Anyone who has ever undertaken the Ignatian prayer of examen will attest to the fact that it can be an ominous undertaking indeed. It has often been so for me. However, it is not intended to be merely a discipline aimed at overturning stones in our spiritual rock gardens, under which we discover unwanted weeds to be uprooted. I, like you, am a complicated mix of right and wrong, good and bad, wise and stupid, weeds and flowers. As I look behind my 2012 plow and view the crooked furrow I’m left with the following observations. First, I saw God revealed most clearly not through my good stuff but, ultimately, through bad decisions, personal and professional misfires and foolhardy actions. Second, I experienced the saving hand of God to me most vociferously through the loving presence of those I am blessed to know and trust.
Martin Luther, a favorite sinner-saint and one acquainted with overly-fastidious self-examination, once made the amorphous, often misquoted statement, “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”
A deeper reading reveals that he was in fact advocating a message of truest grace; a grace exacted on the soul ever struggling toward holiness that needs not feign sin but for whom it is a very present reality. For Luther, that meant everyone. No pretense was necessary. Grace is perfected in the One who gives it not those who imperfectly receive it. What Luther was saying in essence was for us to live authentically, grace would do the rest. Check.
I’m a borderline extravert-introvert, loving the warmth and presence of the same beloved souls I then seek to escape. It’s enigmatic at best, confusing at worst. 2012 taught me a lesson to which I keep returning: God’s word and will are, for me, encountered most clearly through others who enshrine that voice; the Word birthed in those who strive to live in communion with it. My journey last year involved much spiritual direction from a host of spiritual directors (many who would have no idea what that term even means). To those loving souls I humbly say, thank you. Thank you for listening to God with me and for me in my pursuit of wholeness. You helped give the Gospel clarity and bite when I most needed it.
A great question to ask yourself in any prayer of examen is: where did you miss God working or God’s invitations toward growth? My strange 2012 answer? I’m not so sure I did miss God’s working, in spite of some good, some poor living in 2012. The process of transformation has been so real that I remain uncertain whether I could have learned in any other way.
As a general rule I urge you against aiming at failure in pursuit of spiritual victories (see Romans 6). But, since God is quite content allowing those he loves either way to make mistakes, blunders, and malfunctions, we may confidently assert an end result of conversion to the glory of God’s name. I will let the theologians battle over whatever ideological shards this portrays in my thinking.
If tidiness and predictability is what we’re after, the Way of Jesus will prove endlessly frustrating. If, however, we are prepared to live with some measure of ambiguity, unanswered questions and the grey area that includes a personal life, lived authentically, but that never really feels put together, then we are in the best position to encounter God at God’s very best. The Examen gives us permission to look behind our plow if only to pursue better ways of allowing God to plant the seeds of our formation. For me, it was a via negativa, but one that contributed to my ongoing conversion. I have seldom been so gratified to understand that nothing is wasted in God’s redemptive economy. God will use all things at his disposal to train us in righteousness and gift us with union. Phew.
Now, that’s good news.
How does God speak to you through other people?
How have you learned from previous mistakes? How have you had to let go of a need for predictability in order to let God move in your life?
Robert Rife is the music and worship minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church (www.westpress.org), a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and writer. He is a recent graduate from Spring Arbor University with an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership and blogs at innerwoven.me.