On a recent Monday morning I climbed up the sun-drenched stairs to my office, my bag slung over my shoulder, my lunch balanced precariously on a stack of papers and books, the last notes of sung Morning Prayer dancing through my head. And then I saw it—a manila envelope peeking out of the bin by my door—and sun and song vanished with a small pop.

A manila envelope that someone has taken the effort to leave outside my door, rather than consign to the plodding pace of campus mail, is a portent of trouble, and complicated troubles at that. I left it in the bin while I bustled about putting away my papers and books and lunch. When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I grabbed it, emptied the contents onto my desk—and blinked.

manila envelope

A stack of index cards, each with a message in bright marker, tumbled out. “I love your class!” “You make chemistry interesting and fun.” “Thanks for the cookies. :)”

Thank you, each of them said, not with a dashed “thx,” but with wonderfully wrought expressions of gratitude for the routine things I do. Preparing lectures and having office hours. And a few for untangling the difficulties that hide in manila envelopes.

One of the gifts of the Examen in my life has been the way in which it makes gratitude more of a habit, opening my eyes to see the graces in my morning cup of tea or reminding me to look up at the sky and to thank God for the routine miracles of caffeine and sunrises. Yet this manila envelope of gratitude made me wonder if I’ve been avoiding peering deeply inside of the difficult moments, to remember with gratitude that God is equally present there. Do I respond with a rushed eyes-squinted-shut-thanks-for-that, or can I unhesitatingly open my eyes to what is hidden inside the events of my life, even the events that open into swirling chaos and pain, and be grateful for the specific graces inevitably entangled within them?

Last week, my youngest brother’s wife was rushed to the hospital, critically ill. That night, I sent him a short message, ending with a blessing drawn from St. Patrick’s Lorica, “May you know that Christ is with you both, under your feet, behind you and beside you.” He said in response that he had been clinging to that prayer throughout the long and terrible day, asking for the grace to look for God’s presence in the terror and grief, to be grateful for what he could see in each moment. I was, and remain, humbled by his willingness to open his eyes and look for God in the midst of such terrible times.

There have been miracles over the last two days, for which I am indescribably grateful. But I am immeasurably grateful, too, for the lessons which open my eyes to the terrible beauty of God at work.

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November 21, 2014

child grateful for gift

Gratitude is not optional in the faith journey. It is central.

Gratitude is not simply remembering to say “Thank you.” There is a difference between the child who is taught to say “Thank you,” and the child who is truly grateful. The words are not necessary when we see the joy and appreciation of child engaged with something that has been a gift. All children really need to do to show gratitude is to include us in their expressions of enthusiasm.

Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying “Thank you.” Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.

It is only in the last few years that I have become more acutely aware of the centrality of gratitude. I think in some ways it can be used as a hallmark for some degree of spiritual maturity. It’s the move away from the self-centered adolescent, “Thanks so much!” followed swiftly by, “But what I’d really like is…” to the more mature, “I have done nothing to deserve these riches.”

There is a difference between the person who is unsatisfied because he desires a greater sense of connection with God and the person who knows that there is far more to the spiritual journey than she currently experiences but is content to let God lead the way. The latter is a position of gratitude, an acknowledgement that God has led one thus far and will lead one on in God’s good time. Both may experience the desire for more, but the former can only see what he lacks, while the latter focuses on what she has.

In a society which is focused on the next goal, the next success, the next whatever, gratitude is countercultural. In truth, gratitude is the first step on the pathway to true freedom in God.

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November 20, 2014

Vinita Hampton Wright shares this imaginative prayer exercise with us, based on Luke 24: 13–35, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Listen to an audio version of this guided reflection here.

Supper at Emmaus by Matthias Stom [public domain]

It’s a long walk home from Jerusalem, but you’re glad for the exertion. The physical work of walking might ease, just slightly, the harder work that’s going on inside you today.

It is the work of grief. You lost a friend just a few days ago. Not only a friend, but your leader, your beloved teacher. And he didn’t simply die; he was executed in the most torturous, shameful way. You’ve seen a lot in your lifetime, but the memories of Jesus’ ordeal are forever branded into your memory. You close your eyes and see blood; you go to sleep but dream about someone suspended, gasping for air.

At least your friend is with you—both of you followed the teacher, with equal conviction and enthusiasm. So you bear your grief together now. As you walk and walk through the long, rainy afternoon, you encourage better memories—of all that the teacher said, of the people you know whom Jesus healed. You can’t seem to stop talking, although several times one or both of you must stop talking because you must cry for a while.

The stranger joins you while you are still several miles from home. Within moments, it’s clear that this person has no idea what has been going on in Jerusalem. With great heaviness and some annoyance, you fill in the barest details for him. All you have to say is “crucifixion” and anyone in Roman territories knows exactly what you’re talking about.

But the stranger engages in the conversation with great energy. He must be some kind of teacher, because he launches into an explanation of how Jesus’ fate is actually a good thing and the proper fulfillment of what was predicted long ago. This is fascinating—you and your friend are all ears. Before you know it, you’ve arrived at your home and it’s getting dark.

You invite the stranger to have supper with you and spend the night, rather than risk injury or other misfortune while on the road at night alone. Also you want to hear more of what he has to say. He graciously accepts your offer.

The first thing you do upon entering the house is prepare the evening meal. The three of you sit down to eat. Then the stranger takes the bread and blesses it. You feel a strange energy move through you and hover in the room.

Where have you heard this sort of blessing before?

The stranger hands each of you a piece of the bread. You take it, and memory washes over you—of a hillside with thousands of hungry people. Of a few loaves and fishes being transformed in an instant to miraculous abundance.

Suddenly, it is clear who this man is, eating at your table. You look into his face.

What do you see? What is his expression? What do you feel? What do you know in the truth of your heart?

Your friend has barely gotten the words out—“Why, it’s the Lord!”—when the stranger vanishes.

The room still feels strangely warm, and there are waves of that energy, like lightning sparking all over the room. You and your friend stare at one another, and finally you say, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he explained the Scriptures? Didn’t we know something even then—we just couldn’t identify it?”

You finish your meal—what a healing pleasure to eat the bread blessed by those hands! But then you look at each other and know what you must do. You head back to Jerusalem. You have to tell Jesus’ other followers who are still there in the city.

What is your conversation like on the way back?

You are traveling at night—something you never do, for safety’s sake. What does it feel like to be on the road at such a strange hour?

What thoughts keep running through your mind on this journey?

How has your perspective changed, now that you have met the resurrected Jesus?

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November 19, 2014

man in silhouette after bad day

My husband has a habit that I find both irritating and wise all at once. When I come home after a really bad day at work, the first thing he asks me is, “What are you thankful for today?” While he knows that he’ll be greeted with my pithy retort of, “I’m thankful it’s over,” he also knows that in that one quick exchange he has refocused me. That question forces me away from my bleak and self-pitying outlook on the day and reminds me that I ought to be thankful that I had the day to begin with.

Gratitude is quite possibly the greatest weapon God gives us against despair. When we take the time to be grateful, it diverts our gaze toward the light rather than the darkness. This theme of gratitude in the bleakest moments is all over the Bible. As they began their ministry, the apostles were persecuted, flogged, and threatened. Their response to this, though, was to rejoice that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of God. They saw the light in the midst of darkness, and it gave them what they needed to keep on with their ministry. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is described as “anxious” to eat the Passover meal with the apostles, and he gives thanks during that meal. He knew it was his last, he knew one of his apostles would betray him, and yet he found a little bit of light in that dark day.

St. Ignatius clearly recognized the power of gratitude. He suggested gratitude as a central part of the Examen, ensuring that retreatants, the Jesuits, and all whom they guide and teach come into the practice of seeing the good that God grants them each day of their lives. It’s perfect training for those periods of desolation—a light toward consolation.

I challenge you, the next time life seems to push you down at every turn or you’re just having a lousy day, to take some time to consider the question that irritates me: What are you thankful for today? It might seem like an insurmountable challenge in some circumstances. If that’s the case, Padre Pio offers you this ounce of hope, “The most beautiful act of faith is the one made in darkness, in sacrifice, and with extreme effort.”

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November 18, 2014

I’ve recently pondered how the theme of God’s justice fits into the Spiritual Exercises. Our traditional understanding of justice is getting what one deserves. God’s justice, however, is more about a desire for us to be whole, based in love and compassion.

God’s justice is about a desire for us to be whole. - scales of justice

St. Ignatius was a Castilian military man, part of a justice system of fighting, capturing, and revenge. After the Castilians captured and occupied the land of Navarre, the citizens tried to drive them out and in the battle they besieged Ignatius’s family castle. In Ignatius’s autobiography he tells how he considered taking revenge on a traveler who spoke ill of the Blessed Mother. Ignatius’s view of justice was very different from God’s justice.

The transformation of Ignatius’s understanding of justice appears in the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, when a retreatant spends time recounting his or her personal sin. After a feeling of self-loathing for one’s sin, the retreatant discovers that God has remained faithful and loving, and that the saints continue to pray for him or her.

The Second Week opens up the reflection to social sin as well. We witness how Jesus revealed the reality of systemic sin and corrupt systems of justice in his day. Jesus’ justice was about calling people like the Pharisees or the adulterous woman to greater wholeness. His justice was not about condemnation, but about compassionate love.

In the Third Week of the Exercises, God’s justice plays out on the cross, not condemning the world for their sin but taking it upon himself. On the cross Christ forgives his killers. It’s a kind of justice that’s foreign to human nature.

Finally, the Fourth Week reveals God’s justice through the gift of love that pours out upon us, bringing us healing and wholeness. The Exercises describe “justice, goodness, mercy, etc., descend[ing] from above as the rays of light descend from the sun, and as the waters flow from their fountains, etc.” (SE 237)

How do we live out God’s justice in our lives? We can learn from the Spiritual Exercises and the example of Jesus. God remains faithful, forgives, calls everyone to greater wholeness, never condemns, and pours out love and mercy. Instead of taking revenge or trying to ensure perfect fairness, we can approach all (including ourselves) with compassion and a desire to make whole. This is true justice.

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November 17, 2014

man showing burnout, anguish, and pain - hands over face

Ever have a gut-wrenching day? Not just a hard day, but a day when you felt like there was nothing left inside of you but ache? Maybe it was the day your teenager screamed at you for the umpteenth time and slammed the door in your face. Maybe it was the day you had to put your beloved pet to sleep, or the day you had to walk away from an unhealthy relationship. I had one of those days. And as I sobbed through my prayer, the Voice I could hear in my heart just repeated, “But you did the right thing.” That was my only consolation.

So often in Ignatian spirituality we practice finding God by taking time out to see the beauty of this world. Our consolations are found in the warmth of a morning cup of coffee tasted in the stillness of a sunrise. Or in the laughter of the grandchild with spaghetti on her face. Or in the affirmation of success, a friend’s call, or an invitation accepted. Consolation becomes synonymous with happiness and joy, and at times it is.

But other times it isn’t. Consolation isn’t always easy.

Ignatian spirituality is about transformation, moving ourselves closer to the persons God calls us to be. Transformation is hard. It can hurt. It can mean at times you have to leave behind all you were raised with and told to be true for that which your heart now can’t deny. It can lead you to a point of wondering, “Why would God ask this of me?” and wanting to say, “No, this is too hard. I can’t do it.” It can break your heart. But you know it is the right thing to do.

Consolation doesn’t have to be about ethics or compliance, but knowing in your gut to take the courageous next step. You may not feel joy about it. You certainly may not be happy. It may ache for a while. But somewhere in that ache, you will feel an arm around you and rest your head on the shoulder of Christ, exhausted, knowing you are one step closer to being the person you were created to be.

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November 14, 2014

How does a person develop a thankful heart? It starts with having an attitude of gratitude. The Examen is a powerful prayer tool to help us cultivate a stance of grateful living. All five steps of the Examen are rooted in principles of gratitude.

What a gift! - gift box

Asking the Spirit for help in seeing our day: The Spirit calls us to action, moving in us and through us. The Spirit works in and through others and helps us in our relationship with God. What a gift we have in the Great Advocate who labors on our behalf!

Thanksgiving: We rummage backwards through our day naming, celebrating, and thanking God for the gifts of the day. A key concept in the First Principle and Foundation is “all the things in this world are gifts from God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily” (Fleming version). God is working on our behalf through all parts of our lives, sometimes without us even realizing it. What a gift that God uses all things in this world so that we might come to know God!

Presence: Looking back, we notice all the ways God showed up in our day. The simple act of noticing how God breaks into our day reminds us that we are not alone. What a gift for us not to have to walk through life alone!

Forgiveness: We acknowledge the times we did not choose love. We turn to God and ask for forgiveness and help in not sinning again. We are reminded, again, that we are not alone, even in our battle against sin and evil. What a gift we have in God’s mercy and forgiveness!

Turning to tomorrow: We look to our next 24 hours, and we ask for God’s grace and help in living as God sees fit for us. What a gift that we have an assurance that we will not be alone tomorrow!

Praying the Examen cultivates a heart of thanksgiving. It is from this stance of thanksgiving that God stirs us to action because, as we do our part in helping bring around God’s Kingdom, we know that we are never alone. And if we forget this at any point, all we have to do is pause and pray the Examen and let the Holy Spirit remind us again of God’s abundant labor on our behalf.

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November 13, 2014

UCA Jesuit memorial rose garden

This week we remember the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. For an extended story about the six Jesuits and two women murdered and the events surrounding November 16, 1989, read Ron Hansen on “Hearing the Cry of the Poor.”

May perpetual light shine upon them and may they rest in peace. Amen.

Image by Amber under Creative Commons license.

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November 12, 2014

Fr. Robert L. Keane, SJ (CAPT, USN, Ret.), shares a Veterans Day prayer in this short video.

If you’re receiving this via e-mail, click through to watch the video Veterans Day Prayer.

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November 10, 2014

While it’s easy to think about the Examen as being oriented to the past, this prayer helps us to pay attention to where God is in the past, present, and future. The prayer begins with God in the present: God is with me, here and now as I pray. God is in the past, throughout the day that I have been reviewing. And I can trust that God will also be in my future and pray out of that sensibility. In this way, the Examen always ends with hope.

lone flower on the beach

Thomas Aquinas defined hope as the stretching forth of our desire toward a future good, even if that good is difficult to attain. In other words, hope means choosing to act in ways that lead me closer to what is good and loving, even though the future is often unknown and beyond my control.

Why should we hope, even in the midst of personal struggles and difficulties? Why not succumb to despair when we cannot see our own way out of pain and suffering?

One great reason for hope for the future is recalling how God has been with us in the past. We cannot see into the future and know exactly how God will bring good out of difficulty. However, we can remember when and where God has brought good out of past suffering. This is the centerpiece of the Gospels and the heart of the Christian story: the transformation of the suffering and death of Jesus into the Resurrection and new life. It’s also how God continues to act in our own lives. For example, I can recall how working through marital difficulties later brought my husband and me to a new depth of closeness as we grew in mutual understanding. A friend shared that the loss of his job and six months of unemployment led him to consider a different avenue of work, one that eventually led to much more personal growth than his former job. A broken relationship might not be repaired, but it can open up possibilities for learning about ourselves and others.

We also hope because God is with us, right now, encouraging us to love wherever we are. Hope is an action for today, stretching into tomorrow.

What are your reasons for hope?

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November 10, 2014