Some years ago, I read a book called “Contemplative Youth Ministry”, by Mark Yaconelli. This was while I was a youth group leader, and it is a book that has changed my life and my spirituality. I mentioned it already in the context of Lectio Divino.
It’s a book about understanding God’s role, and our role. About moving away from anxiety driven ministry to Spirit lead (and equipped) ministry. It’s about saying “actually, these young people have a deep relationship with God, and maybe I’m here because God wants me to learn from them, and not the other way around. Or maybe this is the only way God can get my attention.”
At my best, I can hand the keys over to God. Usually, however, I still find it oh so easy to slip back into an anxiety driven mode of operation, and try to take the initiative where it should be left in the hands of the Lord. As a wise person once said;
The problem with living sacrifices is that they tend to crawl off the altar.
The antidote to this anxiety and activity is, in my experience, contemplation and reflection. Slowing down. Stopping even. Waiting and listening. Being, not doing.
One of the exercises that really helps me do this is Lectio Divino, as I already mentioned. The other is the Awareness Examen. At this point I must mention another book – “Sleeping With Bread – Holding what gives you life” by Dennis Linn et al. This book revealed and released the Examen to me in a very helpful way – it’s not a big book, and doesn’t take long to read, but I whole-heartedly recommend it.
What is it?
As it’s most simple, it is a reflection on a given event or time-period (say the last 24 hours), that involves two questions:
- What did I like about it?
- What didn’t I like about it?
There are a million and one ways to phrase these questions – “favourite thing / least favourite thing”, “high point / low point”, “what gave me energy / sapped my energy” – but they all come down to moments of consolation and moments of desolation.
Consolation involves things that lift us, energise us, give us wings. Things that we feel we could do forever. Things that bring peace and rest to our souls and spirits. Times when we are who we are made to be. Desolation is just the opposite – things that drag us down, wear us out, leave us feeling run down. Our heart sinks at the thought of them, and they rob us of our energy. Times when we are a square peg in a round hole, feeling lost and confused.
How to do it
The Examen itself need only take 5 or 10 minutes. Start (as such) by stopping. Just stop. Put everything down. Find a quiet corner. Relax, and try to settle your mind – if anything important comes to mind, jot it down (so you don’t forget it), then move on. If you like, say a short prayer to God, asking for his wisdom and voice. When you are settled, cast your mind back to this time yesterday, and replay the events between then and now. Don’t analyse them or regret them – just bring them to mind, and remember how they felt. What went well? What was a disaster? What was neutral? What points particularly stand out, if any? Remember, you are just identifying them; not evaluating them, not trying to understand them, not working out what to do about them – just recognising them.
Once you have reached “now”, try to narrow down the events to one or two points of consolation and desolation. These may be events or great importance and significance, or events of little or no consequence what-so-ever. As always, I would strongly recommend you write it down in a journal, even just in note form (as long as you will still understand the notes in 5 or 10 years time!)
If you like you can now reflect upon these – although the first few times through there is likely to be little value in trying to get too deep. As you start to build up a history, however, you can start to reflect on whether any patterns are emerging. Ask God if there is something about the way He’s made you that He would like to draw your attention to. Write down any thoughts or insights or feelings the exercise or reflection brings.
It is worth highlighting that neither consolation nor desolation is inherently good or bad, in and of itself. It’s not automatically right to do consolation activities and automatically wrong to do desolation activities. It’s not necessarily good that certain activities are consolation and some are desolation. It’s not necessarily bad to have desolation (even though it may feel that way).
Why do it?
So what is the point? Well, as I understand it there are three benefits of the Examen. Firstly, it increases our self-awareness in specific situations. If negative thoughts and feelings start to bring us down, this may just be down to being in the middle of a desolation. This knowledge in itself gives us the opportunity to step outside ourselves (as such), and to perhaps respond in a more positive manner. Conversely we may recognise ourselves in a consolation, and fully immerse ourselves in the moment, enjoying it to the full. This is perhaps an incidental benefit, however.
Secondly, and more importantly for me, it paints a picture over time. It paints a picture of who I am, and how I’ve been made. It helps me see the things that give me life and joy, and the things which take them away. It helps me makes decisions about how I use my time, about my work, my ministry, my relationships. No one can avoid desolation – and it wouldn’t be healthy to try to – but equally no one can survive without consolation. You can’t give all the time without receiving. In fact, I would say you need more consolation than desolation, otherwise things are going to go south.
I’ve a friend who does the Examen every day with his family, and who writes down his own personal points of consolation and desolation in his journal. Through this activity he has gained a deeper appreciation of the things that provide support and comfort in his life, as well as a greater awareness of the things that drag him down. It hasn’t radically changed his life, but it has made him realise how precious certain things are.
The final benefit is as a contemplative exercise. The very act of stopping, and thinking and reflecting is hugely beneficial. As another wise person said once;
we will quite happily sit at a bus stop for 5, 10, or even 15 minutes, waiting for a bus, yet how long we will sit and wait for God? I recognise in myself that a lot of my activity is fuelled by anxiety, and that at times I’m almost scared of being alone with myself, for fear of what I might discover – that I might discover that actually underneath all the activity there isn’t anything?
I’ll end with a quick test: When you find yourself with a couple of minutes spare, do you immediately get out your phone and check Facebook/Twitter/E-mail? Do you get your book out and snatch a page or two? Do you strike up a conversation? Do you start mentally reviewing your “to-do” list? These things aren’t bad, but my experience is that trying to fill every second of every day is an unhealthy way to live, and may be a indication of being driven by anxiety and the need to feel busy all the time.
So, could you commit to spending 5 minutes of time every night this week, perhaps just before going to sleep, to ‘replay’ the previous 24 hours and reflect upon the highs and lows?