Praying My Experiences: Looking Inward

In my journey to become a friar, I've been given plenty of tools to build my prayer life. One of those has been the Examen, a form of prayer from the Jesuit tradition. The main goal of the Examen of Conscience, at the risk of limiting the scope in a short synopsis, is to reflect on one's day and the moments at which God was present...allowing for a dialouge between one and God about the day.

In their own words, the Jesuits explain the process:
Designed to foster an awareness of God, neighbor, and self, the Examination of Conscience holds a special place in the daily prayers of Jesuit priests, brothers, and seminarians from every part of the world. Since Jesuit beginnings, founder St. Ignatius Loyola consistently spoke of the value of this spiritual exercise for all believers everywhere. -Handbook On The Examen from the New Orleans Province of Jesuits
While the Examen presents itself as a rather simple form of prayer, the rammifications of speaking to God about one's experience can be very powerful, even self-revelatory. By opening the deepest and most honest parts of ourselves to God, we run the risk of doing something that is inherently unnerving: discovering our true self.

We were given the task of writing down an experience of prayer based on this model and the model presented by Joseph Schmidt in his book Praying Our Experiences: An Invitation to Open Our Lives to God. Schmidt's book is an easy read for anyone looking to learn new forms of prayer. His thesis is clear: "Praying our experiences is the practice of reflecting on and entering honestly into our everyday experiences in order to become aware of God's Word in them and offer ourselves through them to God." (p. 35)

After reading the book and spending time with prayer, I wrote down my thoughts about an experience. I had no idea what would come out of the prayer experience, however I found that in the end I knew more about myself and who I was in front of God. The Examen and prayer of experiences is a form I'd (as well as others would) recommend for people seeking to find God in their lives. Perhaps my example will give you ideas on how to incorporate this type of prayer into your life:

Several times during my formation (be it here, Milwaukee, or Kansas) I've met people from my childhood. Having moved far away from Iowa at age 15, I never kept in contact with people from my youth. It was the magic of Facebook that allowed me to reconnect with people that I knew from as long ago as Kindergarten.

There was a lot of anxiety surrounding email discussions and sharing my life with people from long ago. Growing up I was a quiet and awkward kid - I was the poor Mexican boy in a wealthy area of town. Much like my high school years, I spent a lot of time trying to keep up with the other kids: the clothes they wore, the things they had, the trips they took and places they went.

While there is a reality to those experiences, these were excuses I used to explain my anxieties of these reconnections. The manifested quite easily: the benefit of the internet is that one can always "upload" their best face. At these times I repeatly changed and updated my resume and personal info, found the best (slimmest/coolest/most active/etc) pictures, and the most interesting things about me I could think of. I wanted everything to look "perfect."

Noticing the repetition of my actions and the self-consciousness that they stirred inside of me, I decided to take the entire situation to prayer.

Initially I found the situation to be one of misguided feelings, causing me to feel even more guilty. Bringing it to prayer brought out that same feeling: "Why am I so worried about what other people think of me?" Rather than explore the depth of this thought I simply chastized myself for my pride and resolved to be less inwardly-focused. Unfortunately the "online reunions" continued to occur, and I realized that I was repeating the same actions over and over...with an even greater sense of guilt.

Most recently, I decided to take it to prayer and stay with the feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness to see where they would lead me. I closed my eyes, sat silently in my chair, and allowed the thoughts to occur. I thought about how I was talking to people who (I simply assumed) thought less of me. I thought of my desire to be viewed as successful, popular, important, or just as someone who was "making a difference." As that anxiety built, my mind wanted to switch to other thoughts. But I stuck with the pain fears to explore them.

I realized the situation made me feel powerless - even voiceless. I felt like I did as a kid: out of place, judged, and self-conscious. The antagonist and subversive nature of my current attitude was dwarfed by feelings of being meek, small, and scared. Those feelings sat in the pit of my stomach; I thought I was going to be sick.

Perhaps as a defense mechanism, I became angry. I became angry at people, at myself, and at the kid who I once was. Not having any outlet for my rage, yet not wanting to walk away from the mental experience I was having, I imagined myself yelling at a brick wall....allowing whatever thoughts and words to manifest in a sort of daydream.

 I was struck at what I felt myself saying:

"I'm better than any of you ever thought I could be!"
"Who's making fun of who now?"
"Looks like I won!"

The reality of those words, as awful and horrific as they seem out of the mind of a friar, allowed me to get to a place where I could be honest about myself before God. By stripping the different layers of self-defense, deflection, and self-deprecation away, I was able to catch a glimpse of how God saw me...beyond all the chaff of my personality.

I had a chance to look at my true self, the self that God sees in me, and the part of God that resides in me and each of us. In spite of my prideful and childish reactions to what was going on (both online and in my mind), that ability to look inside and offer my true self to God is what reminds me of who I truly am. It is that self, not the one I try to make look good on Facebook, that is the one that God sees in me.

Second was the real look to see God in others. While my thoughts were full of contempt and anger (through honest reflection) the contact I was receiving was positive, affirming, and even encouraging. "You've accomplished a lot in your life!" one person told me. Seeing the reality of what was happening was humbling.

There was no great catharsis - I don't think there was supposed to be one. The Examen isn't a substitute for self-help, it is a look at one's experiences to find God and communicate with the Divine. I don't know that this experience will change who I am right away (in fact I'm positive it won't!) but it is a reminder of who God sees me as, and an opportunity to enter into that experience whenever I feel anxious or self-conscious.

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