Gradualness: Lessons from Paul

Wise preachers and teachers in every age understand that growth in faith happens gradually, one step at a time. Today we turn to the apostle Paul, the most successful Christian preacher of all time.

Paul’s life and message can be summed up in one word: conversion. He experienced a profound conversion to Jesus, not only once on the road to Damascus, but each and every day of his life.

Paul boldly proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20-21). For Paul, every day was a dying and rising with Jesus: Christ living in him and he living in Christ. Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He took on a new name and new identity, and his life would never be the same.

This new identity is not simply a “me-and-Jesus” existence. We become fellow members of the one Body of Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Saul on the road: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not say “my followers” or “my friends”  but me. To be a disciple of Jesus is to co-exist in Christ as one whole person.

We exist organically as members of the one risen and ascended Body of Christ. Little by little, we become fully alive as members of that Body. It is a gradual and lifelong process. Paul understood that point. His primary task was always his own conversion: “It is not that I have received it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may receive it, since I have indeed been received by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the “fullness” of Christ. There is a gradual and dynamic growth into that fullness, until at last God’s plan of salvation comes to perfect completion. The entire human race (those willing anyway) and the whole cosmos will be brought into perfect unity under the headship of Christ. He will become all in all.

In the meantime, conversion is all about growing reception and receptivity. We earnestly strive to receive more and more from on high. We receive and give help from and to each other. And most importantly, we are received, taken up into this heavenly Body of Christ that is always beyond us, beckoning us daily to come further up and further in.

At any given moment, each of us receives and is received into this fullness as much as we can. But our capacity for reception depends upon our depth of desire, our freedom, and our willingness to cut out the things that are blocking our receptivity.

That means that we need different kinds of care and different moments. Paul explains the gentle nurturing that is so often needed in the early stages of conversion. While we are still spiritual infants, we need milk rather than solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). And hopefully we remember the same when it is our turn to nurture the faith of others, whether our own children or the adult members of our churches who are only just beginning to relate to Jesus as a real person. Paul explains to the Corinthians that he guided them, not “with a stick,” but “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), for he is their father in Christ Jesus through his preaching of the Gospel to them.

But notice the next point. As Paul proceeds in a spirit of love and gentleness, he urges them to use a stick – figuratively anyway – by casting out from their midst the man who is living with his father’s wife. And he urges them not to associate with the sexually immoral, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. He concludes pointedly, “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).

This whole “gradualness” thing is complex! On the one hand, our shared membership in Christ constantly impels us to receive one another as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7),  and to be receptive to those who are weak (Romans 14:1, 15:1). Yet there are also moments when we have a duty to hold others accountable and impose consequences.

Remember the lessons learned from Gregory the Great regarding the evangelization of Kent: some attitudes and practices (idols, idolatrous prayers) must be cut off at once; others are to be tolerated patiently with a view to full maturity. Discernment is key.

Paul often draws a distinction. Some Christians are “mature” or “spiritual” while others are “immature” or “fleshly.” We need patient tolerance for those who are immature or still in the flesh – but we also need to keep nourishing and caring for them so that they do not get stuck there!

We can ask an obvious question: What distinguishes a “mature” from an “immature” Christian? For Paul, it is simple: the mature Christian has embraced Christ Crucified, and is willing to sacrifice himself with Jesus. Paul warns strenuously against those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Sadly, some of the approaches to gradualness by some Church leaders today have become the equivalent of avoiding the Cross.  Yes, patience and gradualness are important, but so is finishing the journey, fighting the fight, running the race to the end! We are wise to begin with gentleness, sweetness, and patience. But in due time, full conversion is the goal. We must never forget that! With Paul, may we all truly take on this attitude of constant conversion and inspire others to embrace the same: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…

Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.

The Particular Examen

Much has been written in recent years about the General Examen prayer taught by Ignatius of Loyola. Far less has been written about the Particular Examen – a practice he recommended with equal enthusiasm.

I suspect that many modern authors, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, came to the conclusion that focusing on one fault in a particular way, more than once a day, was unhealthy and unhelpful. Perhaps they were leery of Ignatius’ suggestion to keep tally marks for the number of times one committed that fault throughout the day. Shouldn’t we accentuate the positive?

No doubt, there are potential pitfalls. Those prone to vanity or rivalry can become self-absorbed and proud of their progress. Those prone to scrupulosity or low self-esteem can plunge into a cycle of shame, discouragement, or despair.

Actually, Ignatius struggled mightily with all those things, especially in the early years of his conversion.  If you’d like to hear that story told in a gripping way, I would highly recommend the chapter on Ignatius in Colleen Carroll Campbell’s recent book The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught me to Trade my Dream of Perfect for God’s.

The remarkable fact is that, even after he began breaking free from his perfectionism, fear, shame, and discouragement, Ignatius still placed a high value on making a daily Particular Examen.  His early Jesuits (the members of the Society that he co-established) quickly became engaged in missionary work in the New World. It was sometimes challenging for them to pray the entire Divine Office. Ignatius was willing to dispense them from their Office, but much more reluctant to dispense them from their daily examinations (particular and general). He saw those exercises as too important in their spiritual lives. Could it be that, in abandoning the idea of a Particular Examen, modern authors have thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

I think the key is to see this examination not as a self-guided effort of rooting out faults, but as a response to grace. The Particular Examen should begin with a holy desire, one that is clearly from God. Ignatius is assuming that our daily Lectio Divina and our daily General Examen are deepening our awareness of what God is doing. As we become aware of a prompting from God, the Particular Examen can become a means of freely and actively cooperating with God’s initiative.

What does it look like? One way or another, it involves returning once or twice a day to the same desire and allowing ourselves to be refocused and recommitted. It’s a quick check-in and a reminder that God and others are cheering us on. It could take any number of forms, and it may help to brainstorm a bit about what will work best for us. One way or another, it will hopefully provide daily and consistent accountability around that one area we deeply desire to grow in at the moment. Perhaps we write these things down in a daily journal or diary. Perhaps we ask others to help us as accountability partners, checking in regularly.

Such  practices are quite common (and effective) today in areas such as exercise or dieting. The same pitfalls are there: competition, envy, discouragement, or shame. But anyone who has made serious and lasting change in those areas will tell you that it helped to be intentional, highly specific, and accountable.

Personally, I have been keeping a paper calendar for about five years now. I make various notations each day to keep track of my priorities. It includes things like prayer and spiritual reading and exercise. One by one, I have also added those particular areas God is leading me to grow in. Indeed, one of those goals is making a daily Particular Examen morning and evening. For me, this examination includes drawing close to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, allowing myself to be calm and grateful, calling on their love and their help, and imagining how God’s grace, given through their tender love for me, is helping me overcome the areas of particular struggle right now.

In some regards, this exercise is parallel to the “visualization” exercises that are popular in recent decades – whether among athletes or among those seeking to break free from addictions and bad habits. Experiments in brain research have documented astounding results. A musician or athlete who “practices” in her imagination by visualizing her routine gains almost the same proficiency and confidence as when physically practicing. Some experiments even show similar effect for one who visualizes a weight lifting routine. Even without touching the weights, an intense and detailed visualizing of a usual routine begins increasing muscle strength. Truly, what the mind can conceive the body can achieve.

God hardwired our brains to grow through daily doses of encouragement and renewed confidence. Growth happens gradually, as success builds upon success. Think of the little child learning new and scary things. She doesn’t learn them all at once. Rather, she takes baby steps (quite literally) – and rejoices in the progress along the way. By receiving steady encouragement when frustrated and by celebrating the victories (no matter how small), she keeps learning and growing. Scientists will tell you that healthy releases of dopamine in her brain are reinforcing the process. This is true not only for little children, but for all God’s children at any age in life!

However, there is one exceedingly important difference from the secular versions of visualization and the practice of the Particular Examen – namely, that our efforts are to be utterly God-centered and not self-centered. All the pitfalls that we considered earlier are the result of focusing too much on ourselves. We have a fallen human tendency to vacillate between two extremes. When “succeeding” we get puffed up with pride and vanity. When “failing” we plunge into shame and discouragement. But staying God-centered changes everything.  When we notice slips or shortcomings, we can let ourselves consoled and encouraged by him. When we notice success, we can rejoice and praise him as the source and completion of every blessing in us. This is the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Magnificat prayer (Luke 1:46-55). She never minimizes or denies the good God is doing in her – nor does she ever puff up with pride or self-reliance. She is filled with the Holy Spirit, abiding in faith and humility.

One can hopefully see why Ignatius of Loyola and so many other spiritual masters over the centuries encouraged daily accountability in the form of a particular examination. There are so many benefits: intentionality, accountability, sober watchfulness, encouragement, celebration of progress, and increased skill in discernment. Typically, our steady growth and awareness in one area leads us into another area of growth. What we thought was “the problem” was only one symptom of a deeper problem (or a deeper holy desire). Step by step, God leads us ever more deeply into the mystery of his love.

Holy desires are the seeds God plants in us, intending them to grow and bear fruit. All too often, those seeds get snatched away (like the seed on the path) or prevented from ever taking root (like the seed on rocky ground that gets scorched by persecution). The Particular Examen is a highly practical and effective way of abiding in the graces, until they come to full growth and fruition.

The General Examen Prayer

In my last post I described the importance of discernment of spirits. The more we notice what is going on in our heart, the more quickly and effectively we can recognize the difference between the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the wiles of evil spirits, and the steady background noise of our own needs and wants.

We can talk all we want about discernment; the only way to become proficient is to engage in it on a regular basis. We may struggle at first, but consistent prayer will yield results, just like daily practice with a sport or a musical instrument.

We’ve already discussed Lectio Divina, which engages our hearts at a profound level. Prayed consistently and well, it will definitely deepen our discernment.

Today we discuss another highly effective prayer method: the Examen prayer taught by Ignatius of Loyola to his companions and his retreatants.

Examen means “examination” – in this case, an examination of our heart. Here we are not so much thinking up a laundry list of sins that need cleansing. That can lead to a spin-cycle of shame that keeps us stuck in our sins. Rather, it is an exercise of the sober-minded watchfulness we discussed last time.

There are two different approaches to the Examen prayer: general and particular. One involves an overall awareness and noticing of what is happening in our heart. The other allows a specific, in-depth focus on one specific area. Today’s post focuses on how to make a general Examen, with the next post describing how to make a particular one.

[BORING NOTE: In case you are a curious reader inclined to cautious self-study, please note that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are not meant to be read from cover to cover, like another book. They are, rather, a list of exercises that are meant to be, well, exercised. This best occurs in a serious retreat, under the ongoing guidance of a spiritual mentor, especially if one is undertaking all of the exercises. Today we are simply selecting one of those exercises, the General Examen, as an exercise that easily adapts itself to everyday Christian life].

Ignatius of Loyola identifies five basic steps for making a General Examen: (1) Thanksgiving; (2) Prayer for Light; (3) Examination of the day; (4) Examination of my response; (5) Hopeful resolve. Let us consider them one by one.

1) Recollection and Thanksgiving. Ignatius is a wise spiritual master. He understands how most of us may be disturbed or distracted. The first step is to allow our heart to be expanded in gratitude. Thanksgiving puts us in God’s presence and allows us to step into our watchtower. There we can calmly notice and discern. Nothing is so soothing or calming as a spirit of thanksgiving. We will notice everything in much greater detail if we are in a place of gratitude.

2) Prayer for Light. We should never try to fix ourselves. As Jeremiah says, “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).  Any examination of ourselves should always be a Spirit-led appreciation of the inner workings of our heart. We give God permission to show us our own heart.

3) Examination of the Day.  This is not so much trying to pile up a list of vices and virtues.  Rather, it involves a growing inner awareness of all the moods, feelings, thoughts, urges, and spiritual movements since our last prayer period.  We can ask ourselves, “What movements have most dominated my heart?”  We will always find one of three forces at work:

a) The Holy Spirit. He is always working within us, planting holy desires, calling us courageously or inviting us gently into deeper levels of holiness.

b) Our own spirit. So many of the movements in our own heart are simply our own human responses to the experiences of daily life.  We all have emotional and spiritual needs, in addition to more selfish wants. We should be especially attentive to negative feelings and to fantasy thinking – those thought patterns that urge us to escape the present moment. We need not judge – just notice. They happened. They were part of our story today. They need an intentional response. Sometimes they are a helpful reminder to pay closer attention to our emotional and spiritual needs. By contrast, if allowed to run wild, our fantasy thoughts will instead become windows for the devil to enter in, enticing us in the wrong direction. That is the beauty of the general examination. As we become more sober and aware, we simultaneously grow in our freedom. We begin to respond proactively to difficult situations – rather than reacting mindlessly.

c) The devil. He tempts us, often quite subtly. We all have wounds and negative emotions. In and of themselves, these are normal – Jesus had them as well, only without sin. These painful places of our heart can become breaches in the garden wall, through which the devil enters as he tries to sow lies about us or about God. He did no differently with Adam and Eve (successfully) or with Jesus in the desert (unsuccessfully).  The devil will bully us in the midst of our wounds, attacking us where we are weakest, predictably and relentlessly. If we resist firmly, he will flee. If we allow God and others to repair the breaches in our defenses, and if we bring our struggles to the light, he loses any power over us.

This “examination” step of the Examen may seem difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. As Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). We start to recognize the rotten fruits of the devil: discouragement, paralyzing fear, resentment, self-pity, rivalry, factions, self-indulgence, peevishness, etc. We start to recognize the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). And we become much more aware of ourselves along the way, gaining insight and freedom over our patterns of behavior.

4) Examination of my response. Only after fully appreciating all our interior movements of the day do we move to the next question: “How have I responded?”  When the Holy Spirit has invited me to take the more difficult path, have I done it?  When the evil one has used my daily experiences to lead me away from the Holy Spirit’s path, have I given in? We praise God for any positive response and spiritual growth we have had, and ask Him for grace to help us continue. We express sorrow and contrition for our hesitancy or refusal to respond to God’s invitation, or for the times we gave in to temptation.

5) Hopeful Resolve.  Our reflection and examination should give us a good idea of what challenges today and tomorrow will bring.  Here we invite the Lord to walk with us during the coming hours, and renew our confidence in His ability to win the victory in these daily struggles. We visualize how we can and will overcome – for He is with us to deliver us.

With practice, all 5 steps can be done in 10 minutes – probably even in 5 minutes. It can be done anytime, but evening is an especially good time. During those final hours of the day, many of us tend to be tired or fatigued and are looking for mindless escapes. What a difference to turn first to gratitude in God’s presence as we stay sober and watchful. From there we will much more fruitfully rest and recreate.

Again, consistency is the key. If we are daily and habitually engaging in these five steps – even better if we are talking about them with a trusted spiritual mentor or friend – we will definitely notice over time that we are much more attuned to what is going on in our heart. We will be much more equipped to say “yes” to God and “no” to the evil one, with ever fuller freedom.