Watching for Dawn

We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming in humility, in the manger at Bethlehem; (2) his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and (3) the invisible way in which he comes to all true believers who desire him.  In the words of Jesus, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (John 14:23). Jesus desires to be present to those who desire his presence.

Advent is a season of presence. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus (“arrival” or “coming”). But adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia – often used to describe Jesus’ coming again in glory, but literally meaning “presence.”  It is easy for some Christians to slip into gloom and doom fantasies about a future apocalypse; it is challenging to abide in the present moment, to watch and wait with sober Hope.

That is the invitation of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37). In Greek, this command to “watch” is gregoreĩte. The Christian name Gregory is derived from this invitation to sober watchfulness, so frequent in the admonitions of Jesus as well as in other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).

Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) is one of my favorite popes and saints. He was born into a prominent Roman family – during a time in which the faded glory of Rome was quickly passing away. Much that was good and beautiful had collapsed or was about to, and Gregory had no illusions that the clock could be turned back to “the good old days.” He answered God’s call to become a Benedictine monk, and his heart desired the peaceful prayer of the monastery. However, God and others kept tapping his talents for administration during a time of great crisis. He humbly describes his struggles to remain a man of prayer amidst the administration of stressful crises that were impossible to ignore. I can relate!

Gregory was profoundly aware that his name meant “Watchman” and that the words of Isaiah applied to him: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. A watchman is called to stand upon the heights, to keep his mind and heart in a place of calm, peace, loving awareness, discernment, wisdom, and creativity – so as to be a blessing to others. Such was Gregory’s deep desire, even though he felt and expressed his struggles: “Who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?”

Whatever his pain and struggles may have been, Gregory’s holy desire to be a watchman prevailed. Constantly renewed and enlightened by Jesus, Gregory’s foresight led to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries, which preserved so much of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Athens and Rome, and which became vibrant hubs of evangelization in the centuries ahead. Gregory’s sober watchfulness allowed him to continue doing works of mercy in the present moment, but without being consumed in a false fantasy to prop up structures whose time had passed. His sober watchfulness was both deeply pessimistic and optimistic at the same time – accepting the depressing truth that the good old days were definitively gone, and simultaneously seeing with optimistic Faith new rays of hopeful light where other more frantic people were blinded by their busyness, fear, or denial. Survival mode does not tend to bring the best out of human beings. Our field of vision narrows (both literally and figuratively), and we tend to keep going back to repetitive and predictable “solutions” – as though doing it for the forty-second time will somehow yield different results. True to his name, Gregory knew how to keep getting back into his watchtower.

When reflecting on the great mystery that is the Church, Gregory offers one of the most profound descriptions I ever came across during my doctoral research. He compares the Church to the dawn:

The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … For dawn or daybreak indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.

The Church, on her present sojourn through history, is indeed a mixture of weeds and wheat, darkness and light, sinners and saints. The same is true of our own hearts.  Gregory proceeds:

As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.

What wise and Hope-filled words! He can look truthfully at his own heart and at the Church and see truthfully both darkness and light. But there is Hope. The thing about dawn is that it does NOT turn back into night. So also with the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. He will be with her always. No matter how deep the darkness may seem at certain moments, we can look for the streaks of light and be assured that the dawn will break into full Day.

Our present age is eerily parallel to that of Gregory. So much that we once took for granted has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. The only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged.

This Advent, we can join Gregory, not to mention the original twelve Apostles who first heard Jesus’ admonition to “watch.” Heeding the invitation of the Beatitudes, we can embrace our poverty and grieve our losses – getting past our denial and blame. We can abide in the present moment, even when it feels disorienting and scary. We can stay sober and vigilant. Jesus will open the eyes of our heart, and help us to see the new light that he always brings. As promised, his Spirit is always at work, shining in unexpected places.

Being watchful disciples means attuning to those first streaks of dawn, and allowing them to surprise us with joy. We tend to have tunnel vision about how Jesus is going to answer our prayers. Jesus always tends to surprise his disciples with joy in ways they least expect. If we are sober and watchful in the present moment, our vision can be broadened again and again. Noticing with true vision the streaks of dawn, we can become eager heralds of the full light of Day that is breaking into this world.

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.

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.