This four-part devotional series are adapted sessions from theHeart Youth Summer 2022 Further Up Further In Retreat. These devotions invite you into a deeper and more rooted sense of prayer.
Eugene Peterson makes the comparison of bird-watching and understanding our spiritual lives in his book, The Contemplative Pastor: “
Nevertheless, naming is important. What is unnamed is often unnoticed. Naming focuses attention. The precise name confers dignity. My memorable experience of this came in naming birds. I have known what a bird was from an early age and could name a few of them — robin, crow, sparrow. The ones I named I noticed (not the other way around). I was aware that birds were in the air and bushes and trees but never paid much attention to them. Then I became a bird-watcher. I learned to observe the birds, not just to glance at them. Within a few weeks I was seeing an enormous variety of birds and noticing how extraordinarily different they were from each other. And I began to be in awe of how much there was yet to know, and to regret my late start. A new world had opened up right before my eyes: colors, sounds, flight patterns. But it had always been there. Why was I now seeing? In large part through naming. Without a taxonomy, a science of naming, I would neither notice nor remember the red-eyed vireo, towhee, Baltimore oriole, winter wren, Lewis woodpecker… Being a spiritual director means noticing the familiar, naming the particular. Being knowledgeable in the large truths of sin, grace, salvation, atonement, and judgment is necessary but not sufficient. A lot of work takes place in the details of the particular. It is the difference between being vaguely aware that birds are everywhere and naming particular birds. Every temptation has a different look and nuance. Every grace has its own ambience and angle of refraction… Casual and perfunctory habits of judging and labeling give way to the energies of a disciplined imagination and a prayerful attentiveness. The naming for me brought clarity in matters that were badly blurred.”
So what is he talking about? What are we talking about? Naming it before God is part of prayer. You can do this in your prayer life. Just like it takes some effort and some time paying attention to birds to name the things around us, the same is true of your heart. The Psalmists would say, “I pour out my complaint” (142:2), “streams of tears flow from my eyes” (119:136), “out of the depths I cry to you” (130:1), “do not remain silent” (109:1), “may all who gloat over my distress be put to shame and confusion” (35:26). They named what was in their heart. Whether they were frustrated, afraid, lonely, angry, overjoyed, or grateful, they named what was in their heart and brought it to God.
The prayer of Examen
What if we found God at work in those things when we bothered to pay attention long enough to name them and talk to him about them? There’s an ancient prayer practice called the Examen that attempts to do just that. Ignatius of Loyola, a sixteenth century Spanish theologian, handed down this useful framework for spending time with God. Let me describe how we may try this reflective prayer of naming the things in our lives before God.
Take yourself through this exercise as a prayer before God. I find it helpful to do this as a journaling prompt and pray in writing. What about the day brought strong emotions or reactions in you? Was there something you were unexpectedly moved by? A beautiful sunrise? A heartbreaking text of bad news? Some global event? Some frustrating drama in your friend group or your family? Some personal success or failure? Maybe you could divide the day into the categories used by the Examen prayer: consolation and desolation.
Consolation is something like, “Where were you most with God today?” Was it in the quiet moment looking at creation? Was it in the helpful thing you did for your family? Was it in the compliment of a friend? Where were you most with him today? Journal along these lines, naming these things before God in prayer.
Desolation is something like, “Where were you least with God today?” Was it in that harsh word you spoke to a sibling? Was it in that giving into a temptation of yours? Was it when you looked in the mirror and thought terrible things about yourself?
Mining and naming those strong moments of the day is a good place to start. Name them. Then you do what the prayer of Examen calls illumination. You ask God, "Where were you in those moments I’m naming?”
“A consolation is an experience that causes you to feel fully alive, at peace, joyful, happy, comforted, whole, connected, your best self, etc. and could be understood as an experience in which you feel close to God. A desolation is an experience that causes you to feel drained of energy, frustrated, irritated, angry, sad, sorrowful, alone, isolated, unaccepted, fragmented, less than your best self, etc. and could be understood as an experience in which you feel far away from God.”
Reflecting on the Examen as a rhythm
One year, I committed to doing an Examen journal. I kept some form of Examen running most days that year. It wasn’t always as formal as what we outlined above. But it became a prayer journal, full of confessions, hopes, poems, and articulations of what I felt God was doing. As I trace through that journal, I can see the fruit of God shifting my heart and changing me. It’s kind of like watching a time-lapse of a tree growing. Have you ever seen one of those videos made up of thousands of daily photos of a tree growing compressed into a few minutes?
Sometimes, it is hard to realize and appreciate God’s shaping of our lives when we don’t bother to gain a broader perspective. It feels incremental or even as if we are decaying spiritually sometimes. But, when we look at the long-view, God is active in our lives in ways we don’t always understand in real-time. The practice of Examen can help us to realize that God is in our lives, growing us, ring after ring, through thick and thin, when we root ourselves in him (John 15:5). May we learn to recognize the work of God in our lives as we name it all before him and expect him to be there in it.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."