The Examined Life

Every year, I spend a week on retreat at a Cistercian monastery. It sounds strange at first, I admit. I drive down to the Ozarks, way up into hill country. In the midst of 4,000 acres of woods, there lies a place where monks live separated from the world. To support themselves financially, they make world-class fruitcakes. When they’re not making fruitcakes, those blessed monks spend most of their lives in prayer for us, the world.

If you follow the discipline of the hours at the monastery, prayer vigil starts at 3:30 a.m. You need a little flashlight to follow along with the liturgy in the middle of a darkened sanctuary. Mass, with a sermon usually written by one of the patristic theologians, is at 6:30 a.m. Scheduled prayers rule the rest of the day, with time set aside for work and the study of scripture. For those who like to sleep late in the day, this schedule sounds tyrannical, but, if you have been to the monastery, it is a way of recharging. It is a way of remembering the most important things in your life. It is an opportunity to practice Benjamin Franklin’s words: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

I suppose that vacations, retreats, and the like are designed to alter our regular, mundane consciousness. It is easy to see how a roller-coaster park might do that, but, for me, spending time with the monks is an opportunity to worship, to look deeply in the mirror, and to ask myself, “where is it that you want to be?” This is part of an ancient spiritual practice called the “examen,” when we each look at our own lives and assess the morality of our daily thoughts and actions. Even if you aren’t a church-going person, I’ll bet that the examen’s structure might be helpful.

Usually, it is done daily. You work to remember that God is present with you, even in the very moment you are sitting down to pray. (If you follow a non-church path, hold closely and remember the things that are most important in your life.) As you work toward an attitude of thankfulness, it’s helpful to hold close the things in your life that you’re most thankful in remembering. As you remember your gratitude, you pay attention to the way that you are feeling. If you are resentful in having to pray, you acknowledge it. If you are delighted in having a moment to breathe for yourself, you acknowledge it. Whatever you are honestly feeling, you acknowledge and welcome it. The final two pieces of the daily examen look forward. First, you recognize the ways in which you want to change in order to bring about a more positive future, possibly by recognizing the things that you are holding onto that might need letting go. Finally, you look forward to the positive things which tomorrow will bring. That hope carries you toward a brighter tomorrow.

It’s an old Roman Catholic spiritual practice that the Jesuits came up with long ago. If you’re not Catholic, as I’m not – or if you are not even sure what you are, like so many who are on their own spiritual quests – it might be helpful to try this form out. Examine yourself. Practice thankfulness. Look toward a better future. Know that you are not alone in looking for something bigger than yourself. Seek and ye shall find. If you are curious, seek out a sacred space. Whether it’s a monastery, a church camp, or a place in nature where the sacred feels close. We all need something like that in our lives, to remind us that we’re not alone.