The Journey Backward

"The journey backward can free us for the next steps forward. " - quote over picture of people walking on roadWe talk a lot about “moving forward”—whether in a business meeting or a relationship or an aspect of personal spirituality. United States culture is generally obsessed with productivity, profit margin, and success. And we can carry that obsession into our attitude about moving forward. Progress is the key!

Some of the most powerful spiritual practices, however, aid us in moving backward. The journey backward can balance our constant anxiety about going forward. What does the journey backward look like?

The Examen

When we pray the Examen, we look back at a portion of the day or the entire day. We reflect on and identify where we were most aware of or working in concert with God’s presence. We also look back and identify where we missed the opportunity to notice God working or to work with God.

Healing Prayer

Some forms of healing prayer take us back to events that have wounded us. We go to that painful moment or period and invite Jesus to join us there. We re-experience the hurt, only this time we are accompanied by Jesus: his strength, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. Sometimes this type of prayer experience can help us see the event differently; for instance, we might understand for the first time that the person who hurt us was also deeply wounded and that that person’s behavior was due not to our fault or failure but to her or his own issues.

Please note that this form of prayer nearly always involves a counselor, spiritual director, or other companion who can support the person and create a safe place for this kind of exploration.

Storytelling

I can look back over my life and recognize multiple themes. I can open my past by focusing on specific aspects of it: relationships, jobs, struggles, personal development, where I lived and how that shaped me, what gifts I developed, what family roles I played, and so on. By telling my story through multiple themes, I can make sense of my past in ways I’ve not recognized before.

For instance, I might remember my childhood as a lonely time, because I suffered much illness and was unable to spend time with other kids. It’s primarily a negative memory, because I’m thinking of that time in terms of interacting with my peers. Then I shift focus and remember another aspect of those years: learning to be quiet but attentive. Because of illness, I learned to stay interested in life through reading books or doing crafts or learning to identify birds at the birdbath in our backyard. Now I see that time as much more positive, because it helped me develop the ability to be still and pay attention—something many people don’t develop until much later in life.

The journey backward can free us for the next steps forward. Reflection, prayer, and storytelling create within us a fuller picture of who we have been and who we are becoming.

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Vinita Hampton Wright
Vinita Hampton Wright edited books for 32 years, retiring in 2021. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places and spirituality books Days of Deepening Friendship, The Art of Spiritual Writing, Small Simple Ways: An Ignatian Daybook for Healthy Spiritual Living, and, most recently, Set the World on Fire: A 4-Week Personal Retreat with the Female Doctors of the Church. Vinita is a spiritual director and continues to facilitate retreats and write fiction and nonfiction. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a cat in Springdale, Arkansas.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, Vinita, today I just experienced the most powerful healing of my wounded self by journeying backward in The Examen. My wounded self has been causing relationship problem with my son. My Spiritual Director advised me to do the Examen. I managed to open myself up to him, an hour or so before reading your sharing. Praise be to God!

  2. I have always looked back for many reasons. Maybe to recall a loss, a feeling or to relive that moment. I never felt I had any control when I went back because I felt sad or depressed immediatley after. I thought goi g back was some sort of unhealthy attachment to the past. Yet, it was a deep desire to heal and put things in order. Ignatian prayer and spirirtual direction helped me see that going backwards is natural and quite logical at times. Thank you for the article and for your generosity.

    • Thank you for sharing your story with us. I think a lot of people can relate to your initial thoughts and feelings about going back.

  3. Wonderful piece Vinita. I always look forward to your articles. Reflection, prayer, and storytelling has helped me look at my past (growing up in a funeral home) to my present with new insights into how that childhood led me to parish ministry. A middle child. A peacemaker/ what shaped me.

  4. Yes. I agree that the journey backward can be most powerful. It is helpful to me in living in the now and …moving forward.
    I have been most grateful in learning about the Daily Examen and try to practise it every night. It’s a treasure that I share with others.

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