The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart.
The apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is hitting one of his core themes here: that it’s equally possible for Jews or Gentiles to become Christians, because it’s a religion of heart, not of background or ethnicity – of being a particular kind of person. He’s quoting the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, from a passage that is saying something a little bit different – this text is telling the people Israel, LOOK, you know what it means to live in God’s ways… just STICK TO IT. The book of Deuteronomy places itself on the brink of a new chapter in Israel’s life, as they enter the Promised Land. It calls them to stay faithful to God and God’s commandments, as they leave their wilderness time to become a settled nation.
Here’s that passage from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30:11-14) Yes, the sarcasm is there in the text! The ancient Jews had many specific practices as part of their faith, but the heart of it was simple: Be faithful to God; live with justice and mercy as God has called you. The book of Deuteronomy says again and again: Choose life. Choose faithfulness. Choose righteousness. Choose the things that give you life.
The word is very near you; it is in your heart for you to observe.
This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, a season of preparation leading up to Easter. For centuries, Lent has been observed as a special time of self-examination and penitence – meaning, reflecting on where I have not lived up to God’s intentions for me and my intentions for myself; making amends and trying to do better. Christians often take on particular practices in Lent, focusing especially on fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting means setting something aside for the season, and offering the space it leaves to God. It might be giving up a particular food like sweets or meat, but it can be other things too. You might want to ask yourself, Is there something in my life that has more hold over me than I want it to? And commit to quitting or reducing that for a season. I’m quitting Twitter for Lent this year – and I’m saying that in front of all of you because I expect it to be hard, and I need the accountability! But I want to reclaim that time in my daily life, and spent it with my loved ones, myself, and God.
Almsgiving is a wonderful old-fashioned word that just means, sharing with those in need. A lot of you do that on a regular basis already. But maybe there’s an opportunity to do more, this season. Some people link a Lenten fast to a practice of giving.For example, students at Virginia Theological Seminary invented “Menstrual Madness” last March. People fasted from things that cost money, like eating out or espresso drinks, and used the money saved to buy feminine hygiene products for local food pantries.
And then there’s prayer. Turning our hearts towards God. Saying whatever we need to say – be it, Help! Thanks! Or Sorry! And listening to what God might have to say to us. The word is very near you; it is in your heart…
I encourage you to consider taking on a Lenten practice of some kind. It’s not too late; Lent is still just beginning! The first Sunday or Monday in Lent are great times to start a Lenten discipline. And I’d like to offer you a practice – a practice of prayer that trusts that God’s word is very near us, in our hearts.
This practice of prayer was developed by a young man named Inigo. (Not the one you’re thinking of!) Inigo was born in the year 1491, the youngest son of a noble Spanish family. As a young man, he became a knight, a soldier. One biography describes him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution” when he committed crimes. (Traub & Mooney via Wikipedia) Writing later in life, Inigo described his young self as “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown.”
Now, in 1521, when he was 30 years old, Inigo was helping defend a fortress from French soldiers when he was struck by a cannonball, breaking both his legs. He ended up confined to his rooms for many weeks of recovery. During that time he had access to only two books, one on the life of Christ, and one on the lives of the saints. Sometimes he would read this edifying material and reflect on it. And sometimes he would daydream about the life he’d left behind, his glory days of wine, women, and war.
Over the weeks, Inigo noticed something. The daydreams about his former life were exciting. But they left him feeling exhausted, dissatisfied, and sad. Whereas when he dwelt with the stories of Jesus and the saints, and imagined making his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem someday to see where Jesus had walked – well, those kinds of thoughts left him feeling cheerful, calm, and hopeful.
He began to think that this could be a spiritual tool – to notice what you feel within yourself, in relation to particular thoughts, actions, or events; and to use those feelings as teachers and guides. The feelings of weariness, sadness, or dissatisfaction, he called desolation; the feelings of peace, joy, and hope, he called consolation. When he was well, Inigo – known to history as Ignatius of Loyola – visited a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and there hung up his sword for good. He became a pilgrim, a scholar, and a priest. He wrote about consolation and desolation in a book called the Spiritual Exercises; and he founded the Jesuit order. (He’s one of the Lent Madness saints this year, so you can learn more about him by picking up one of those booklets or following the Lent Madness website!)
Inigo’s approach to reflecting on our lives and noticing our moments of consolation and desolation is known as the Examen. And that’s the practice of prayer I’d like to invite you to try. It has the great advantage of being both simple, and powerful.
A core premise of the Examen is that God speaks within us. That, indeed, the divine Word is very near you – not up in the sky or beyond the sea, but dwelling in your heart of hearts. That listening attentively to ourselves, to our deepest yearnings, joys, and struggles, is also a way of listening for God. In their wonderful book about the Examen, called Sleeping with Bread, Dennis, Shiela, and Matthew Linn write, “As you do the examen, you are listening to both God and yourself, since God speaks within your deepest experience.”
The practice of the Examen is very simple. (You don’t have to take notes, I have a guide for you!) People usually do it towards the end of the day – after dinner, or as people prepare for bedtime, or even right before turning off the lights. Find a time that fits the shape of your day and the rhythms of your household. Light a candle. This helps mark that you’re setting aside a few moments of special time; and the flame represents the light of divine revelation in our everyday experience. (Linn, p. 19) Take a little silence – maybe three deep breaths in and out – to let some clutter clear out of your mind. It might help you to put your hand on your heart. Ask yourself (or each other) two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful? When you’ve spent time with the questions, wrap up your time in prayer. It can be as simple as, “God, thank you for the good things, and help us with the hard things. Amen.”
There are other ways to frame the two questions: When was I most able to give and receive love today? When was I least able to give or receive love today? When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me today?What was today’s high point? What was today’s low point?
For some of us, listening to our bodies could be an important part of this practice. I know that for me, I often realize that I’m stressed or upset or sad because I feel it in my body. My brain is busy saying, Okay, okay, this is fine, I got this, we can cope. But I also get that feeling like there’s a big ball of ice in my stomach, or my chest tightens up. I need to listen to my body to know how I feel, because I can’t always trust my brain. Or have you had the experience of talking about something and, suddenly, there’s a lump in your throat or tears in your eyes? It might be something bad or good – I’ve had it happen in both directions. You had no idea it was affecting you so much. But your deeper self knew. This is pretty common; lots of us can’t trust our brains and need to pay attention to our whole self, including our body, to know how we really are.
The practice of the Examen has gifts and challenges for everyone. Someone who is pessimistic, negative or stressed needs the invitation to notice joys and blessings – the consolations. But there is meaning in the hard moments, the desolations, too! In Sleeping with Bread, one of the authors says, “My addiction (which I call ‘Peace at Any Price’) is always be grateful and happy and never rock the boat. Thus I need the Examen to help me acknowledge feelings of sadness and pain and hear how God is speaking through them.” (11)
Dwelling with our desolations can be hard. The Examen invites us to simply acknowledge our worst moments, without judgment, breathing in God’s love. (30) Ignatius teaches that when we’re reflecting on a moment when we acted in a way we wish we hadn’t, we should try to understand the story of that moment. How did it begin? How did you get there? And… what would it look like for that story to be resolved? (49) Here’s an example: Many of us end up snapping at friends or loved ones, when we are tired or stressed. So the story of those moments might include some kind of strain in the relationship that could be examined and resolved – but it also includes our exhaustion, another real spiritual burden.
Being gentle with yourself is important. If something really hard is coming up, it’s OK to dwell with it a little at a time, and then tell it kindly that you’ll spend more time with it tomorrow. And if something’s emerging that you need help with, look for help! But dwelling with the hard moments – even the trivial, everyday hard moments – is a crucial first step.
Dwelling with joy can be hard too. Some of us have internalized deeply that happiness isn’t for us, that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. But the Examen assumes that, like our desolations, our consolations have something important to tell us. Those moments when we feel deeply joyful or profoundly peaceful, fully alive, fully engaged – that’s not frivolous, those aren’t just moments of escape from gritty reality. They matter, and they mean something.
The Examen is fundamentally a daily practice of reflecting back on the past twelve hours or so. But over time, engaged faithfully, it can become much more. It can guide our choices and our lives. If we sustain the practice, we may start to notice patterns. If you spot many similar moments of joy, is there a call or invitation there? Could you shift things so there’s more of that in your life? And likewise, if similar desolations surface often, they may point us towards the need to undertake some change in our lives. Sleeping with Bread says, “Insignificant moments when looked at each day become significant because they form a pattern that often points the way to how God wants to give us more life.” (17) Choose the things that give you life….
And when taken on as a habit over time, the Examen can just make it easier to be in touch with our own hearts, our own deeper selves. And to trust your own sense of what feels right or not-right. Knowing ourselves helps us say No to things that aren’t right for us – and Yes to things that are. Just like Jesus in today’s Gospel – he had the clarity and courage to say No to the temptations that Satan set before him. They were things he wanted! Bread – he was hungry!Power and authority – he wanted to change the world! Proof of God’s protection – he knew his work was dangerous! But Jesus knew his own soul; he knew the Father’s purposes for him. And he was able to say, This is not for me. The Examen can help us face temptations and tough decisions – the big ones, but also the small ones we face every day.
As with any spiritual practice, the biggest challenge is making it routine, finding a way to just weave it into the texture of life. We’ve been doing a very simple version of this as our family prayers before Iona goes to bed, on the evenings when everybody is home. We share our Ups and Downs, borrowed from the youth group’s practice of prayer. I hope that in this season we’ll lean into it a little more.
But what about the evenings when we’re not all home? I need the Examen on those days too. But I’m usually the one who’s out, and I come home tired. I worry that thinking back over the day – especially a hard day – will upset me or get my mind whirling as I’m trying to wind down. But having read more about how the Examen works, I’m going to give it a try, even on those nights. To see if I can sit in the gentle light of holy truth, even when I’m weary or anxious or frustrated.
The Examen works well alone. It also works well with others. And it’s intergenerational – it works with kids, youth, and adults. When members of a household share this practice, it may not only benefit the individuals, but could help with mutual understanding within the household. The book Sleeping with Bread offers the example of one family’s evening Examen: one child’s BEST moment is when he sprayed his sister with the hose. It turns out that was his sister’s WORST moment. Some reconciliation was necessary!
When I first started thinking about offering the Examen as a spiritual practice to all of you this Lent, I thought I could do it with a little talk at the announcements, as I handed out our handy-dandy Examen Sheets. But I read more about it, and thought more about it, I became convinced that there was more to say.
Maybe God has already handed you a Lenten practice for this season – that happens. Or maybe your life right now is such that committing to a practice feels impossible. I’ve been there. If that’s you, maybe you can just try it out once or twice in the weeks ahead, with a friend or just with yourself: What was good today? What was hard? But I do invite you to try it, one way or another. Because tuning in to ourselves and to God speaking within us is, simply, foundational – and especially in light of the Lenten call to self-examination, penitence, and amendment of life. It can be all too easy to accept other people’s definitions of what’s wrong with us, what we need to fix about ourselves. But a lot of what we receive from others and from our culture, about how to be good or valued, is shallow or disordered. Or even if there’s some truth to it, it might not be the direction your life is leading you. The practice of the Examen is a tool for seeking what your own daily life is telling you about where God wants to give you more more wholeness. More direction. More joy.
And that’s why, in this season, I invite you to a practice of observing the consolations and desolations of your daily life, a practice of holy listening to your deepest self. Because the Word is very near you; it dwells in your heart, to help you choose the things that give you life.
Sleeping with Bread: Holding what Gives you Life, Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Paulist Press, 1995.