The following post is adapted from Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer:
“When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within me and around me.”
– Henri Nouwen
After the birth of our first child, I resolved to finally establish a regular, scheduled prayer routine. There was one barrier to any routine, or sanity, in our home: Our son did not nap.
The only way to coax him into a reliable nap was to take him for a walk. This plan worked well throughout the fall, and since his sleep struggles continued, I bundled him up in massive puffy layers of down for walks all throughout the Columbus, Ohio winters. A bike trail along the river by our home offered 30 uninterrupted miles of walking alongside a shallow little river dotted with a few tiny waterfalls along the way to serve as landmarks of a nap’s success or struggle.
Through rain, snow, or wind, I spent most afternoons walking my son in his jogging stroller along the path with only the noises of an occasional chime of a bicycle bell, the chatter of workers from a nearby office talking a lunch time walk, and the rustle of deer in the woods. During these walks of an hour to an hour and a half, I had the option of playing podcasts or praying. I hoped to do the latter, but once alone with my thoughts, I spiraled into a wreck of negativity, anger, fear, and anxiety. It wasn’t that I was struggling to pray. I was struggling to even get to the point where I could attempt to pray.
Where do you begin with prayer when you can’t even figure out how to start in the first place?
This isn’t a new problem, and thankfully someone from the historic church spent a lot of time working through it. While recovering from a serious wound suffered in battle, Ignatius of Loyola began reading through scripture and had a profound encounter with the risen Christ. As he pursued God in silence and meditation, he felt directed to develop a method of clarifying his thoughts prior to prayer and to cultivate a greater awareness of God throughout the day. This practice, called Examen, was a part of his larger spiritual exercises that he passed on to those in his community that later became known as the Jesuits or Society of Jesus.
The Examen is a series of prompts for reflection that Methodists and students of church history will recognize as similar to John Wesley’s questions for self-examination. The main difference is that Wesley’s questions are far more specific, while the Examen tends to be more open ended and geared toward uncovering whatever is on your mind. Ignatius instructed the Jesuits to practice the examine twice daily, keeping track of their thoughts, emotions, and awareness of God throughout each day so that they could pray with greater intention and focus.
There are different Examen methods and questions based on the spiritual practices of Ignatius. I personally use an app on my phone, but the basic structure of the Examen is as follows:
- Become aware of God’s presence.
- Review the day with gratitude.
- Pay attention to your emotions.
- Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
- Look toward tomorrow.
I have found great benefit in the ways that the Examen cultivates awareness of my thoughts and emotions, increases my aware of God, and helps me bring my daily thoughts and actions to God in prayer. Sometimes I focus on a particular question or aspect of the Examen. Other times the Examen reveals a deficit in my awareness of God. Most importantly, I have had to stop seeing the Examen as a kind of test or evaluation for my spiritual progress. Despite the resemblance to the word “exam,” the Examen has been most beneficial as a kind of rest stop or reset point in my day. It offers an opportunity to move forward with greater awareness of God and personal intention.
There’s a strong family resemblance between the Examen and the mindfulness practices advocated by psychology experts today. Many studies are finding that a few minutes of mindfulness have made significant differences in both teachers and school children. In the best cases, a meditation room has replaced traditional punishments for children who act out, as teachers have realized that oftentimes misbehaving is linked with a child struggling to process everything that is going on.
Mindfulness helps us sift away our thoughts and emotions so that we can see the present moment with clarity. It can also shut down ongoing loops of negative thinking, internal commentaries, or mounting stress and anxiety. Instead of assuming we’re at the mercy of our thoughts, mindfulness rightfully restores a measure of our power over our thoughts. Ignatius recognized the value of this hundreds of years ago as he developed the Examen practice, but he also incorporated the valuable prompts that helped practitioners gauge their awareness of God throughout the day.
I had made the mistake of approaching prayer as a kind of dumping ground for my thoughts, but it’s actually better to dump my thoughts out before I pray through practicing the Examen. That frees my mind in order to hear God speak and it offers clarity about which thoughts need to be explored further in prayer. Thomas Merton writes, “The reason why so many religious people believe they cannot meditate is that they think meditation consists in having religious emotions, thoughts, or affections of which one is, oneself, acutely aware” (No Man Is an Island, 32).
This focus on giving thoughts and emotions free reign during prayer can also result in heightened expectations for some kind of resolution to come about in the midst of prayer. Merton continues, “As soon as they start to meditate, they begin to look into the psychological conscience to find out if they are experiencing anything worthwhile. They find little or nothing. They either strain themselves to produce some interior experience, or else they give up in disgust” (No Man Is an Island, 32).
Lest you think I’m more spiritually accomplished than I actually am, the main reason why I persevered in practicing the Examen, even after my son started napping in his bed regularly, was a simple iPhone app. While there are several Examen apps out there, the one I found is called “Examine,” and it offered the perfect opportunity to use my iPhone for a noble purpose.
Practicing the Examen for three months completely blew my mind. As I reflected on the positive and negative elements of each day, I started to notice a troubling pattern: most of my positive moments were tied to my work. I clearly relied too much on my work as a barometer for each day. Consequently, I also worried quite a bit about having enough money while struggling to see God at work in my day. So many of my struggles over providing for my family and trusting God came into sharper focus once I developed a regular practice to reflect on each day. I’ll be the first to admit that practicing the Examen hardly felt even remotely spiritual. I was just thinking about my day, after all. This is not what anxious evangelicals are used to in our pursuit of God!
I can imagine the evangelical response to this in the form of a spiritual drill sergeant screaming at me: “Oh, you feel sad because your kid had a melt down and you yelled at him? Poor baby! And the baby I’m talking about is YOU! Are you worried about money? Maybe it’s time to get off your can and to actually read some scripture, you slacker! Jesus died on a cross for YOUR sins. I bet he worried about that too. Suck it up you contemplative slacker!”
When you’ve thought for most of your life that prayer is more or less the same thing as talking to God and the you can only grow spiritually by doing it better and working harder at it, it’s difficult to believe that personal awareness or “mindfulness” really counts as a spiritual practice. Aren’t there more important spiritual matters we can give ourselves to instead? According to St. Ignatius, the Examen was his one non-negotiable. If you can only find time for one practice, this is it. It’s as if he knew that any struggle to find time or focus for prayer could be resolved if you remain prayerfully aware of yourself through the Examen. The Examen offered what I’ve needed the most: an invitation to step outside of my own head so that I can see where my mind is going and how aware I am of God.
Resting at Last
As I’ve grow aware of my own struggles with anxiety, the nature of our anxious times become clearer as well. I spend each day surrounded by endless supplies of anxiety, and that’s with our family never owning a television. In fairness, there are plenty of concerning and troubling items in our news that responsible people must consider. However, anxiety and fear are also powerful forces that are ruthlessly employed on ratings-hungry news shows and social media. Our own agency in managing this anxiety is easy to overlook. Thomas Merton wrote: “Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves” (Thoughts in Solitude 82-82).
When anxiety and fear become my default ways of relating to the world, I run the risk of forgetting that there are other ways to approach each day and to process the thoughts and emotions that come streaming into my mind. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is counterintuitive and countercultural. Abba Anthony once remarked: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'” If our culture has normalized fear and anxiety, then it shouldn’t surprise us that this anxiety and uneasiness will be manifested in our spirituality. Our hard-working, goal-oriented society is bound to latch onto the aspects of religion that measure progress, worry about not doing enough, and fears the “evaluation” of a superior if those goals aren’t met.
The Examen offers a hopeful starting point that believes we not only have a measure of control over our thoughts, but that God is with us in the present and able to lead us if we stop obsessing over the past or the future. Merton assures us that this is an essential step in prayer. He wrote, “One cannot then enter into meditation, in this sense, without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I do not mean a disturbance, but a breaking out of routine, a liberation of the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one’s daily business” (Thoughts In Solitude, 40). There is no summoning God or convincing him to take pity on us as we struggle with our fears and anxiety. God doesn’t play cat and mouse games with us, withholding his presence if we don’t say the right words.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). I have found that the Examen is a way to bring my worries and anxious thoughts to God, exposing these dark clouds to God’s penetrating light. Besides the benefit of gaining clarity into my thoughts, there is an opportunity for God to take my unhealthy thoughts captive. Richard Rohr reminds us that our healing comes through our sins and failures. Our sins and failures typically reveal our deepest wounds and needs–both of which need God’s presence of healing and restoration. Rohr writes in his book Breathing Underwater, “You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.” However, he takes that a step further as he writes, “In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us” (Everything Belongs, 143).
What makes Jesus so unbelievable to anxious evangelicals such as myself is that he calls me to become more honest than I am capable of being on my own. Only he knows the depths of my fears, the ways I truly lean on my own resources and plans, and the ways that I have made him unnecessary in my life. In many cases, my sins, fears, and anxieties are the products of trying to make it through life on my own. Typically, my sins are the ways I try to cope and manage with life, while my anxieties are often rooted in my fears that my own means and strategies will not work. The Examen breaks through my illusions, helping me to see just how far I have drifted from Christ each day and developed my own ways of dealing with life. As I face these broken parts of myself, I am in a position where I can pray honestly.
Each time I pause to become aware of God, face my thoughts, and look for the ways that God has been at work in my day, I open myself to God’s power and presence. My friend Preston Yancey writes in his book Out of the House of Bread that the Examen is especially useful for seeing what has gone well. I had been so focused on all that I hadn’t done, couldn’t do, or had done wrong that the Examen finally prompted me to focus on the positive aspects of my day and to find God present in these as well. I have become far more thankful since I started practicing the Examen. Thankfulness is an essential part of spirituality, as the Psalms tell us to enter God’s presence with thanksgiving.
Making Space for Prayer
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up a moment for quiet reflection. I can always find a reason to keep pushing forward on a work project, to tackle a household chore right now, to reply to a text message or email immediately, or to settle for whatever entertainment I can dig up on my computer in the evening–especially during hockey season. Personal restoration and prayer are hard to fit into our schedules and they’re even harder to protect. Before I had regular, meaningful time for reflection, I didn’t know what it felt like to be at rest in God, let alone to be aware of my interior monologue.
I first attempted contemplative prayer before I learned about the Examen, and I was a hot mess. Nothing made sense or worked when I sought silence before God. I felt lost and completely at the mercy of my thoughts that ranged all over the place. Without the personal assessment of the Examen, any hope of rest or surrender to God remained disrupted or redirected when I sat down to pray. In my bid for silence and prayer, I was facing the truth about myself and my thoughts. Richard Rohr writes, “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, 74).
Contemplative prayer is much like a plant that puts down roots after we have tilled the hard soil of our anxious minds with the practice of the Examen. Every person I know who practices contemplative prayer has come to a similar place in the struggle with distracting thoughts. There are many others who have attempted to practice contemplative prayer only to see it wither in the rock hard soil of a busy, distracted, or anxious mind. I suspect that sometimes our minds are so distracted and anxious that we can’t fully grasp just how distracted and anxious we truly are.
The more technology at my fingertips, from smartphones to tablets, the greater the temptation to keep checking in, to keep conversations going, or to seek a bit of distraction. I have started to rely on having my phone with me at all times, experiencing a mild panic on the occasions that I leave it at home. That emotion alone is well worth exploring!
The Examen has been an essential part of my recovery from digital distraction and my captivity to intrusive technology. I now understand the ways that I use these tools in order to avoid facing my fears and anxieties. I have found that technology tends to encourage “mindlessness,” and this mindlessness of digital devices is a far greater threat to Christian spirituality than any mindfulness practice that may allegedly resemble an eastern religious practice. Without the focused mindfulness of practices such as the Examen, we’ll have every incentive to run from our fears, pain, and faults. Who wants to dwell on the complexities and fears of the present when escape is just a tap away?
While anxious evangelicals may fear that the Examen is little more than a self-centered exercise for spiritual slackers, I have found that it has saved me from unwitting compromise with the ways of this world, from distraction to anxiety and fear. If I was ever on a slippery slope away from God, it was before the Examen revealed just how far my anxieties, fears, and entertaining distractions had pulled me away from God’s presence. With the Examen turning over the rock-hard soil of my mind so that prayer could finally take root, I was finally able to learn what the Psalmist meant when he wrote, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5). Having learned to stop relying on my own words for prayer and turning over my anxious thoughts, I was finally ready to learn what it meant to flee, be silent, and pray.
Read More about Contemplative Prayer…
Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians
On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)