Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
(Acting) Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Liturgy and Evangelization
During my time as a doctoral student at Boston College, I participated in a number of initiatives through Intersections, an office whose purpose is to reflect upon the Catholic and Jesuit identity of the University. At the beginning of each meeting, no matter how mundane the agenda, we practiced a modified version of the Jesuit examen. Pausing for five minutes of silent reflection, we considered where we felt God’s presence acutely in our life that day (when we felt most alive), as well as where we experienced desolation (as a doctoral student, I had a steady supply of such moments to draw upon). Despite being someone highly uncomfortable with the more affective features of faith sharing (we always shared the fruit of our reflection), I discovered this to be the highlight of my experience in the program. Through establishing the practice of daily reflection, I discovered that I was more attentive to my desires, how I interacted with other people, and more open to the ways that God was actively communicating with me through the created universe.
Yet life interrupted this practice, and as I left the community of Intersections behind for the isolation of dissertation writing, I ceased my practice of the examen. Until this year when I began to read James Martin, S.J.’s book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. In the context of reading this text, I realized how essential the practice of the Jesuit examen is to the connection between liturgy and life integral to a robust liturgical spirituality. As we enter any liturgical experience (the Liturgy of the Hours, a common celebration of the Rite of Penance, the Mass), we are pulled away from the quotidian aspects of the day and enter into the sacred space of the Church’s prayer. But, it is extraordinarily difficult to move from action to contemplation, from critical thought to contemplative beholding. To the one unpracticed in such reflection, the distractions that come during this prayer take over the entire experience. At the conclusion of such unfocused prayer, it becomes difficult to connect liturgy and life not because of a lack of desire. Rather, we barely found ourselves participating in a liturgical rite in the first place. On any number of occasions, the Eucharistic liturgy became time for me to write the next paragraph of my dissertation. To plan a conference. To think about setting up a meeting. Not to be transformed through Word and sacrament.
So, how might the Jesuit examen assist us in developing a disposition toward a contemplative liturgical prayer? First, we need to ask how to pray the examen. As with much of Ignatian prayer, the stress is less on method than certain features that may be improvised depending upon the context. I arise each morning at 5:00 AM (not because I’m naturally an ascetic; I tend to love the darkness and quiet of morning). For the first twenty minutes of my day, I make coffee and read online news. Then, I turn off the computer and close my eyes (not to sleep, though the temptation arises now and again). In the first five or so minutes of the prayer, I thank God for the small joys of existence. Wakefulness. The rising sun. The rhythm of breathe. Moments in which I feel the presence of God even at this early hour. The quiet permeating my home.
Then, I “attend” to each part of the previous day. I find quite naturally that each day of our life (particularly those of us with calendars) fits into small segments. Going for a jog. A conversation. A meeting. Through each moment, I ask questions of God? Why did I enjoy my jog this morning so much? What was it about that meeting, which left me invigorated? Why did I have such a hard time giving adequate attention to the friend, the colleague, whom I encountered in the hall? In essence, each of these questions are directed toward an assessment of where in the previous day did I perceive God’s love (or not).
These questions are not a matter of psychological examination or an over scrupulous conscience of an Irish Catholic (though the latter is alive and well in my psyche). Rather, by focusing in particular upon how I felt, thought, understood throughout the day, I come to see the various ways that the Triune God seeks to attune me to the gift of self-giving love. Think of the human being as an instrument. Our bodies, our thoughts, our words, our deepest affections, our volition are each oriented toward praising God. When we are attuned to the divine will, those of us still young in the spiritual life in particular find that consolation flows with ease. The effortlessness of our love of God and neighbor begets joy to those that we meet and ourselves, and we share deeply in the communion of human life that God intends for creation. We can say with Augustine, “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (conf. I.1). But throughout the day, we are not always “in tune.” We think one thing, and then do another. We love one person, and decry another. The examen is akin then to a kind of tuning of an instrument, reorienting us to the radical self-love to which we are called.
Following this examination of the previous day (often takes me twenty minutes) and concomitant conversation with God, I ask God’s intercession for those whom I met throughout the previous day, those who asked my prayers. I also ask for the desires that I wish to have in order to more deeply love God and neighbor. And I seek God’s healing of those places in my life in which I’m broken. I close my time with the Salve Regina, a prayer that focuses my attention on the Scriptural phrase that I use to recall myself to prayer throughout the day: “Let it be done to me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38).
How does this prayer transform my participation in Mass, the liturgical rite that I attempt to attend on a daily basis? First, before praying the examen became a daily habit, I rarely had any sense of my own sinfulness in the Penitential Rite. I mean, I knew that I had sinned at least in principle. But, on any particular day, I couldn’t isolate one moment in which I chose not to love. Having practiced the examen for a bit now, I’m clearly aware of those moments in which I engage in senseless gossip or judgment regarding colleagues, ignore or use the neighbor for my own entertainment, fail to adequately love my wife, become annoyed by students who want nothing more than my attention, and on and on. During the Kyrie eleison, I now really seek God’s mercy, not in a perfunctory manner, but because I know that I require God’s tender mercy (another reason I love the Salve regina, mater misericordia) in order to practice the radical love that is the heart of existence. I need to receive God’s merciful grace that I might love unto the end.
Second, in the busyness of the day, it is exceptionally difficult to listen to the Scriptures in a sacramental mode. I hear the words proclaimed, but I often think to myself in the secret of my heart, let’s get on with this, I have places to be. Through attending to my own desires throughout the day, I have become more attuned (there’s that word again) to how small phrases of even the most bizarre reading of daily Mass are intended to form me in divine desire. A phrase from the psalms. The words of Christ from the Gospel. An off-hand comment in the homily. Each of these can fill me with immense gratitude that the Word of God became for me a word, became flesh. No wonder tears flowed so often from Ignatius while participating in the sacrifice of the Mass.
Third, before practicing the examen, I loved the texts of the Mass but rarely saw a connection between these texts and the rest of life. Over the summer, I went on a “hiking” vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. One morning, my wife and I went out for a hike early enough that the evening’s dew had not yet evaporated from the forest’s foliage. The hue of the plants around us, through the gift of the dewfall, was stunning. As the soft light met the dew through the canopy of the trees above, the green of the plants became even more vivid. The earth took on an almost ethereal quality, transformed through the transcendent rays of light illuminating the dew. I noted this in my morning examen, expressing gratitude for this gift. Several weeks later, in the midst of Mass, I attended a parish that had begun to use the new translation of the Mass a bit early. Initially I was surprised to hear these words that I had studied for months now being really prayed (and actually done quite beautifully). But, in the midst of praying the second Eucharistic prayer, I heard the priest pray: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Suddenly, my memory recalled the moment in Tennessee weeks before. I perceived anew what took place in the Eucharist. The Spirit “falls down” upon the gifts of bread and wine, transforming them in the same way that dew covers the earth. The dew that fell in the mountains of Tennessee had thoroughly transfigured creation, bestowing to it a splendor previously unimagined. So too, the Spirit of the Lord rains down upon bread and wine resulting in Eucharistic splendor. Bread and wine are transfigured through the life-giving power of the Spirit, becoming the fullness of Christ’s body and blood. Yet unlike the created order, the dew that falls upon the gifts of bread and wine is not visible to the eyes. Instead, the splendor of the Eucharist is only visible through the poverty of faith. I may not have known the sweetness of this theological insight, as performed in the Church’s prayer, if I had not attended to the morning dew in the foothills of Tennessee. And it is now an insight that I was take to each Eucharist, as I imagine the transformation of these gifts (and my own self) taking place through the Eucharistic prayer.
Finally, in the Eucharist, we are to bring our entire being (body, soul, affections, and will) to the central sacrificial act. We are to pray that Christ’s sacrifice of self-emptying love, given to us in the body and blood of Christ, might become our sacrifice. As I have begun to attend to my desires, my affections, areas of my life in which I fail to conform my will to God’s, I see those places in which true and radical sacrifice, self-emptying love, is possible. I have begun to perceive the Eucharistic opportunities of daily life. Did I even notice these needs before? Did I note my real desire to be with the poor, yet my fear that such a gift would make me vulnerable? And in conjunction with a spiritual director, I hope to assess those areas of my life in which I need to become ever more what I receive in the sacrament. That I may learn to offer, like Christ, a more perfect sacrifice of love.
So, despite all the jokes about Jesuits and liturgy, perhaps it’s time to enrich our liturgical formation with the Jesuit examen. If we seek full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical rites, we need to engage in a spiritual formation that teaches us full, conscious, and active participation in human life in the first place. For the Triune God that comes to us in liturgical prayer never ceases to seek us. And the more we are aware of how desperately the Father desires to unite us to himself through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the more truly we may find ourselves making this prayer our own:
You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
and all you have created
rightly gives you praise,
for through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
by the power and working of the Holy Spirit,
you give life to all things and make them holy,
and you never cease to gather a people to yourself,
so that from the rising of the sun to its setting
a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.