Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Prayer That Changes Everything

As part of my (seldom successful) efforts to clear up a backlog of tasks, I'd like to share with you some thoughts on a books I've read recently. This little gem was sent to me by its publisher at Loyola Press who invited me to share my thoughts. The book is entitled

 (Note: the title is in lowercase letters on the book's cover, hence the strange way it appears in type here)

Written by Jim Manney, it's a short (~80 page) treatment of the prayer Saint Ignatius enjoined on his Jesuits and those who would receive the Spiritual Exercises. Manney, either consciously or not, crafts his treatment of the topic in the form of an inclusio. That is, he begins and ends his treatment of the Examen with the five basic points of how to pray using this powerful method

  1. Ask God for light.
  2. Give thanks
  3. Review the Day
  4. Face your shortcomings
  5. Look toward the day to come
This skeletal structure - so deceptively simple - is enfleshed in his text as each of the subsequent chapters unpacks and elaborates on each of the main points listed above. By the time you reach the end of the text and he gives these five points again, you realize how much your understanding of the points has been changed and transformed and the depths and possible graces of the Examen are made more luminous. 

In the 20th century, the philosophical movement of phenomenology challenged philosophers to "look at what they normally look through." How easy is it to overlook, each day, all of those moments where God's grace has been pressing in upon us, or how opportunities to become a friend of the Lord has been squandered. It's rather easy to gloss over these moments, to be sure, but the Examen challenges us to bracket a few moments of our day to peer into our experiences and ask, "How have I, today, responded to God's invitation to friendship?" The simplicity of the prayer should not make one think it is easy (omelets look easy to make, too, but are horrifically difficult to master). 

Many spiritual how-to books purport to give you answers or to solve your issues. Neither Jim Manney, nor certainly Saint Ignatius, would dare even to imagine such an ridiculous claim. If asked to describe our spiritual and social environment, I'd say that we're living in the "Control-F Era." By "Control-F" I mean people who are accustomed to holding down two keys on the keyboard and typing in EXACTLY what it is that they seek. So focused are they on the answers - whether they be spiritual or academic - they often miss the cracks and fissures through which God's creative light is shining through. In other words, sometimes we get so caught up looking for "the answer" that we lose out on experiencing the whole story. Saint Ignatius's Examen thwarts this as he counsels you into praying through your everyday experiences to find out what God is doing in your life.

In every era, Christians must ask anew the question posed by Jesus' own disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray." I truly believe that as we walk further into the 21st century, the Examen will prove to be a needed antidote to the feelings of ennui and and meaninglessness that seem to be more and more common. By gazing inward, by looking at one's own experiences of God's grace, one's eyes are gradually made able to see God's gracious love suffusing all of the earth. The ennui of hopeless is transformed into the elan of Christian hope that calls us out into the world to be a part of God's on-going creation. It is this elan that, I hope, marks my own Jesuit life as I labor for Christ, under the banner of the cross, to bring about God's Kingdom.

Manney is to be commended for this small text. I think it is an accessible volume able to be embraced by neophytes and masters alike. Rather than give answers to our spiritual dilemas, this text uses the Examen as a way of framing the question - "What is God doing" - using our own lives and experiences. If you feel that you need help in praying, or are trying to find new depths in prayer, I can think of no better place to begin. 

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