Back in my high school days, some of my cohorts and I stumbled on Socrates' maxim, "The unexamined life is not worth living." A gross over-statement, really, but one which no doubt was intended to spur people to examine their lives more critically.
Adolescence, however, can be a time of high arrogance. My friends and I took this statement in a more judgmental way than it was intended. After all, we read books. We had meaningful discussions about what was most real and most important. We led an examined life.
Socrates' statement was about those others. They were unthinking conformists. They never examined their lives. And so we felt obliged to judge them rather uncharitably.
Some years later, when my arrogance was somewhat, but only somewhat, tempered, I found a spiritual director for myself. I imagined she was going to lead me to deeper and higher and more profound experiences of prayer. I was going to become a mystic.
Instead, she challenged me to change some of my errant behavior. And worse, she asked me to perform daily something she called the examen. This was a practice, developed to its highest form by St. Ignatius of Loyola, which called for an evening examination of conscience of the events of the day to see where God had been most notably present or absent.
I felt this to be a dreadful exercise. It was hard work, boring and, as far as I could see, had nothing to do with attaining a groovy union with God. What immaturity! My self-centred assumption was that the reason for praying was to feel close to God, rather than to give glory to the One who is the source of all that is.
So much for my arrogant assumption about living an examined life. I couldn't even take 20 minutes a day to do just that -- to work with God to examine those practices which keep me from carrying out his will more fully.
In our individualistic age, we are too prone to divide the inner life of prayer from the outer world of action. The Hebrew prophets made no such mistake. They railed against praising God with our lips and betraying him with our actions. They said that, more than a religious show, we need "education in faith and conversion of heart" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2581).
"The heart is our hidden centre," the catechism reminds us (no. 2563). The quality of the heart will determine the quality of one's relationship with God. And this quality will reveal itself in every aspect of our lives, especially in our prayer lives and our outward actions. When our actions are garbage, we can be certain that there is garbage in our heart at the root of these actions. If we want to live a Christian life, we better get serious about shoveling the garbage out of our hearts.
The early Christian writers had a similar view. We tend to view asceticism in terms of practices of mortification such as fasting and almsgiving. They saw it as the whole realm of disciplining oneself so as to attain our spiritual goals. And they drew upon St. Paul's analogy between the spiritual life and athletic training (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Knowing God is a key to our spiritual growth; so is an honest knowledge of oneself.
There is a unity in the spiritual life. Prayer cannot be placed in one compartment and the rest of life in another. To have a conversion of heart one must re-orient one's whole being towards the loving God. One must purge oneself of all false attachments so that one's will can be free to live in communion with God.
I wanted gain with no pain in my spiritual life. Despite my bluster about living an examined life, I didn't really want the light to be shone on my failings. Jesus told Nicodemus that "people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). He could have been speaking to me.
Thomas Green, the Jesuit writer on prayer, says "the great danger of the contemplative life is confusing prayer with introspection" (Opening to God, p. 82). And he also notes that "A prayer life without the healthy and humbling self-knowledge which the examen brings is very likely to be shallow and romantic and eventually harmful" (p. 81).
Ignatius maintained that enormous spiritual progress can be made solely through frequent use of the sacraments and perseverance with the examen. The examen is that important. Or, rather, the thorough purgation of the old life, the old self, is that important. Continuing conversion is essential.
And as the self is cleansed of its false attachments, the Holy Spirit will set up shop. We will lose our old ways, but gain something new -- the fruits of the Spirit such as joy, peace and patience. God will have begun to do serious work through us.
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