We’ve Seen It All, or So We Think

Praying the Examen and Leaning into Gratitude

Seeing Ourselves in Our Days. SJG photo.

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Here in America’s Midwest, we are entering a new spring, although the mornings and evenings usually still have the remnants of winter in their cool breezes. Although we have just experienced an exceedingly mild winter, my practice of walking for physical and spiritual benefit has been lax and sporadic, and I am eager to pick it up again, if for no other reason than for the opportunity of putting myself in a better position to be astonished by unexpected glimpses of beauty in the world on a more regular basis. But the high level of pollens in the air and covering every outdoor surface with a thin layer of green has been keeping me and my wheezing cough and watery eyes inside. Hopefully this will subside soon, and meanwhile I’m mostly watching the outside world from my window.

Not paying close attention to what’s going on around us, refusing to be aware of the blessings and presence of God in our everyday lives, and not being willing to “be astonished,” as the French author of Gigi notes above, could all very well be the direst temptations we face as we get older. After all, we’ve seen it all, we think. There’s nothing new under the sun, so why pay attention? Another day is just another day if we don’t watch for something that will make it different.

So we settle into life, yawning at the sunrise, blinking through beauty of garden and field, ho-humming our way through all that we have learned to take for the ordinary and deserved. A meal becomes mere sustenance. The family visit perfunctory. The work of art only decoration or mindless entertainment. Without attention, without presence and purpose (our own and our acknowledgement of God’s) we risk allowing life to sweep over our heads virtually unnoticed. We live without gratitude not because we don’t care to say thank you but because we’re unaware of the gifts we have received.

It’s for this reason that the ancient prayer of St. Ignatius, the “Examen,” has become an important part of my daily prayer practice. It’s a prayer that forces us to slow down and pay attention, a prayer that can only end with that most powerful of prayers: “Thank you.”

Normally prayed near the end of the day, the Examen is an invitation to look back over our day and discover where we may have encountered God. It is an examination of our consciousness; a little different than the examination of conscience that we do when thinking about our sins and failures. This is a chance to review our day and take notice of what has happened to us and our interactions with others. It is a chance, before the day slips away from, to recall (or perhaps to see for the first time) where we encountered God. For when we do not stop and do this, we miss the blessings. We operate on autopilot and we just don’t see. We just don’t know. But when we stop and pay attention, we can begin to live lives of gratitude. We can’t say “thank you” for something we don’t recognize as gift.

A Moment at the Close of Day. SJG photo.

In its simplest form (and there is really no reason for it to be any more complicated), the Examen includes these five steps, and it can be done in as little as five or ten minutes:

Become aware of God’s presence: Ask for God’s help in looking at your day with honesty. Become aware of God being aware of you. See your day as God sees it.

Review the day with gratitude: Notice your blessings. Notice your interactions and opportunities. Don’t forget the ordinary.

Pay attention to your emotions: Savor these moments. Pick one or two emotions that surface and pray from them. Positive or negative, both hold meaning.

Rejoice, praise, seek forgiveness: Rejoice in the times you were drawn closer to God. Ask forgiveness for the times you resisted God’s presence and action. Thank God for the awareness you received, for the awareness itself is a gift.

Look toward tomorrow: Ask God to be a part of your next day. Ask for the grace you need to be more aware. Be practical and specific.

As Rabbi Harold Kushner once said, “Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted – a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.”

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