Maybe you, too, love to complain. It’s one of my favorite hobbies.
St. Ignatius, however, figured out nearly 500 years ago what scientists, psychologists, theologians, and assorted spiritual gurus routinely say today: It’s gratitude that leads to happiness — or at least to some needed perspective on life.
So look back at your day, gratefully. Pay attention to its gifts. Remember them.
That’s what Ignatius advises in the Daily Examen, which is part of his spiritual exercises and intended to help you experience and respond to God’s deepening love. But while the exercises themselves are a major time commitment, the Examen is not. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes. It can be done with the exercises, or without. And it is powerful.
Now five weeks into both, I’m amazed by how something so simple — a gratefulness review — has improved my attitude, particularly on a bad day. I’m amazed too by how modest an effort — 10 or so minutes a day — can yield such marked results. Okay, suppose such-and-such yesterday was a complete disaster. But, happily, I still have my home, my family, my dog, my job, my car. This is perspective.
A few days into the Examen, of course, being grateful for The Big Things gets repetitive and wears thin. I realize I should switch to small things, even very small things. The tuna sandwich from the deli with just the right amount of mayonnaise and celery. The husky guy in the Toyota Tundra pickup who let me cut in front of him in traffic. The keys I found without a 15-minute frantic tear all around the house.
The other day, in full Examen mode, I just stared at the Whole Foods hot bar, all that gorgeous food so tantalizingly displayed in shiny silver pans, lit up bright under the hot bar lights, steam rising from hot water keeping dishes just warm enough. Macaroni & cheese. Chicken Tikka Masala. BBQ pork. Curry vegetables. Roasted eggplant. Kale with garlic. Meatballs with marinara. Beef lasagna. Vegetable lasagna. Shepherd’s pie. All that good ol’ American excess — it was so satisfying, reassuring, even comforting.
There’s mindfulness going on here, obviously: paying attention, on purpose, to what’s in front of you. Really seeing. You spend time every day really seeing, remembering all the good moments. Somehow, it works.
But this is only part of the Examen. There are many variations. Lots are detailed on the Ignatian Spirituality website or in books like Jesuit Kevin O’Brien’s “The Ignatian Adventure.” That’s what we’re using in my Ignatian Spiritual Exercises group. Here are the five basic steps:
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to the emotions and feelings you experienced today. Excitement? Envy? Resentment? Boredom? Anger? Joy? This is the part when you realize how you may have been, well, not your best self at different parts of the day. Maybe, instead, you were judgmental, unkind, gossipy, downright nasty, or even cruel. Consider this. Consider your feelings. Are they significant, indicative of bigger issues in your life?
4. Pick one or two strong feelings from the day and pray from them. Ask if these feelings drew you closer to God, or not. Made you feel more whole, alive, and generous, or more anxious, fearful, and self-centered? Did they hurt or built up relationships?
5. Look toward tomorrow. What’s coming up? How do you feel about the day? Nervous? Enthusiastic? Doubtful? Confident? Why? Pray on these feelings as well.
Ignatius wanted people to consider Jesus a friend. So he recommended ending the Examen with a conversation with Jesus. You ask for help, hope, forgiveness, encouragement, whatever you most need. You listen. And you do all this — coming full circle here — with gratitude.
I’m not someone who thinks much about my emotions and feelings. Introspection, to me, is not particularly fun. Here’s what I’ve noticed after days of forced introspection: clear patterns. Day after day, I do things I regret. In the moment, they seem gratifying. In the Examen, I realize they were anything but, and far too embarrassing, petty, and pointless for me to admit to here. Yet I get up the next day and do the embarrassing, petty, and pointless all over again. I can’t believe I keep repeating it all. But I do.
Because of the Examen, at least I’m aware of this now. And awareness, says O’Brien, is the beginning of healing and conversion. That’s his claim anyway. I hope he’s right.
Five weeks into the exercises, I can say this much: Some days, none of it comes easy. I do the Examen. Nothing. Other days I feel like I’ve signed up for some kind of divine psychotherapy, quite brilliant actually, and with a wonderful bonus – it’s free.