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Archbishop’s column: gratitude and signs of hope in examen

Columns

Archbishop John Dew
September 2012

altLast weekend, the archdiocese held its second Stewardship weekend, beginning with a day of prayer at the cathedral. For me, it was an opportunity to reflect and share on a practice that I learned as a seminarian, and which has become one of the foundation stones of a pastoral spirituality.

Many of us grew up with the ‘Examination of Conscience’ and were taught how to do this each day.
‘What had we done wrong?’
‘What sins had I committed?’

It was all about what I had done wrong! It was focusing my sin!

To learn as a seminarian that this was not so much about an examination of conscience but rather an examen – a chance to take a deep, prayerful look at ourselves, to reflect on where I had been with God and where I may not have been so aware of God during the day was life-giving and refreshing. This was more about God than about me and made so much more sense.

Someone told me recently that many years ago Oprah Winfrey spoke on her show about keeping a ‘Gratitude Journal’. She advised people to write down every day 10 things they could be grateful for.

I was surprised to hear this suggestion because it is something many people had been doing for years. I think the idea really came from St Ignatius Loyola who developed awareness of the presence of God in our day as part of his spiritual exercises for the Society of Jesus.

I have kept a prayer journal for about 30 years – sometimes just quotes which have impressed me in some way, or a kind of record of events. Sadly, now it is a bit sporadic, but for years I did it every night.

For me the most fruitful, helpful times are when I have written what I was grateful for, or what I had seen as a sign of hope during the day. The questions I have reflected on vary greatly; they could be something like:

‘For what moment today am I most grateful or least grateful?’

When we have asked ourselves these questions prayerfully and reflectively we discover what St Ignatius calls moments of desolation and of consolation.

During such moments we are called to stop and reflect on what brought us to this? What brought us to this sense of peace and calm? What distressed me? For me the time of prayer and reflection at the end of each day is invaluable. It is a time to find inner peace and calm. Then we can pray the Nunc Dimittis, ‘Now Lord you can let your servant go in peace…’

A prayerful pause at the end of the day helps us to see not only what has gone wrong but especially what has gone right and where God is in all of this. Then we become grateful.

God in pain and sadness
The examen also teaches us to appreciate how the voice of God speaks through those moments for which we are not so grateful – a time to acknowledge feelings of pain and sadness and to hear how God is speaking through them.

We can become aware of moments that we might have initially dismissed as insignificant, but which could give direction to our lives. Insignificant moments, when looked at each day, actually become significant because they form a pattern that often points to how God wants to give us more life.

Having reflected on such questions our gratitude could inspire us to pray a prayer like this:
O Gracious Lover of our souls … let your comforting presence embrace us this night.
The beautiful prayer of this day is complete.
This day’s pilgrimage is ending and we hold dear the lessons of the day.
Night has fallen. Breathe us into this good night; calm our hearts; comfort our souls; protect us from danger; fill us with wellbeing; anoint us with your loving protection.
Receive our prayer.
Amen.