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Three Novembers ago, I was a recluse in my seminary dormitory, I ate meals alone at tables with seven other people, and the light had gone out in my eyes. Heartbreak six months old continued to ferment within me. I had no way to deal so I drank deep of my own depression. I was a wretched creature, cast from the pages of Dickens or Dostoyevsky. To borrow from the psalmist, the water had risen up to my neck: I was sinking in deep mire and there was no firm ground for my feet.
In this state, I drove to St. Alban’s in Northwest DC to meet with my spiritual director. The month before, in our first meeting of the new school year, she could tell right away that something was different about me. I was waiting to be buzzed into the office, and she saw me through the little window in the locked door. The door opened, and without a word, she took my arm and pulled me into an embrace. The tears would have come if I had had any left.
A month after that first meeting, I had slipped even lower in the mire. The only thing that could have made the situation worse had happened, and I was struggling to go an hour without wallowing in the future that would have been. I sat down in the rocking chair in my spiritual director’s office. She lit the candle, and we sat in the relative silence of the intersection of Wisconsin and Mass Ave.
Over the next hour, I talked about how difficult it was not to dwell on the woman who left me. In that special way spiritual directors have of eliciting responses by being quiet at the right times, my director helped me discover something. During the nearly two years that we were together, I prayed for this woman every day. I lifted her up to God, and thanked God for her presence in my life. But the prayer dissolved with the relationship, which, of course, was the exact wrong time to stop praying. “When your mind starts to spiral to thoughts of her,” my spiritual director said, “pray for her instead. You are still connected through the love of God, even if you are no longer together.”
The guidance helped, but I don’t think I would have ever recovered if a new spiritual practice hadn’t accompanied the counsel. That same session, my director handed me a sheet of paper entitled “Ignatius’ 5 Step Daily Consciousness or ‘Awareness’ Examen.” “Pray these steps every night for the next month,” she said, “and write them down if writing makes you focus better.” This was a prescription for soul medicine, and, in my desperation, I saw it as a cure. She might have said, “Take two Examens and call me in the morning.” Of course, that’s not how spiritual practices work.
On the first night, I placed a red, five-subject notebook on my pillow so I wouldn’t forget. In the top right corner of the first page, I wrote “1,” and on the first line, “November 6, 2006.” Feeling a bit silly and wondering if I should get a little lock for my new diary, I took out the Examen.
“Step One,” I read: “Be Mindful.” I scratched the words, “Yes, Lord, you are here” under the date and took a deep breath. Something detached from my consciousness with that breath and I wrote it down. Yes, Lord, you are here in the presence of my friends. (My friends whom I have abandoned because I’m sure that none of them has ever felt the way I feel right now. How presumptuous.)
“Step Two. Be Thankful.” A roast beef sandwich, spiritual direction, sweater weather. When I thought about it, I found that I was thankful about some things. How wonderful.
“Step Three. Be Humble.” Ah, here’s the tough one, I thought. Humility and I have never been close; cards at Christmas – that’s about it. What is God teaching me through the lesson of today? How has God illumined me today without me realizing it? How uncomfortable.
“Step Four. Be Reflective.” What’s that one encounter from today that has stuck with me? Did the encounter bring me closer or push me away from God? Can’t think of one? How distracted.
“Step Five. Be Responsive.” I read over what I had written, and breathed deeply again. And again, something detached and I wrote it down. So this is where God is leading me. How revealing.
Three years later, the Examen has become a part of my life. I make mental notes during the day about what I want to write. I’m on my sixth notebook, and I switch between blue and black pens, so I can tell when they have run out of ink. The woman, who initially appeared in every entry, no longer stars in its pages. New thanksgivings and desolations and encounters and hopes abound. They are all parts of my story, which God already knows, but which I am discovering every day. I pray to be mindful, thankful, humble, reflective, responsive. I pray for the courage to live a life that can fill dozens of more notebooks. And I pray that God continues to guide my hand as I spill my soul onto those college-ruled pages.