I am typing at my kitchen table in the house my husband and I bought just over a week ago. We're still in Minneapolis, but in a new part of town that makes it feel like an entirely different city. There are moving boxes piled high in our living room, my eldest's kindergarten (whaat!? she was born yesterday I swear) backpack lies slumped in a corner, and I am downing lukewarm coffee to make it through this late summer afternoon. It has been a whirlwind of transition and that is why I am only now posting about the Examen, that 400-year-old prayer that is changing my life, which I wrote about this month for Off the Page in my latest Skeptic's Guide to the Spiritual Practices column. It starts like this:
"When I was growing up, my family took a summer road trip out west. My parents, who were former experiential educators, always made good use of each “teachable moment.” We stopped at historical markers where Conestoga wagons left ruts in the prairie or where people made dangerous ferry crossings along the Oregon Trail. After my older sister and I endured a history lesson, we went into the tourist-trap stores that had sprung up around these sites. We begged for rock candy and little drawstring bags filled with “fool’s gold”—the garish, shiny crumbles of this gold look-alike, which tricked many a pioneer eager to strike it rich in the great American West.
These stores would invariably have small sieves we could borrow to use in the nearby creek, an object lesson in searching for our own gold in the wilderness. My big sister and I, our cheeks and fingers sticky from rock candy, would pull on our baseball hats and carry the sieves to the banks of the Deschutes River, squatting in the easy manner of children, our stork-like legs folding neatly underneath us. Back and forth, back and forth, I would move my sieve through the sand and water. Each time the sand would filter right through, leaving behind the occasional snail shell or stubby stick, but no gold.
The movement was meditative, soothing; back and forth, back and forth. And though we never found any gold—not even fool’s gold—we kept trying, kept hoping that some shiny nugget would land in our sieve.
Sifting for gold is a good metaphor for a spiritual discipline that has, in the smallest of ways, been transforming my life. For the last six months, my husband and I have been practicing the Examen together. It’s the last thing we do before dropping off to sleep. The four-hundred-year-old practice is straightforward; otherwise, we’d never manage it while tired and ready for bed, our teeth brushed and eyes heavy. As we face each other, our heads resting on side-by-side pillows, we ask each other about the most joyful and least joyful part of our day. Easy, right?
Even though it’s simple, Saint Ignatius of Loyola said the daily Examen is the most important of all prayer; that if his monks had to forgo his other spiritual exercises, they should not forgo the Examen. This is good news for someone like me who has struggled with prayer. It’s even good news for my husband, who doesn’t believe in God at all, but knows the power of regular, reflective practices."