Our culture has an interesting end-of-year ritual that succeeds every time to induce a state of reflection and self-examination. It is the ritual of recounting the notable individuals who passed away during the calendar year. The website, biography.com, lists 56 famous people who died in 2012:
I am in my mid 50s and remember well the likes of Andy Griffith, Jack Klugman, and Phyllis Diller. I was never concerned about who shot J.R., but I have fond memories of Larry Hagman’s Major Nelson in “I Dream of Jeannie.” While I seldom thought about Dick Clark during the year, he was an integral part of my family’s New Year celebrations.
I grew up with these people. They were part of my life.
It matters little that we did not have a personal relationship. They were comrades in the journey of life…and to lose them means something. To contemplate their loss brings me back to a fundamental constituent of life: death.
I could, of course, choose to be unreflective about this: “Here today; gone tomorrow.”
But these are people, just like you and me. They had families and friends. They embodied consciousness and laughter and sadness and memories and hope – just like we do.
Perhaps I am just being morbid…and the truth is I would rather not think about this. Nevertheless…
It may occur in 2013 or some other year after that. But, barring Jesus’ Parousia, our death is as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise.
This end-of-year ritual forces me to engage in the practice of examen.
I first encountered the practice of examen in Richard Foster’s book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. I have read many books on prayer over the years, but I find myself coming back to this one time after time because of its clarity and accessibility. It is, in a word, one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.
The term examen dates back to the early 17th century and refers to the formal practice of examining one’s soul or conscience. The Jesuits engage in examen as a daily discipline.
There are, says Foster, two aspects of examen – like two sides of a door: the examen of consciousness, by which we discern how God has been present to us throughout our waking hours, and the examen of conscience, through which we probe the areas of our lives that stand in need of cleansing and healing (see pp. 27 and 28 of Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home).
These two sides of examen intersect seamlessly. When I become more acutely present to God’s presence, I discover, like the prophet Isaiah, that I am a sinful person, “a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
As I reflect on 2012, I realize I have been through one of the most difficult years of my life. Last January, my wife and I discovered that someone very close to us is suffering from bipolar affective disorder. Unfortunately this person refuses treatment—and refuses to acknowledge that this is a (very treatable) form of mental illness.
Over the years I have provided pastoral support to families grappling with mental illness, but I must admit that neither my pastoral experience nor academic knowledge of physio-psychological disorders prepared me for something so close and so profound. I had no idea how fragile and tenuous human brain chemistry is—and had absolutely no idea how deeply and painfully families with mental illness suffer.
If someone made the prediction last January that we would be on this road of suffering in 2012, I would not have believed it.
Yet God has been present in this crucible, granting the strength and equilibrium of spirit to navigate this uncharted territory with a peace not our own. And God has used this experience to awaken me to self-care practices that I probably would not have been open to otherwise. God has been faithfully present in both consciousness and conscience.
If 2013 is not the year I pass from this Earth, I suspect that the journey ahead will continue to be long and hard. But I am not alone. If I have learned anything in 2012, it is that.
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How has suffering shown you that you’re not alone?
What in 2012 was a crucible for you? How did it shape you?
Chuck Conniry is Vice President and Dean of George Fox Evangelical Seminary, a graduate school of George Fox University, in Newberg, Oregon. Chuck holds several degrees, including the PhD in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and MDiv from Bethel Seminary, San Diego. He is married to Dianne and together they have three children and one daughter-in-law: Krystal, Matthew (and his wife, Ashley), and Nathan. Chuck loves to write, swim, and ride his Harley. He and his family reside in Sherwood, Oregon.