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.

Sober and Watchful

“Be sober; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8).

The apostle Peter calls us to a sober-minded watchfulness. Far from fear-mongering, he is calling us to a calm and confident vigilance with Christ and with each other. He is calling us to be awake, to be aware, and to abide in the present moment. When we do so, we grow into a very special spiritual gift: the gift of discernment.

Discernment yields a threefold benefit: 1) It unmasks the subtle lies of the devil; 2) it increases our self-awareness and maturity; 3) it tunes us in to the still small voice of God. Recall John’s words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). At any given moment, in the depths of our heart, there are many movements. Some are from the Holy Spirit, some from the evil one, and some representing our own needs and wants. The wise and discerning person is able to see with ever greater watchfulness and clarity.

Discernment is a marvelous gift from God. Like many of his gifts, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured through consistent effort. It is not at all like riding a bicycle. It is more like playing the piano or speaking a foreign language. Most of us will need to apply ourselves diligently before seeing significant progress – but it’s worth it in the end. Yes, there are varying degrees of natural giftedness (or in this case, supernatural giftedness). But the gift only flourishes when practiced regularly. It stalls or stumbles when we become inconsistent.

As the passage from Peter indicates, discernment begins with sobriety and watchfulness. It is worth taking a peek at the Greek here. So much gets lost in translation. Peter issues a twofold command: “Be sober” (nēpsate) and “be watchful” (grēgorēsate). We should notice that he uses the second person plural (“Ye” or “Y’all” or “Yous guys” – depending on where you live). Sobriety and watchfulness and discernment of spirits cannot be exercised in isolation. We do so in a faith community, abiding in love and truth with other members of the Body of Christ. The devil’s oldest tactic is to divide and conquer. We are so much more susceptible to his lies and distortions when he gets us isolated. By contrast, when we surround ourselves with wise people who are deeply attuned to our heart, who truly care for our well-being, and who speak the unvarnished truth with love, then we will find ourselves making much more progress in the ways of discernment.

“Be sober” means much more than avoiding drunkenness. The Greek suggests self-denial and fasting, moderating the pleasures of our five senses. So, yes, “be sober” includes choosing against addictive behaviors such as drunkenness, gluttony, narcotics, fornication, pornography, or masturbation. But why? Because they pull us out of the present moment, stealing away our freedom to give and receive love. They are drugs of choice to numb our pain. They leave us fragmented and empty. They are the opposite of watchful discernment. Our “no” to over-indulgence and self-gratification must be combined with a “yes” to the present moment – choosing to be truly present to God and others and self.

Notice that Peter pairs the word nēpsate (“be sober,” “fast,” “deny yourself”) with grēgorēsate (“be watchful”). The Greek here suggests staying awake, keeping vigil, being like a night watchman. A true watchman notices everything and discerns carefully. Some sights and sounds are attention-getting, but insignificant. A skilled watchman knows not to be distracted by them. He calmly ignores them, gently refocusing on what truly matters. Conversely, he is attuned even to the slightest change of environment. No detail is too small if it is new or out of place. The more intimately familiar he is with his environment, the more skilled he is in his watchfulness and appropriate responsiveness. He is also no fool in trying to confront certain evils alone. He knows when to consult a companion for advice, when to call for help, and when to sound the alarm.

So there are three basic steps here: 1) Watch; 2) Discern; 3) Respond. Habitually doing those three things in the present moment (aided by God and others) will yield profound growth and fruitfulness in our spiritual lives. It’s so simple. Why do so few of us do it?

I suppose one of the main reasons is that watchfulness involves much self-denial and discipline. The classic Christian understanding of nēpsate and grēgorēsate is to engage in fasting and prayer vigils. Early Christians, particularly monks and religious, did so for centuries. Although it is not advisable to fast or pray in a way that harms our health or hastens our mortality, nonetheless most of us these days err in the opposite extreme of over-indulgence. Our “no” muscles could use more frequent exercising as we gain freedom from the things that enslave us.

A second obstacle is trying to do it ourselves. We resist being vulnerable to others, sharing our struggles and asking for help. It is easy to deceive ourselves with our own willfulness and ego. It is easy to pretend to be religious, all the while serving ourselves. That is why it is so important to open our discerning hearts to a third-party perspective – perhaps a trusted spiritual mentor, perhaps Church leadership, certainly the whole of Sacred Scripture and the collective wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian Tradition.

As we enter into the depths of our heart with greater watchfulness, we can begin discerning which spirits are moving there. Jesus offers a simple litmus test:  “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). St. Paul lists several rotten fruits (Gal 5:19-21): self-indulgence, sensuality, lust, factions, rivalries, division, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc.  We can add other rotten fruits: obstinacy, rebelliousness, paralyzing fear, discouragement, and despair. The Holy Spirit will never prompt us to these attitudes and behaviors. If we experience them, it is a sure sign that we are not being led by the Holy Spirit and that we need to turn to God and ask for grace and conversion. By contrast, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. If we experience those positive attitudes in the depth of our heart it is a sure sign we are being led by the Spirit.

Finally comes our response. If we discern the work of the evil one, Peter urges us to resist him with faith. If we resist him firmly and directly, he will flee (James 4:7). By contrast, if we discern the Holy Spirit leading us, we respond with docility. He will act. We need only abide and cooperate freely.

How can we grow in this great gift of watchful discernment? In addition to daily Lectio Divina, there are a couple of other prayer methods that help immensely. I look forward to sharing those in the weeks ahead.

Holy Desires

To be human is to desire. Our hearts are made by God to thirst and to be satisfied, to seek and to find. The very virtue of Hope is defined as a desire for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Our whole human journey begins with small seeds of divine desire planted within us, slowly growing until they reach full fruition.

Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians is to think of desire as “selfish.” True, we are ultimately called to lay down our lives in imitation of Jesus. But we cannot make a gift without first having something to give. Far from being a “selfish” thing, our desires are actually the way in which God’s grace effects the most growth in us, so that our self-offering to him will truly be for the praise of his glory.

Let me begin by making a distinction between our urges, our needs, and our desires. They often feel the same to the undiscerning heart, but are quite different once we start paying attention.

By “urges” I mean the daily temptations that entice us to grasp for things that we do not actually desire or need, things which will actually harm our relationship with God, self, and others. Typically that comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, anger, sloth, or pride. In the throes of these urges, we experience them as something to be grasped and possessed, indeed as something that we must have. For a visual, just think of Gollum seeking after his “precious” in The Lord of the Rings.

Resisting unhealthy urges can be a battle – a fierce battle indeed if we have been ignoring our authentic human needs. In my last post, I described those needs – on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. We can choose to disregard them. But when we do, our humanity is walking wounded, and we make ourselves much more susceptible to urges and temptations that promise us much and deliver little. Our own brain will propose the urges to us as a way of trying to feel better. Or the devil will enter in and attack. The devil is not God; he cannot create. But he is definitely the enemy of our human nature who loves to torment us, to kick us when we’re down. When we are feeling empty or desperate in our human needs, he finds it so much easier to sow his lies and ensnare us in habits of sin.

As important as it is to acknowledge our authentic human needs and distinguish them from our urges, it is our holy desires that matter the most. It is there that the grace of God meets us.

Last year, I had the joy of participating at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee. The presenter, Dr. Bob Schuchts, focused on this theme of “Holy Desires.” He reminded us that the very word “desire” is of French origin, meaning “from the Lord.” We discover who we truly are by getting in touch with our deepest and holiest desires. It is there that we encounter God the Father’s love for us, and our own unique identity and blessing from Him.

It is through our desires that spiritual growth happens. One day, Scripture tells us, our capacity for God will be so great that we will see Him face to face and, by that experience, be transformed to become like God (1 John 3:2). The great and mighty Moses was warned that no man could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Holy desires change all that. Little by little, they help us to become ready. They stretch and expand our hearts, slowly but surely increasing our capacity to receive divine gifts. The more we desire, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we desire. The process transforms us as we become who we are.

There is an old medieval axiom, quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In the case of God’s grace, He always fills us when we ask him, but our capacity to receive is limited. Saint Augustine puts it this way: “God wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.”

In some cases, it is our selfish urges that constrict us. Until we are willing to die to self, we cannot be filled. We are coming to God with clenched fists rather than open hands. I suspect He smiles at us. We are like little children clutching our pennies when he is ready to give us hundred dollar bills. He patiently waits until we are ready to trust and surrender. In other cases, we genuinely have the desire, but need more time to grow. Even though God’s grace moves swiftly, all authentic human growth happens slowly. Little by little, his grace stretches us through holy desires, careful not to break us.

Gregory the Great describes how this transformation happens in our hearts: “When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow, they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love.”

Have you burned with such a love? Are you in touch with your deepest desires? They are God’s gifts to you. It is He who has planted them.

As God lays bare our hearts, we might be surprised to discover that what we desire the deepest is also what we fear the most intensely, namely, to lay down our life in love. As we get in touch with those deepest desires, we can start responding and growing in them, removing any obstacles and seeking the nurturing we need. Little by little, God will see to the growth and fruitfulness.

My Needy Microwave

In my last post, I described my oversensitive smoke alarm. It is not the only kitchen appliance that gives me grief. There is also my needy microwave. It emits three loud beeps when the timer elapses. If I don’t promptly get up and open the door, it beeps three times again. Another thirty seconds, and it will beep again. And again. And again. It doesn’t give up! It will literally keep on beeping every thirty seconds, per omnia saecula saeculorum, unless and until you give it the attention it so desperately craves.

Part of me has a vivid and rather morbid imagination. Maybe I read too much Dean Koontz. I visualize myself having an untimely accident. Perhaps the smoke alarm startles me and I stumble into the refrigerator. It falls upon me, and there I lie, my pelvis crushed, pinned to the floor for hours or days – alone, that is, except for my microwave beeping at me every 30 seconds! Hey, stranger things have happened…

Thumbing through the owner’s manual left me in a state of stunned disbelief. There is no way of reprogramming the beeping on this particular model. Seriously, what was that programmer thinking? Was he a misogynist secretly hoping to exact revenge on housewives everywhere? Who in his right mind wants a microwave that never stops beeping?

Well, you know what they say about owners and their appliances: they become more and more like each other over time. I got to thinking that, just as my brain has an overactive smoke detector, it also engages in a regular and relentless beeping, much like my microwave. This crying for attention is not a programming glitch or oversight. It is there by God’s design.

Having needs is a human reality. On a spiritual level, we depend upon God through regular prayer, and depend on others for guidance and faith formation. Physically, there are obvious needs like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We can add to those the less obvious yet quite important physical needs like meaningful touch, regular bodily exertion, and regular relaxation. There are also emotional needs like feeling safe and secure, belonging to a larger tribe, feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling calmed and soothed, feeling understood, feeling encouraged, and more. If we are running on empty in some of these basic human needs, our brain will start beeping at us.

Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having so many needs. We fear becoming a nuisance like my microwave – constantly bothering others until they pay attention to us. These fears run more deeply for those of us raised in homes that discouraged us from having or expressing needs. Speaking for myself, I definitely came into agreement with the idea that I should put my emotional life on the shelf and learn to be “independent.” Eventually, I came to believe the lie that I don’t have that many needs. I went through decades of my life convinced that I wasn’t a very emotional person and that it was much better not to depend on others.

We can take that approach to life, but not without consequences. God gave us free will –including even the shocking possibility of living against the truth of our human nature. Eventually it catches up with us.

The full truth of our humanity involves being needful and interdependent. God alone can fill us, but we depend upon others in the process. This past Christmas, I found myself often pondering the example of Christ, who shows us what it means to be human. Even though he was exalted and perfect and divine, he humbled himself to become one of us (Philippians 2:6-8). He became profoundly needful, depending totally upon Mary and Joseph as well as upon his heavenly Father. Indeed, he spent most of his earthly life growing and maturing, in dependence upon others (Luke 2:52). He spent only a proportionately small part of his life giving and serving and sacrificing. It was precisely because his human needs had been regularly met that he was able to lay his life down so freely, surrendering to the shame and abandonment and rejection of the Cross. He had no doubt of being God’s beloved Son, chosen and blessed and called. Did everyone love or understand or accept him? By no means. But he did receive all of those things with some regularity from those who mattered the most. As a human being, he needed to receive those things, and did not take any short cuts.

We live in an age of short cuts and quick fixes. Modernity seduces us with the lie that we can reshape our human nature to be whatever we want it to be. Perhaps we ignore our physical needs, eating only what we feel like and living a sedentary lifestyle. In so doing, we ignore the truth that our bodies need nourishment and are made for physical exertion. The end result is an unhealthy body, not to mention emotional and spiritual misery. Or perhaps we ignore our emotional needs –to belong, to be understood or soothed or encouraged or accepted. We impetuously insist that only weak people need to worry about those things. But all the while our internal microwave keeps beeping and beeping. If we repeatedly ignore those needs, then our brains will start beeping in other ways: enticing us to fantasy thinking, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or addictive behaviors.

There are consequences if we ignore what it means to be human. St. Thomas Aquinas defines man as a rational animal. We are “rational” insofar as we are set apart from the rest of the animals, “very good” in God’s own image and likeness. Yet we remain bodily creatures, together with the animals – and are invited to respect the goodness and authentic physical and emotional needs that God has given us.

In so many aspects of life, our bodies and brains work like those of our fellow mammals. Our lower brains have a limbic system that helps us to belong, survive, and thrive as a meaningful part of our social group. Those parts of our brain (including the “smoke alarm,” or amygdala) give us a sense of pleasure or fear or anger. They give us a desire for union with others and for fruitfulness.

When authentic needs are repeatedly ignored, we become especially susceptible to the wiles of the evil one. Our genuine needs morph and twist into insatiable urges for things that won’t actually help us. For example, if we totally ignore our need for safety and security, we may find ourselves constantly craving “comfort food” and having little freedom to resist those urges. If we totally ignore our needs for belonging or acceptance or affection, we may find ourselves having unwelcome fantasies – perhaps in the form of envy or jealousy or rivalry, perhaps in the form of lust or flirtation or pornography.

When these things happen, our impulse as devout Christians is to shame ourselves. Certainly, it is wise to avoid the near occasion of sin. But instead of self-shaming, a more helpful approach is to take some deep breaths, step into our “watchtower,” and calmly notice what is going on, with a childlike wonder and curiosity: “Huh, there goes that alarm bell again. I wonder why it’s ringing this time?” On the surface, it seems like it’s a matter of jealousy or lust or gluttony or greed. Those are the urges we feel. But so often, if we really tune in, we will notice that we’re not actually hungry, that we don’t “need” to make that purchase, that we don’t “need” sexual gratification, etc. Our limbic brain doesn’t know the difference! It’s just programmed to go off when our emotions need attention. It needs to be led and guided from there. In fact, it’s made to be led and guided – not just by our higher brain function, but by healthy relationships with God and others. It is often only when we begin sharing our deepest struggles and deepest yearnings with others that we begin to make more sense out of them. We become more aware of our deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and they begin to be met as we learn to receive from God what has always been there. We gain greater freedom to embrace the full and rich truth of our humanity. We begin to abide in love and truth.

Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.

Holy vs. Unholy Agreements

In moments of heartache, we humans are prone to make poor decisions by entering into unholy agreements. Jesus teaches us that the devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He does not abide in truth, and strives to keep us from doing so. In times of trauma he sows many lies, hoping that even a few will sprout. They often do.

That is why Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to be discerning about when and how we make decisions in life. Entering into an agreement is serious business, and should only be done under favorable circumstances.

In my last post I described my need to unlearn what I had learned in order to be more receptive to the love of God and others. I am convinced that all of us have much “unlearning” to do as we seek to abide in love and truth.

We learn many lessons in our life. Not all of them are good or true or beautiful. Some of them are lies about ourselves or God, unholy agreements that get ratified and renewed as we proceed through life’s more overwhelming moments.

By “agreement” I mean that we somehow give our consent to a false core belief or an ungodly vow that gets presented to us amidst a difficult situation in life. For example, if a child or a spouse is repeatedly called “stupid” or “fat” or “ugly” or “bad,” all too often she internalizes that identity; she begins believing at her core that it is actually true. Later in life, when others tell her she’s good or beautiful or a blessing, she doesn’t believe it! They’re just saying that because they don’t really know her. Many of you know all too well how difficult it can be to break out of these identity lies – even with all the divine helps at our disposal.

I have made unholy agreements in my life. Part of me really believed lies of shame – that something was wrong with me, that I was not lovable for who I was, that I could only be loved if I achieved or performed well enough, and so forth. Part of me believed lies of abandonment – that no one would ever really understand me, that others could not be trusted and would ultimately let me down or leave me alone to face the most difficult moments of life.

I have also entered into agreements in the form of unholy vows. Around the age of 11, I vowed that I would never be like my stepfather. True, my desire not to imitate his abusive behaviors was praiseworthy. But making that vow wounded me deeply. It distanced me not merely from my stepfather, but from my heavenly Father and from my own healthy masculinity. I began striving to perform and be strong on my own, rather than abiding in the Father’s love. I have since called on Jesus to deliver me from that vow and have received much healing and peace. I find myself more and more free to relate to God as a loving Father and to be his beloved son.

In my last post, I mentioned another inner vow, one of self-protection. Even as an infant I began believing that it was better to face life independently, figuring it out myself rather than crying out unheard. We are made by God to be interdependent, receiving and giving love in a community of faith. The unholy agreement that I made so long ago (and renewed often enough when I felt like others had let me down) has restricted my freedom to receive love. The end result has been a fruitless attempt to live against the full truth of my human nature. We are made by God for  communion and  vulnerable receptivity. Instead, there I was, striving to be in control and independent. It would never work in any lasting way. Thankfully God has been leading me in a new and better direction.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises (nn. 175-177), describes three moments in which we can rightly enter into holy agreements. The first is when God attracts our will in an almost irresistible way. Think of Jesus calling the apostles, and the way they left their nets behind and followed him. When God inflames our holy desire in that way, we have no doubt of his goodness and truth and beauty, and say “yes” quite eagerly and easily.

Secondly, there is the experience of “consolation” and “desolation,” and the discernment that follows. This was how Ignatius discovered his own conversion and his new calling. Once a vain and proud man, this wounded soldier spent months in a hospital with only a Bible and lives of the Saints to read. Even though he found these stories to be dry and dull (unlike the spirited tales of knightly escapades that he was hoping to read), they left a deep and lasting impact. He began to notice a difference. Even though the fantasy thinking of his knightly tales would get him excited in the short term, it left him empty and distracted and distressed. By contrast, the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints would inflame holy desires in his heart that would abide for long periods of time. They continued bearing fruit days afterward. This growing awareness of a difference led Ignatius to accept the fruitfulness of his new calling and to reject the empty and fruitless fantasy of his old ways.

Thirdly, there is the use of our natural faculties of reason and deliberation to make the best decision possible – but only in a time of inner quiet. Ignatius repeats, “I said time of quiet, when the soul is not acted on by various spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly.”

Notice the contrast with false core beliefs and unholy agreements, with which the devil is so eager to ensnare us! In times of trauma and heartbreak, he enters in, preying upon our fear and confusion, our sadness and loneliness, our powerlesness and hopelessness. He tempts us to give our consent and enter into an unholy agreement with his lies.

May we, like Ignatius, be set free from all unholy agreements that impede us. May we discern and embrace the full truth of our calling in Christ, and say “yes” freely and wholeheartedly.