Discerning and Becoming: Better Living through Examen

Who do you want to become? It had been a while since I asked myself that question. Through the prevailing uncertainty since I first began to consider seriously quitting my career and moving to Cleveland, the more immediate questions have been along the lines of what I want to become: Do I really want to be a pastor? If I’m not going to be able to support myself as a pastor immediately, what do I want to be? Also, where do I want to be? What church and which neighborhood? Not to mention, when do I want to be there? ‘Who’ gets lost in the flurry of existential and quotidian concerns. I take for granted who I am, which amounts to my not taking it as a serious consideration. It’s tempting to feel that with the many practical questions I have about my life in the coming months I don’t have time to wonder about the kind of person I want to be. But this is to miss how integral these answers are to my character. It is to forget that who I am being formed into may be all that matters.

In evangelicalism our emphasis on relationship can come possibly to the neglect of formation. I’ve been in conscious relationship with the Trinity for the past decade, yet what kind of relationship determines more what if any effect it has on me. (Rabbi Heschel might say that one cannot not exist in a relationship with Gød.) How has that relationship formed me? You might say, a consistent, intimate relationship with Jesus will necessarily conform us to his image. And this might well be true, but unless we see with some clarity the image of the one to whom we are conformed, we risk becoming aimlessly and disproportionately; we risk growing in our love of justice but not our patience, in humility but not in conviction, and so on; though always we rely on grace. If relationship is our only focus, and not formation, we may sate ourselves on the fact of our relationship rather than using our desire for intentional formation to draw us into particular contours of a relationship that will form us according to our needs and cultivate in us those aspects we specifically draw near to in Gød. That is, it is not only that I enjoy the Trinity’s company but that I may ask the Trinity, ‘Do what the Father wills that will make me more patient’; ‘Teach me endurance through weakness’; ‘Let me love like you love.’ It is not enough just that I pray but that I pray to become.

Who is it, then, that I would have Gød cultivate me to become? It is not a comprehensive inventory, but the following attributes come to mind this week through prayerful thought:

  • Gentle. ‘There is scarcely any other virtue which demons fear as much as gentleness’ (Evagrios the Solitary). Gentleness is a neglected virtue, perhaps because it seems to lack force or power, which we like a great a deal. Perhaps this is true in some sense, yet Jesus in his strength was one of whom it was said, ‘A bruised reed he will not break’ (Isa 42:3 // Mt 12:10).
  • Convicted. Perhaps it is here that gentleness does not become spineless. If it is weak, it is not weak in convictions. If it does not apply force, if it willingly receives force; it can do so because it stands firm.
  • Vulnerable. If I must do ministry from the safety of a shell, a veil or a callous, if I must hide or be dishonest about my weakness, I do not want to do ministry, nor do I think I would be able to do so effectively. Rather, I want to bear a presence that invites the vulnerable to place of safety, insofar as willing vulnerability establishes a trust, dangerously bestows on the other the prerogative to harm that one does not take for oneself.
  • Hospitable. It is not enough to be gentle and vulnerable if I do not also intentionally open up spaces inside myself for the stranger to enter, to make claims on my time and my attention and my conscience that I might yield. This means remaining open, sometimes empty, even out of sacrifice, as the vacare Deo that Nouwen describes.
  • Mindful. Not to pass from moment to moment with automaticity (and thus ingratitude) but with a consciousness of Gød’s holy presence and rigorous justice, to appreciate something of Heschel’s words: ‘To have faith is . . . to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living’ (‘Faith’ in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 330).
  • Attentive. If mindfulness is toward the holy dimension of living, and to the holy Gødself, attentiveness is toward the other person. It is yet another perfecting virtue of hospitality, where my attention is rapt by the person in front of me, where in the moment she is sharing with me, she is the most valued person on the earth, where in the moment of our friendship, I see him as the beloved friend of Gød.

How I pray to become is through examen. The ‘examen’ I practice is not strictly Ignatian, is not formalistic, but rather shares a common spirit with the fourth step of recovery: a ‘searching and fearless moral inventory.’ It is a moral examen. It looks at my character and everything that touches it. Through it I must ask myself: What I am doing to pursuing this formation? What am I failing to do? What today, this week, have I failed to do? What must I do today, right now? Is the way I have patterned my life in this season in the service of this project of becoming? Is every decision that I make placed in the service of this project of becoming? What must I change, and what sacrifices must I begin to make, in order to more fully prioritize becoming the human Gød has created me to be?

Lest this emphasis on personal growth sound in any way (secular) humanistic or ‘new age-y’ rather than theological consider this: Who simply be being married over time becomes a better spouse? Rather, one becomes a better spouse—indeed becomes more actually a husband, a wife—and deepens the relationship with their spouse by asking what kind of husband or wife one could be for her or him, what kind of husband or wife loves better and receives love better. For us to fix ourselves upon an image of ourselves is less narcissistic than it is a practice of devotion, for we seek to become more ourselves in order to give more of ourselves, to enjoy more of Gød and to return to Gød greater justice in the world Gød so loves.

As I search and test myself through examen, then, asking myself who I might become for the service of Gød’s kingdom, I find that I am at the same time discerning Gød’s will. Discernment becomes more clearly not a matter of right or wrong, hitting the mark or missing it, but of extending my own ‘love [and desires] to what God may approve, [to represent with my prayerful seeking] a wave in the tide of His thoughts’ (Heschel, 331). Discernment becomes asking what actions and postures I need to take in order to become the human that Gød has called me to become in Christ. And when I ask myself, Who is the human I want to grow into? and, What will it take to get me there? it becomes easy to discern my path from here.

Photo cred: https://flic.kr/p/7BbSKP


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