Although I try not to let my list rule my life, I find it keeps me organized: setting goals and keeping them. I’m a visual person who finds it helpful to be reminded in print of my priorities.
I have to guard against obsessiveness, however. Once, when my son Mike was young, he taught me something important about my list that I’ve never forgotten.
As I berated myself at day’s end because I hadn’t gotten nearly all my “to do’s” done, Mike looked at me with the wisdom of a 5-year-old and said, “Mommy, maybe you put too many things on your list.” I brushed away a tear and had to agree with him. A son’s lesson: Don’t be hard on yourself.
This Advent, I’ve found a way to incorporate my list into a desire to delve more deeply into Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is known for the Spiritual Exercises, widely popular today. Numerous websites, including www.ignatianspirituality.com and Creighton University’s online ministry site, abound with helpful information.
A fundamental part of Ignatius’ teaching is the “examen,” which he urged his Jesuits to do twice daily. The word may remind us of an examination of conscience, but that would miss the mark. The examen is not so much about our sinfulness, but rather noticing God’s presence in our daily life.
The examen is a prayerful reflection on my day, in which I look back and see where God moved me, where I felt God’s presence and responded, or where I may have missed an opportunity to respond wholeheartedly. What consoled me? What caused me sorrow? It becomes a way of discerning God’s will and movement in our lives.
Ignatius urged us to seek God in all things. Unlike some who withdrew from the world, Ignatius found God alive and at work around us. He urged his followers to seek the presence of God in the midst of daily life. The examen causes us to pause in our busyness and reflect on this presence.
So, for Advent, I made a list of goals. This included a daily examen. But I listened to the echo of Mike’s advice — my list does not come with penalties or reasons to criticize myself. My list comes with invitation, and each day that I do the examen, and perhaps some of my other goals, is a day I give thanks.
The poet Mary Oliver said this about prayer: “Pay attention.” The examen creates a habit of paying attention, a habit that seeps into our whole day. Jesuit Father Dennis Hamm at Creighton University called the examen “rummaging for God: praying backwards through your day.”
Recently, I gave a presentation to a group on the moral failings of the death penalty, and in the audience was a friend who has a son with Down syndrome. When I mentioned how often we execute mentally challenged individuals, even after a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting it, I realized that my friend was crying softly.
The very idea of such cruelty toward the mentally challenged had brought her to tears. Ignatius felt tears were indicative of God moving us, and I felt this movement clearly through her tears. I found myself reflecting on this moment in my examen.
How do I discern what this means? I don’t know yet. I just know that with the help of the examen, clearly written there on my to-do list, I will pay attention to how God may be moving me to act.