Looking back

Readings for the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, October 17:

Proverbs 22:1–6

1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1

Luke 9:57–62

Psalm 34:1–8

Luke 9:57–62: As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It’s kind of an interesting proposition that the Gospel reading for the feast day of the person who taught us a new way of looking back–Ignatius of Loyola, via his Examen–talks about about the danger of looking back. One might think a better person to match this reading would be Satchel Paige (“Don’t look back–they might be gaining on you.”) In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the man who wishes to say goodbye to his family that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Perhaps the key thing in this statement is not about looking back in a general sense, but looking back when we are ready to break ground going forward.

However, “looking back” in itself is not a bad thing if we go about it the right way, and in that sense, the Ignatian Examen is a long time-tested way of doing that.

Ignatius’ “Examen of Consciousness” has five parts. It can be done anywhere, any time. You don’t need to be in a formal prayer space unless you want to be there. I tend to do the Examen at bedtime, in that time when I’m trying to drift off to sleep. Here’s a brief overview of it:

1. Become aware that you are in God’s presence. For me, what seems to work is to quietly remember I am a piece of God’s creation, not something outside of it.

2. Review the day with gratitude. What happened during the day that I can see reasons to give thanks?

3. Ask for awareness of the Holy Spirit, so the day’s actions can be looked upon with honesty and patience. It’s important to pay attention to any emotions that bubble up as the day is reviewed, rather than suppress them. Name those emotions and feel them, rather than trying to suppress them or be numb to them.

4. While reviewing the day, examine your motives and the context of your actions. What worked? What didn’t? Out of the things that didn’t work out, what is my part in it? Did I do my part, or is there more work to be done? What did I receive during the day? What did I give? What were my hopes? What were my hesitations? Sometimes, what I do as a result of this is choose one feature of the day and pray through it.

5. Pray words of reconciliation and resolve, looking towards tomorrow with hope. An important feature of this is being compassionate toward yourself. I sometimes remind myself, “If I am in the presence of God, I should have the same compassion upon myself that I would hope God would have for me.”

The Examen is a great way to train our spiritual selves to release ourselves with God’s help from guilt or regrets, let go of our unhealthy leanings, and put our hand on the plow, looking forwards, rather than back, which leaves us spiritually inert. How might Ignatius’ formulaic way of prayer change your ability to share the Good News in Christ through your life and actions?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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