It occurred to me just a few days ago that without thinking about it, my family and I were doing a group Examen at our dinner table. I don’t know why it took me so long to recognize this fact, but now it’s obvious to me that one of the very important reasons families and friends should eat together is that it sets the perfect stage for reviewing one’s day in a thoughtful, and potentially prayerful, manner. “How was your day?” — we ask this of each other, wanting to share in each other’s experiences, to deepen our sense of community. When my girls were still very young, we started the practice we call “two things,” a simple exercise of sharing two reflections on our day, after beginning our meal with a shared prayer.
So it’s gotten me thinking: I wonder if other traditional spiritual practices might be ways that people pledged to lives of celibacy might substitute for practices embedded in family life. In families, spiritual practices can be seen as ways that families come together after the centrifugal force of various activities. If meals are opportunities for an Examen, perhaps it’s possible to see wakeup and bedtime routines as a kind of liturgy of the hours, a way of structuring the day around acts of love and attentiveness. Laundry, cleaning, planning around work and school and sports and various lessons–perhaps all these can be seen as opportunities to reflect the basic Benedictine motto of ora et labora, pray and work.
For many, the paradigmatic expression of a lived Christian faith is monasticism. To be sure, it was a foundational movement in the history of the Church, arising as it did from those women and men who went off to the desert to live radically in imitation of Christ as spiritual athletes. But with the Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit and various women’s orders, there developed complementary models of living one’s faith in the world. It was Ignatius’ right hand man Jeronimo Nadal who famously described the place where Jesuits worked, in contrast to monks: “the world is our house.” For the early Jesuits (see John O’Malley’s fine book The First Jesuits for more on this), too much prayer in chapels or churches took time away from building God’s kingdom. There’s even a letter from Ignatius himself dissuading some Portuguese novices from staying in choir too long.
I am a lay person. What I see today is a new movement among many other lay people to develop yet another movement in the history of Christian spirituality, one that sees work in the so-called “secular” realm as itself an expression of a deep, sustained, lived faith in Christ. I work among Jesuits; I visit monasteries for retreats; but I live at home, and that is the place where I live out my salvation in fear and trembling. I do not think God calls me to live in the monastery, or in the community of Jesuits on mission, but rather in the home and in the world. And to the extent that my living in those places is rooted in the sustained desire to serve Christ our Lord, it is (I think) no less a religious vocation, no less a spirituality, than that of the monk, friar, sister, or priest. We are, after all, all members of the one Body of Christ, and we all break bread at the same dinner table.