Lenten Devotion: Listening to Our Life
Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Listening to Our Life
Psalm 139 has long been a source of comfort for me: “O God, you have searched me and you know me ... you hem me in behind and before... you are familiar with all my ways... you have laid your hand upon me... you created my inmost being.”
Then one day, as I was working with the psalm for a class on the Prophetic Spirituality of Howard Thurman (taught by Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.), this thought struck me: Do we really want to be known? Seriously. Do we really want God to search and know us – every bit of us – even the broken places? Do we really want God to know all our comings and our goings, and to be familiar with all of our ways? And this is the one that kills me: Do we really want God to know every word we speak, even before it is on our lips? Because, quite honestly, I am sure that most days I’ve said at least 17 foolish things before breakfast.
Psalm 139 invites us into intimate, honest relationship with God – into a relationship of deep searching, of deep knowing, of deep abiding. It invites us to listen, with God, to our life – and to change and to live – every day more loving than the last.
In much the same way, Ash Wednesday invites us to stand with this nearby God and to listen. Ash Wednesday invites us to listen to our life – to notice – to name the broken places – the hurt, the omissions, the commissions, the complicity, the oppression – and to ask for healing – and to turn and change. And, at the same time, Ash Wednesday invites us to listen to our life and to notice the love and the grace, and to give thanks – to this God who has entered into the whole of life with us in Jesus Christ.
For this Ash Wednesday and on into Lent, the prayer of examen – a central practice of Ignatian spirituality – offers one way to pray this kind of daily listening to our life. At its heart, the prayer of examen is a prayer that looks back over the day to notice the presence of God in our daily life. During the prayer, we review the day to notice where we felt our movement toward or away from God. We review the events of the day and the way we experienced the day, asking two questions: (1) a question that asks where we experienced the day positively, and (2) a question that asks where we experienced the day negatively.
Here is one way to pray this prayer:
1. Settle in and rest in silence and in the presence of God.
2. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you back through your day. Remember and walk back through the events of the day. Take your time.
3. As you review the day, ask two questions that seek to notice (1) where you felt closest to God, and (2) where you felt the most distant from God.
Here are some questions you could try:
· For what am I most grateful today?
· For what am I least grateful?
· What moments in the day gave energy and life?
· What moments in the day drained energy and life?
· What moments brought joy?
· What moments brought pain or sorrow or numbness?
· When did I give and receive the most love today?
· When did I give and receive the least love today?
4. Offer gratitude to God for the life-giving moments you notice. Offer your experience of life-draining moments to God for healing.
5. Confess your broken places and ask God for healing and forgiveness.
6. Give thanks for all the ways that God is with you in all the experiences of life.
This is a prayer for each day, and it is a prayer that has even more power as it is prayed over time – every day listening and noticing with God. As you pray it, you may want to write these moments down each day – even if only in a word or two – so that you can notice your experience of God over time.
Over the course of Psalm 139, the Psalmist ultimately comes to embrace the searching, knowing, intimacy of God – and leans into God’s grace:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting...
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
This method for the prayer of examen is adapted from Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Paulist Press, 1995), and Teresa Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray (Abingdon Press, 2006), and is informed by the practice as learned at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Rev. Scott Clark
SFTS Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life