of insecurity and fear, as if God needed us to defend His honor and maturity.  But in doing so we have lost our imagination, and without imagination we can never grow.  Just look around you — the world declares the endless creativity and playfulness of our God (e.g. Psalm 104:26).  We often fear that our creativity and imagination will lead to heresy.  As if the boxes that we make for God could contain Him! If we are truly seeking God by imaginatively engaging with Holy Scripture, any heresy we stumble into will be corrected in time, especially if we submit ourselves to the authority of the Church and her traditions.  After all, our worship is a sort of imaginative exercise where we all agree to pretend that bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus and, by pretending, they actually become just that.  It is a fact while still being a myth.  There’s a reason we call them holy mysteries.

This is a roundabout way of getting to today’s chapter, which asks us to use our imagination to insert ourselves into the narratives of the Bible, particularly the Gospels.  I won’t rearticulate here the steps that Fr. Haase outlines, except to say that I commend them to you.  As an actor and writer, this may be my favorite way to pray.  I even did something like this earlier in this blog, in this post, where I imagine what it must have been like to be Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning.  By allowing ourselves to enter the narrative, the gospel story can come alive in new and surprising ways and speak to us directly, bypassing our stubborn reason.  We can tend to over-intellectualize our prayer and Bible reading and thus find that it does not change our lives.  But if we engage our senses, our emotions, and our memories, we are more likely to experience the transformative power of the Spirit working through Scripture.

I’m reminded of the movie Inception where a group of spies tries to plant an idea in another person’s mind.  The main character, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), says, “once an idea has taken hold in the brain it is almost impossible to eradicate…and even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”.  He believes that people yearn for reconciliation and catharsis, and thus ideas which appeal to positive emotions stay with us forever.  In the movie (slight spoiler warning), they convince the son of a powerful, deceased businessman to sell his father’s business by planting the idea that his father wanted him to be his own man.  The love of his father, not an intellectual idea, convinces the young man to take action.  In the same way, love for our Father will do more to impel us to change than our intellect could ever do.  Engaging with the unseen God will require all of our faculties, especially our imagination.  Applying these stories from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century America will require more than just cold logic.  So let us allow God the whole of our minds as His playground, that He may plant His ideas deep within us like a seed that will grow into a “harvest of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 9:10; James 3:18).

[Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, one of my all-time favorite books, greatly influenced this meditation.  I unreservedly recommend it.]

(Suggested Bible reading: John 13:1-11, a great passage with which to practice this discipline) 

Chapter 14 — Lectio Divina

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

–Romans 10:17 (ESV)

The five steps of lectio divina remind me of nothing so much as a really good marinated steak.  Step one: assemble and combine the ingredients.  It may seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of people mess up at this step.  You have to read the recipe carefully and make sure you understand it.  The same goes with reading the Word.  We must slowly and carefully read the passage and make sure we understand it.  Sometimes, while cooking, I’ll watch a YouTube video to make sure I’m doing a particular skill correctly.  Similarly, we sometimes must go to commentaries or footnotes to fully understand a knotty passage of Scripture.

Step two: marinate the meat.  In order for the meat to absorb the marinade, it must sit in a sealed container for a period of time.  After reading a passage of Scripture, we are to meditate on that passage, allowing it to rattle around in our minds and seeing what sort of “flavors” emerge from the text.  Particular words or phrases may rise to prominence in our minds, and we give our attention to those.  Step three: cook the steak.  We subject the steak to heat so that the flavors become a part of the meat itself and impurities are burned away.  In the same way, we pray with the passage of Scripture, allowing the fire of the Holy Spirit to sear the Word into our hearts and burn away anything that might hinder us from internalizing its message.  We listen for the voice of God through the text and make the words of Scripture our own.

Step four: allow the steak to sit.  People forget this step; the late, great Anthony Bourdain called it the number one mistake that people make when cooking steak.  After cooking, we should let a steak sit at room temperature for five to seven minutes without touching it.  This allows the steak to finish cooking and, most importantly, for the juices to evenly distribute throughout the meat.  This is the step of contemplation.  In silence, we rest with the Scripture allowing it to do its invisible work in our souls.  Don’t poke or prod the Word; just let it sit and finish cooking.  Step five: eat the steak!  I like that Fr. Haase adds this fifth step to the process, because reading the Scripture without applying it is like cooking a steak without eating it (James 1:22-25).  Just as we make the steak a part of ourselves by eating it, so we make the Word a part of our lives by living it out.

I feel like lectio divina combines the step-by-step nature of the examen with the quiet contemplation of meditation.  As I said yesterday, I feel like meditation works best in the context of reading Scripture.  This method of reading the Word allows us to read familiar passages in a new light and moves the center of gravity from the intellectual to the emotional and spiritual.  If you’ve read the whole book cover to cover, it can feel fruitless to read the same stories over and over.  Delving into one verse or even one word, however, can spur new revelations.  In a sentiment attributed to various saints, Scripture can be thought of as a pool shallow enough for a baby to wade in and not drown, but deep enough that theologians will never find the bottom of it.  We can always engage Scripture from wherever we are, from children to adults from brand-new converts to seasoned believers.

One problem with this method is that it seems like it takes a lot of time in order to bear fruit.  I think a slavish devotion to the five steps could lead to burnout very easily.  I like the alternate method that Haase mentions of asking three questions: “What does the passage say to my head?  What does it say to my heart?  What does it say to my hands?”.  Engaging our thoughts, emotions/will, and our actions doesn’t need to take all day.  We can include aspects of lectio divina into our existing prayer and Bible reading without having to do a complete overhaul.  That said, when you find the time to do so, a deep dive into a single passage or verse or word of Scripture can bear great fruit.  Haase also mentions meditating on icons or Christian art, which I don’t find helpful at all (beyond basic art appreciation).  I do like to find art, particularly of Jesus, that contradicts my mental pictures and causes me to rethink how I view a story or person.  Anything that wakes up your imagination is a good thing (more on this tomorrow).  If nothing else, lectio divina encourages us to not just read the Word, but to interact with it.  Because the Scriptures are not an end in themselves; they point to the true goal of our faith, Jesus Christ.  So let us marinate in the Word, allow the fire of the Spirit to sear it into our hearts, and feast upon it as we live out its message in the world.

[For yet another way of doing lectio divina, here is a brief video from Fr. James Martin, SJ detailing an easy four-step approach to the discipline.]

(Suggested Bible reading:  Hebrews 4, a passage about entering God’s rest and a place to start practicing this discipline)

Chapter 13 — Meditation and Contemplation

I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.

–Psalm 119:15 (ESV)

We live in what some commentators call an “attention economy”.  Battling for our attention has always been the goal of marketers, of course, using everything from billboards to newspaper ads to the radio.  But in the Internet age, this has become all-consuming.  Because social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest) all depend upon advertising revenue, it behooves them to keep your eyeballs glued to their site.  The YouTube algorithm is primarily designed to keep you watching videos for longer, regardless of the quality of said videos.  Anyone with a smart phone knows how notifications pop up all day (and all night) from our myriad apps.  Add to that cable TV, podcasts, and streaming services like Netflix and you begin to see why attention deficit disorder is on the rise.  Even if we are not diagnosed with such a disorder, all of us live distracted lives, our attention pulled in a hundred different directions by marketers, performers, and politicians.  We are rarely, if ever, present in the physical space where we find ourselves.  Focus is the lost discipline of our age.

This is the first chapter of the book that I did not find particularly helpful.  The methods of meditation given seemed a bit closer to Eastern meditation with a Christian gloss than anything else.  Meditation is central to Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism.  In Buddhism, life is conceived as a wheel, a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth which we are doomed to suffer.  The goal of meditation, then, is detachment, escaping the wheel of suffering and the world around us to reach a higher plane of existence.  The repeated nonsense syllables of meditation (the “ohm”) are meant to get us beyond language to something trans-human.  You want to lose your identity and individuality and become one with the universe itself or a Cosmic Mind.  This Mind is not a person, rather it is a state of being.  Christian meditation, on the other hand, involves a relationship with a Person.  If the ultimate Buddhist symbol is the wheel, the ultimate Christian symbol is the cross.  The center of meditation is not within ourselves, but found in the person of Jesus.  Life is not an endless cycle but a progression “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18 KJV) as we follow Christ.  Meditation should not be about detachment, but engagement.  It’s not about becoming less human, but more human.  It is not about escaping the world, but transforming it.

The practice of meditation involves being intentional about where we put our attention.  I think that is done best by meditating on a verse of Scripture.  Of course, that’s not the only way to go.  You can meditate before an icon, as many Eastern Christians do, or you can meditate on God’s creation.  Anything that allows you to calm your mind and achieve focus is useful, as long as that focus is on Christ rather than yourself.  Meditation is not about self-examination, like the examen we talked about yesterday.  It is God-examination.  That is why I have real trouble just meditating in a vacuum, with no Scripture verse or the like to latch on to.  The temptation in meditation is to just let your mind wander, which is the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.  Some people also meditate as a health initiative, to decrease stress or improve mental acuity.  This is all well and good, but it is not the purpose of Christian meditation.  We meditate in order to experience the presence and hear the voice of the living God.  Without that, our quiet times can devolve into sentimental mush, leading to self-absorption and a fruitless pursuit of the warm fuzzies.  Meditation is not about our mental or emotional state, but about accessing the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and allowing Him to work transformation within us.  There is a huge temptation to conjure up holy feelings during this time, to try to engineer the transformation of our minds and emotions.  But God tends to work slowly and in ways we cannot always see or feel.  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

This may just be me, but I feel like meditation only works in the context of other spiritual practices.  It can be part of the examen, and it should definitely be a part of reading Holy Scripture.  Prayer is a two-way street and should ideally involve more listening on our part than talking.  As a culture, we are terrible listeners because our attention is constantly being pulled at by our ubiquitous electronics.  One way to practice listening to God is to practice listening to those closest to you, to your spouse, your kids, your friends, your co-workers, etc.  Really listen to people, not in order to formulate a response, but to hear what is on their hearts and minds.  Nothing improves a relationship more than listening to one another.  By practicing this skill with others, I think we will improve our ability to hear the still small voice of God in the midst of life’s storms (1 Kings 19:11-13).  So let us close our mouths and open our ears to hear God speaking in whatever way He wants to today.

[I highly recommend chapter 2 of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for a more detailed discussion of Christian meditation]

(Suggested Bible reading: Psalm 46)

 

Chapter 12 — The Examen

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

–Jeremiah 29:13 (ESV)

A quick editorial note:  this chapter is the point at which this book turns practical.  Fr. Haase has set up the theoretical framework, and now, for the next few weeks, we’re going to discuss disciplines and practices that will help us actualize some of the goals we have set.  The next seven chapters, starting today, all deal with the subject of prayer.  Nobody can reasonably be expected to do all of these practices all of the time.  However, Lent is a great time to try out different ways of praying than what we’ve done in the past, particularly if our prayer time is moribund.  Personal transformation begins and ends in daily encounters with the living God.  We should do whatever it takes to set up that meeting.  On with today’s chapter….

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits and developer of the examen, began his adult life as a soldier.  A Spaniard, he dreamed of being like the legendary Spanish warrior El Cid.  A cannonball to the leg in 1521 ended his military career and set his life on a new path.  While recovering, he committed himself to the spiritual life with the same ardor that he had previously reserved for war.  This background sheds some light on the examen.  A general needs to know the facts on the ground and what he must do to both address his soldier’s needs and to fight the battle before him.  Reports on the day’s activities should be orderly, thoughtful, and practical.  This allows the general to make crucial decisions and make necessary changes to ensure the success of the mission.

I find this form of prayer really attractive.  It’s done once or twice a day (at noon and bedtime) and has clear, step-by-step instructions.  It’s deeply spiritual without feeling pretentious or otherworldly.  This is prayer with our feet firmly planted on the ground.  In fact, the entire process can fit on a single card (see this link for an example).  I would note that the order of the steps on that card flips steps #1 and #2 from what Fr. Haase describes.  But the order of the steps, or even completing all the steps, is not what’s crucial here.  What is crucial is being intentional about viewing our day in the light of Christ’s work in our lives and the world at large.  That said, I’m going to flip those first two steps, too, because I think it’s more helpful that way.  But you do you.

Step 1 is to petition the Holy Spirit.  I think it’s good practice to always begin prayer by welcoming God in.  He’s always there, of course, but we have a way of pushing Him out of our consciousness during the day, so re-centering on Him is crucial.  This step needn’t take long, but we should take the time to quiet our mind and body so that the examen can be effective.  Step 2 is gratitude.  When we pray at night before bed, my four-year-old daughter’s prayers are almost always entirely “thank-yous”.  She thanks God for her parents, her brother, her dog, and, often, for “everyone in the whole world”, which feels excessive to me, but is a lovely sentiment nonetheless.  Prayer should always begin in gratitude for what God has done for us, especially in the work of Jesus on our behalf.  Sometimes, this step is the only one we need to take.  For more on gratitude, see my meditation on chapter 8.

Step 3 is the review.  I like the image of “rummaging for God” in our day.  We can become so blinkered by our busyness that we miss the obvious manifestations of God’s grace in our lives.  It does us good, then, to review what has happened and to prayerfully consider how God was speaking to us through our circumstances and the people we have encountered.  If you write in a journal or diary, this would be a great time to jot some thoughts down.  I used to love those “Where’s Waldo?” books as a kid.  I wasn’t very good at them, but I got better the more of them I read.  The same is true here of finding God in our day.  We will find God hidden in our day the more we look for Him.  I think that sometimes God hides not in order to frustrate us, but that both of us may experience the joy of discovery.  Step 4 is repentance.  As we do the review, we will inevitably come across places in our day where we fell short of Christ’s image.  Rather than beat our selves up about this to no discernible benefit (he says to himself), we ought to offer it to God, who is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4).  Keeping short accounts with God will help us feel his grace more easily than if we let it build up over weeks and then try to go on a conscience cleaning binge.  That can work, too, but daily soul maintenance is the better practice, just as it is easier to keep a house clean than it is to get a house clean.

Step 5 is renewal and looking ahead.  Those of us with anxiety forget this step.  We spend so much time dwelling on the past that we have no time to offer the future to God and thus face that future with dread.  How much better, then, to be purposeful about viewing the day in front of us in light of how God will use it (and us).  Rather than looking for where the devil is hiding in our future, as our anxious minds want us to, we ought to search for God instead.  Advanced scouts in the army seek out the enemy, but they also search for potential allies.  If our army is big enough, if we believers stick together, our enemy may flee the battlefield.  Remember Gideon, who with only 300 men defeated the army of Midian with a bunch of trumpets, jars, and torches.  God is all the army we need to fight our daily battles.  So let us follow Ignatius’s example as a soldier of Christ and give our daily report to the general.  In following these simple steps, we can begin to see how Christ’s transforming work is already beginning in us.

[For many more resources on the examen, click on this link]

(Suggested Bible reading:  Luke 24:13-35, when two disciples discover Jesus hidden in plain sight)