I'm out East in Duck, NC (on the Outer Banks) — one of the most beautiful places in country and a soul place for me for a few days of thinking, praying, and writing.
Eight years ago our family took a wonderful fall sabbatical here. This afternoon as I ran and watched the sun set over the Currituck Sound (this is one of those rare East coast locales where the sun sets over water!), the vivid and blessed memories of this time came freely back to my consciousness. During those three months, we organized our living around the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (the heart of Jesuit spirituality). I heartily recommend this practice. Ignatius wrote one of his annotations to the Exercises so that the world outside the order could also enter this journey of prayer. His vision was amazing to provide this gift. He truly understood the role of the monastery in the extended life of the church and God's people. I'm never too far away from the memory of that experience when I return to the Outer Banks. I know so little about prayer. But my journey with exercises has been a source of the little that I do know and the experience that finally kindled my love for prayer (which seemed to have been extinquished at that point by 30 years of trite theology, fear, and shame).
In the early weeks of the Exercises, I learned (and experienced) the ability to proclaim myself "a sinner loved by God." Most of our bad theology and shame in religious experience comes from our inability to sincerely accept this whole sentence. Some of can't bring ourselves to acknowledge sin and failure. Most of us know this too well and cannot conceive of God's love. The ability to pray this sentence honestly and eagerly is one of the greatest graces I've ever received of God.
The heartbeat of the Exercises is the "Examen." Ignatius taught that, even if one cannot pray any of the daily offices or any other element of the Exercises, one should not delete the examen. The examen is an evening, simple prayer where one asks two questions of God:
1. What opportunity/experience of God's grace and love have I missed today?
2. How have I experience God's grace and presence this day?
The regular practice of the examen yields a growing awareness of our failures AND of God's continual presence in our lives (despite the failures). In short, it teaches us to pray as "a sinner loved by God." The examen is a wonderful practice for the dinner table, community conversation with roommates at the end of the day, or a simple prayer in darkness while falling asleep. I particularly enjoy sharing the examen with others. (For many years, I shared the examen with teens at the end of a day of work on mission teams.)
I find that I am continually relearning the lessons of the Exercises. For too long, I have tried to create perfect times and seasons for prayer or expected deeply memorable experiences of prayer. My perfectionism and idealism become huge barriers to prayer. My friend and spiritual mentor, Fil Anderson, has gently and patiently taught me that prayer is something that we graft into chaotic and hectic lives. This was also, of course, the vision of Ignatius who wrote his 30th annotation of the Spiritual Exercises a gift to those who did not experience the call, privilege, and burden of the monastery.
Peace and Grace — Tim