I work full time as a minister, charged with nurturing the spiritual lives of young families – yet I cannot seem to get a handle on the spiritual life of my own young family.
I have grand intentions. This is, of course, part of the problem. Spirituality is especially vulnerable to our tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
We think it must be all or nothing – you either do the weeklong silent yoga retreat or eschew yoga entirely, even though a five-minute-a-day practice could be quietly life-changing.
Or you sign up to read the whole Bible in a single year only to peter out in April (okay, March) and realize that there is dust on the good book by August.
Many faith traditions press for total commitment. But even though I get weepy every time I sing “I Surrender All,” I’m awfully relieved that Jesus celebrated faith the size of a mustard seed.
So we don’t always manage to fit in our Lenten devotions, and our Jesus Storybook Bible isn’t quite as well-worn as it deserves to be. But every single night, without fail, my family practices a variation of the Ignatian examen, an ancient prayer practice and tool for discernment .
This sounds fancier than it is. Let me explain.
When I picked up my textbooks for my first semester of graduate school, a picture book was tucked amidst the weighty theology books. I thought there must have been some mistake, but there wasn’t: Sleeping With Bread was a required text for my Spiritual Formation class. The authors (Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn) introduce the Ignatian examen through simple words and illustrations. “For many years, we have ended each day the same way,” they write.
“We light a candle, become aware of God’s loving presence, and take about five minutes of quiet while we ask ourselves two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?”
Our practice of the examen unfolds without the benefit of silence and candles, but during the holy chaos of breaking bread together as a family. As we eat dinner, we practice the art of listening to one another – and listening to our lives.
We pay attention to what gives us joy and what breaks our hearts, and we offer this to God. So what if the two-year-old cites the boy next door as the best part of her day for three months straight? He is.
What I like about this ritual is that it works for us now, but our practice will deepen as our children grow. It already helps us reconcile ourselves to one another (when you’re culpable for your kid’s worst moment in her day, you have a lovely opportunity to model the art of seeking forgiveness).
It can also help us seek God’s will. As the Linns write, “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.”
God wants to give us more life. Not more guilt. Not more items on our to-do list. More life.
To learn more about the Ignatian examen, track down Sleeping With Bread, or see how Mars Hill Church interprets the practice for their community of faith.