St. Ignatius understood the importance of reviewing one’s life when he built this practice into the Spiritual Exercises centuries ago. His emphasis was to help a person identify past sins and so to make a detailed confession during the First Week, which focuses on our recognition of sin and of God’s abundant mercy.
Today, spiritual autobiography is one facet of a broad self-help industry. People can attend workshops on it and buy books that will help them write a spiritual autobiography. The workshops and books may or may not have a Christian framework, yet they address a fundamental need for self-awareness. Both Ignatius and today’s spiritual teachers understand the power of looking back at one’s life and reframing it in a healthy way.
In today’s post, we will concentrate on the shadow side of your life history—the difficulties, sins, and wounds that have played a part in forming you. The next post on this topic will address the more positive gifts, graces, and possibilities.
In the Gospel stories, Jesus’ first response to just about every person he met was to heal. He would heal a person even before pronouncing that his or her sins were forgiven. He saw people’s woundedness and lostness and responded with care and compassion. I think he assumed that most people recognized their own sinfulness and misery—most people except those who considered themselves righteous and were therefore blind to their own needs and sins. I think Jesus knew our tendency to look at our past and see mainly our failures, problems, and wrongdoings. He came to us to show us that we need not be defined by those things.
Writing Exercise #1
Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your remembering.
Prayerfully consider your life by stages. Spend some time allowing memories of early childhood to arise. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you the wound(s) you need to see. Do this with each life stage. You can do it somewhat quickly, as an overview. Or you can take a different life stage for each day or period of prayer.
As you take notes on your memories, don’t worry so much about the literal facts, such as dates, sequence of events, exact places, and so forth. Memory is quite subjective and unreliable in the most literal sense. Write more about how you perceived what happened. How do you remember the event? How did you feel then? How do you feel now?
Write down as many words and phrases as you can that describe your sin or wound: regret, betrayal, horribly disappointed, shocked, still angry, I wish I knew why, if only I had done something else, and so on.
End with a prayer something like this: Holy Spirit, we have opened this painful part of my story. For the time being, I place all of this in your care. I won’t worry over it or beat myself up about it but allow you to hold it and work with it. Help me let go for now until my next prayer time with it.
Writing Exercise #2
Invite Jesus to sit with you as you review the notes you have written about the sins/wounds in your history. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your thoughts and perceptions as you talk with Jesus.
Choose a specific event, sin, or wound, and talk with Jesus about it. Here are some suggestions to start:
- Lord, I think this is what was going on with me when this happened…
- I wish things had gone differently, but I can’t change the past. [If this is a sin on your part] I see the hurt I caused, and I see how I harmed myself and grieved you. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. And help me receive your mercy and grace so that this memory does not get in the way of my growth now.
- I still don’t understand why this happened, or who was really at fault, but it still hurts to remember this. In fact, I can see how my pain over this sometimes stands in the way of my moving forward now. Show me if I need to forgive someone, and help me begin that process.
- Jesus, please tell me what you think about all this. Help me see my life—my past—as you see it.
Now, write about this part of your history again, only revised in light of your conversation with Jesus.
End with thanksgiving for the forgiveness and healing that are ongoing.
Photo by PIXNIO.
Thank you Vinita. I ended up writing my autobiography, and just tonight I finished it, ‘though it may seem amateur, and luck of professionalusm, but thanks God it releases a thorny and sad memories however. I hope little by little I will come up the best writer in my section hehehe. If God willing. Please pray for me. I really love writing. Blessing.
Wow, this is what I have prayed for just the other night. I’ve been wondering how will I write my life story since i was a child until now that Jesus founded me through Ignatian Spiritually…Vinita, you are the answer. Thank you so much. You’re awesome.
Very insightful and thought-provoking. Can’t wait for part 2 🙂
Thanks Vinita for the methodology. It’s helpful.
Vinita, I was very excited about doing this exercise as there is a lot in my past that needs healing. After doing the second exercise I’m disappointed. I feel I haven’t been listening to Jesus properly as I still don’t seem to see things in a different light. I’m feeling the anger all over again – in fact stronger than I have felt it in a while. Where am I going wrong? Can you help please?
Thanks for your comment, Pam. We are so fortunate to have spiritual companions such as priests and spiritual directors who can help us sort out what is going on in our hearts. And aren’t you grateful that even when our prayer is “not always as heartfelt as I could like,” God’s mercy sees our effort at prayer and receives us just as we are! Peace to you.
Vinita, I agree that self-awareness is a fundamental need. When we have a disagreement with a friend and there is a falling-out what is helpful to healing in the relationship is musing on the positives of the relationship which are always more powerful than the irritations. Or should be. Jesus is a healer and his healing had no boundaries. The only people he became really irritated with (to the extent of calling them “hypocrites”) were the religious leaders of his day. Indeed, they were immune to his message because of self-righteousness. I rely on our heavenly priest’s understanding of my (frequent) sin and my prayer “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner” if not always as heartfelt as I could like is at least a plea.