I cannot keep track of how many times I screw up. It’s a pretty universal truth that we’re all just muddling through most of the time, and tallying my missteps is nearly impossible.
Part of the Ignatian “examen” is to be incredibly thoughtful and intentional about one’s life: “hour by hour, period by period.” It is designed to prompt in a person the attentiveness to bring about change; very rooted in the idea that nothing can ever transform without vigilant effort.
While I find that to be true, I also wonder when this attention becomes obsession, and the reflection on one’s shortcomings becomes damaging.
We’ve all heard about “Catholic guilt” and it’s very real. I was raised outside of this construction, so luckily I’ve escaped its grasp, but I know too many people who inflict upon themselves unnecessary levels of stress. In this way, perhaps, the focus of an examen can be a reality check – waking us up to our real areas of need, rather than a false state of “not-enough-ness.”
When we notice ourselves doing what we ought not, whether it’s lying, or a lack of charity, or sniffing glue, Ignatius asks that we note it. At first with a simple hand to our chest “grieving for having fallen: which can be done even in the presence of many, without their perceiving what he is doing.”
Later, he asks we write it down, each day, for a week. Then use those lists to see if by awareness, we’ve improved.
Spiritual directors I’ve had (as an examen is not meant to be done alone) also ask me to note moments of grace during an examen. It’s pretty telling that the two often coincide.
Just as in yogic teaching, Jesuit theology teaches “God in all things,” including ourselves.
For that reason when change is not as easy to accomplish, a balance can be achieved by cultivating an awareness of ourselves as holders of the divine. All with infinite abilities, gifts and hopes; all waiting to be discovered and brought into daily, concrete practice. In this way we can attempt to treat ourselves with as much forgiveness and grace as those who love us.
And that’s really my main struggle. While I can definitely count the times my mouth has gotten me in trouble, it’s the constant replay of my mistakes in my head, the pressure I place on myself to achieve some nebulous goal, or the apathy I let myself fall into that are my true hurdles.
Taking the simple step of paying attention may seem small, but it can have huge effects. If we see how often we falter, we can treat ourselves and others with a bit more patience and gentleness. Because, as I’ve heard, patience is a virtue.