I have posted on this before, but this simple, ancient spiritual discipline is truly one of the most life-changing I have practiced and I gladly pass it on...again. -- Tod
In Poker, there is one particular type of game that allows two different people to win the pot at the same time. It is called High-Low. In High-Low Poker, both the highest hand and the lowest hand split the pot.
For a while now, my family has been playing a kind of communication game that we call “high-low” at dinner time. Every one of us has to check in and tell his or her “high” of the day and “low” of the day while we eat together. The Highs and lows are different for each person. A high may be, “getting a good grade on my math test” or “my friend and I made up after our fight” or “I had a really good staff meeting.” Or “The hours I spent in the garden.” And equally so, the low is something different for each of us—and frankly, most of the time we would rather not even talk about it. But around the table we do, both highs and lows and through it we are learning to sense God’s leading in our lives as individuals and as a family.
Now, technically, this “spiritual poker game” is called the Prayer of “examen”, and it is mostly an end-of-the-day spiritual discipline developed by St. Ignatius in the 16th century.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ignatius, he was a former Spanish knight and soldier who left behind the military to serve Christ. He created an order called the Society of Jesus and he imposed very high standards, military-like discipline upon those who joined it. But when his charges would come to him to complain that they were too busy or too tired to keep up the rigors of Bible study, prayers and ministry, Ignatius would tell them that the only spiritual discipline they were absolutely mandated to maintain was the daily prayer of examen: An older version of our family spiritual poker game.
Last post we learned, that “prayer that changes things is prayer that changes us.” Prayer that changes us is about God’s care and God’s calling speaking to us in the stillness of our hearts.
Over the next three posts starting today, I am going to suggest three spiritual exercises for those moments of stillness, that if practiced regularly have been proven for centuries to cultivate both deeper awareness of God’s care, and clarity about God’s calling on our lives. And this one is perhaps the most simple and powerful, this spiritual exercise of examen.
This daily game of high-low, is the very center of my own prayer life. It is about reflecting on and responding to, what Ignatius called the “consolations and desolations” of everyday life.
Usually for me, when I do this by myself, I do it at the end of the day
as I lie in bed and I pray, “Lord, help me look back on this day and
see it clearly.” Then I ask two sets of questions that are very much
like our family game of high-low: First,
“What were the consolations of this day?
• For what am I MOST grateful today? Where did I give and receive love today? Where was I most energized to be the person God called me to be? When did I act most faithfully to the word of God?
When was I energized, alive, authentic, real, faithful and responsive to the Spirit? When was I joyful, spontaneous and open to others around me? When did I represent Christ well?
As those images come to mind, I thank God for them and rest in them,
letting the peace and focus they give me, remind me of God’s presence
and call on my life. And then after a while lingering on those
questions, I ask:
What were the desolations of this day?
• For what am I LEAST grateful today? Where did I withhold and refuse love today? Where was I least energized to be the person God called me to be? When did I act unfaithfully to the word of God?
When was I drained and when did the day feel like drudgery? When did I feel angry, resentful, insecure, and defensive? When was I closed off to the Spirit and focused on my flesh? When did I “push” my agenda for the day? When did I cling to my “false self”?
And then I commit myself to God, asking forgiveness for the sins that caused my desolation and the strength to reorganize my life away from these desolations and more and more toward my consolations.
This honest spiritual assessment almost single-handedly helps me be more focused on where I want to continually put my passion, energy, time and resources the next day. It helps me attend to what I am avoiding and dreading, and spend more time and energy on the things that God has called me uniquely to do. As I pray prayers of thanks and confession, I end my day, committing myself into God’s hands for sleeping and the next day.
Now, this prayer practice is rooted in the Scriptures that teach us that God is present in every circumstance, that we cannot flee from God’s presence. And the key to living a life that pleases God, that is centered and full of peace is to continually open one’s heart to the examination and leading of the Spirit.
Listen again to the Psalmist’s own prayer:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?…
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:7, 23-24, NRSV)
And to Jesus’ own words:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… (John 16:13, NRSV).
St. Ignatius believed that this prayer practice was the key to figuring out the leading and calling of God on every believer’s life. That as we continually and prayerfully reflect upon what gives us lasting and recurring consolation, that which fills our lives with joy, satisfaction, gratitude and peace and at the same time are brutally honest with what causes us anxiety, regret, shame, an ungrateful and withholding heart in each day, then we have clarity to make choices toward those consolations and away from desolations.
At the heart of the prayer of examen is the conviction that God is
always leading us toward joy and peace and away from sin and despair.
That God is always leading us toward his will and what our life is
meant to be.
Prayer that changes us is the faithful response to the Spirit of God in every circumstance of life.
This simple prayerful attentiveness brings all of life—in all of its mixed-bag, muddledness—into focus every night. Every night I look back and see the way that every day was both filled with moments of grace and challenges of the flesh. I see the miracles of ordinary living (like my teenager taking out the trash without being asked or the taste of a perfect summer tomato), are mixed in with moments of heart ache and despair. And I realize how very often in life, all I can control is my awareness and my attitude, to pay attention to what IS and respond according to the person that God truly made me to be.
The prayer of examen done regularly helps us to listen to what our desolations teach us and to follow where our consolations lead us.
Let me give you a couple of examples that I hope will help you understand this better.
Before he devoted himself to follow and serve Christ, Ignatius was, as I told you, a soldier in the Spanish army. And by all accounts, as a soldier he was a wild man who used to enjoy not only the thrills of war, but ample amounts of drinking and womanizing.
Once in a battle with the French, he was critically wounded in battle, his own leg broken by a cannonball. When he was recuperating, he was given a Bible and a book about the lives of the saints. Ignatius later wrote that in order to keep his mind off the pain, he would sometimes read the Scriptures and the stories of the lives of the saints, but other times when he was tired he would fill his imagination remembering the times in his life as a soldier when he fought valiant battles, and sowed his oats as a hard drinking and womanizing warrior.
Ignatius said that while the memories of his conquests both on the battlefield and with women gave him some relief from the pain and moments of enjoyment, that later on he would feel a sense of regret, shame and emptiness. But when he filled his minds with the stories of the saints who used their lives to win souls for God rather than win vain-glory and fulfill the lusts of the moment, that he had a sense of lasting peace and centeredness. Filling his mind with the words of the scriptures and the example of those who lived valiantly for Christ gave him lasting encouragement, bur remembering his own worldly “conquests” actually left him more and more despondent.
These moments of reflection, led Ignatius, when he was recuperated, to lay down his armor and begin a life of serving God.
We can only wonder what that same kind of reflection would do for many of us. If we take the time to regularly pay attention to what truly energizes us, gives us joy and fills us with lasting peace and follow where that leads, as well as learning the lessons that our desolation teach us, we can slowly, gently begin to reorder our lives.
When we take the time to really listen to desolations, to discern the difference between that which gave us a thrill for the moment and what in reflection actually took energy, added to our stress, and drained us of gratitude, then slowly we can move away from those things and toward the things that give us life, increase our joy and fill us with love and gratitude. Ignatius believed that because God was love and because “the Kingdom of God is…righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:7) that to do God’s will is to live more and more in the consolation that leads us to righteousness, peace and joy rather than the desolation that drains our lives.
For Beth and me, this practice of what we call “Holy High-Low” has become the staple of our dinner conversation, but most especially a Sunday Sabbath commitment that over time has become the center of our family spiritual life.
Shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, Beth wanted to start establishing Sunday Dinners as a stable weekly tradition in our family. At that time, it was nothing more than a commitment to eat a nice home-cooked meal together one night a week. But as we played our game of “holy high-low”, we began to realize that these dinners had even more to offer us. All of us, especially Beth and me, really looked forward to these dinners. Often times they were the high point of our week. We also saw how these dinner were centering our family especially as the kids were getting older and the demands upon all of us were increasing.
After awhile we began to add some small traditions, like lighting a special set of candles and saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Then Beth started praying about Sabbath as a day of rest and simplicity that we could practice together as a family.
About 18 months ago we committed that we would give up all Sunday activities that took us away from either worship or Sunday dinners. We would take care of chores, and shopping and homework and sports activities by Saturday night and we would leave Sunday to be a day of worship, serving Christ, connecting to friends and being together as a family having Sunday dinner, lighting some candles, sharing our highs and lows and praying the Lord’s Prayer together. Our kids can go off and play in the afternoon while I am taking my usual Sunday nap, we all try to get in a little exercise, and on occasion someone needs to sneak in some homework, but we are all home together by 4 PM to fix and eat dinner together.
Over the past 18 months as we have done this, we have found that very, very often the greatest high of our week, now for everyone of us, was the dinner that we were having on each Sunday. When we would go around the table and talk about what made us most grateful, very soon the answer became: “Doing this. Having these mellow, restful Sundays together.” Sometimes we have dinner with good friends, sometimes we have over people from the church, but our Sunday routine is almost always the same. No chores, no shopping, no school work, no church work, no organized sports, very little media, just Christ, Community and family.” And this, because it has filled us with such consolation, has now become the centering activity of our family life.
Notice that this didn’t come out of some rigorous, legalistic, Thou Shalt Not Sunday commitment, but instead listening to what genuinely gave us joy, consolation and filled our hearts with gratitude. At the same time, very often our disconsolation were about the way that we feel pulled, busy, our lives often overwhelmed by demands. These Sunday dinners and Sabbath commitments have been a gift, a consolation, not a desolate duty.
My friends, if we want prayer to change us, then we must find ways to cultivate the still times where we can pay attention to our consolations and desolations. Again, to listen to what our desolations teach us and to follow where our consolations lead us.
Before I conclude I want to be clear that it is tempting to think that the life of Christian faith is supposed be nothing but “high hands”. And if a “low hand” does appear, well, the only way to make it a “winner” is to pretend that it doesn’t affect us. We can be tempted to think that Bible even teaches this. In his earliest letter that we have, St. Paul writes to a fledgling group of Christian in Thessalonica, “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” (1 Thes 5:16-18, NLT).
See, there it is. Be joyful. Pray. Be thankful. See. Nothing but good things. All “high” hands here. Or is there? Did you notice? “Always be joyful (not just when things are joyous.) Never stop praying (even in the midst of doubt and despair) Be thankful in all circumstances (including thankless ones!). In other words, you have to pay attention to the “lows” as well as the “highs” in order to fulfill “God’s will for you”.
In High-Low Poker, there are usually two winners to every hand: the one
with the high hand and the one with the low. But there is one scenario
that allows a person to win the whole pot without splitting it: that is
when a person has a hand that is both the high hand and the low hand at
the same time. When a person gets say a six-card high, that also
happens to be a straight, then she has a hand that is both ‘high and
low’ at the same time and wins it all.
I believe that achieving this “high-low hand” is the ultimate goal of all of life. It is when our highs and our lows are the same thing. When our consolations and desolations occur at exactly the same time, when the lowest, most difficult moments of life become the highs.
When I was a 26 year old chaplain intern working with cancer patients in a hospital, I walked into the room of an 86 year old man who had very late stage colon cancer. On his chart, it listed his occupation as “Minister”. I introduced myself to him as the chaplain intern and asked if there was anything I could do for him, He raised himself out of bed and said, “Chaplain, I am 86 years old. I have been married to the same women for 64 years, I have served the Lord for 60. If the good Lord will just allow me to get out of this bed long enough to officiate my grandson’s wedding this Saturday, then I’ll be ready for him to take me home. It’s been a very good life.”
Tonight when you go to bed, pray the prayer of examen from the perspective of your death bed. What will you need to change so that you can say then, “It’s been a very good life”?
My friends, when we listen to the Spirit that will lead us in all truth, when we continually open our hearts to the one who searches us and knows us, and deliberately keep adjusting our lives toward the the Spirit’s consolations, then slowly our desolations change. Sinfulness and foolishness give way to suffering in faithfulness.
The things we must endure come together with the joy of the Lord that is our strength.
Our desolations and our consolations meet, the highs and the lows are both present and are two sides of the good and faithful life. Both joy and endurance.
The joy of the privilege of enduring the caring for aging parent
The joy of loving and enduring the hard spots of marriage.
The joy of growing in faith as we endure and resist temptations.
The joy of standing up for what we believe even if we have to endure standing alone.
The joy of being surrounded by those who give thanks for your life as you endure the the end of life.
Consolations and desolations, joy and endurance, all coming together like our lord himself, Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross… (Hebrew 12:2, NRSV)
It is in that joy and enduring, that God’s care and God’s calling, and our changing occurs.