Coming to Our Senses Through the Examen

Saturday, Second Week of Lent

March 18, 2017


Mi 7: 14-15. 18-20; Ps 103: 1-2. 3-4. 9-10. 11-12; Lk 15: 1-3. 11-32

by *Mr. Eziokwubundu Amadi, SJ

Without a doubt, and with clarity, I still recall one of my precious Easter gifts from my parents as a young boy growing up in the bustling city of Lagos. It was a small picture of the painting of Murillo Esteban's The Return of the Prodigal Son. The painting illustrates repentance and divine forgiveness, with props and thespians effectively positioned to bring out the message of the drama. I still remember the sparse shots of ecstasy I felt seeing the father reaching down to cuddle his returning son while the son reveals the trappings of a true penitent. And a dog's joy at witnessing a friend's return means more than just artistic filler. As I saw it then – as I still do – the painting is not only an allegory of God's mercy and love but also an invitation to participate in the giving and receiving of forgiveness, very common themes in today's readings. But, in my older years, I have come to think that examen, though salient, is part of what the parable invites us to consider. It is the same with Micah's prayer.
In the first reading, prophet Micah makes a deep, personal prayer that reveals God's acts of forgiveness – and love; for forgiveness is a function of love. God and the Israelites have come a long way; and the Israelites can testify to His merciful love. So it is possible that if we turn on our power of imagination and imagine Micah as he prays, we can almost see the weight of gratitude in his tone and gesture to a faithful and loving God. Yet, Micah knows, as did other Israelites of his generation, that they have wandered off from God – they have been prodigal sons and daughters – and must return to Him "who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance". He is always ready to cuddle them with love, something the prodigal son hopes for on his return to his father.
And so for the returning son in the gospel reading, the story of forgiveness is pleasingly redemptive. For the son the reunion is genuine. There is no weight of sin to struggle with. There is the joy of having a clean slate on which to write the next stage of his life. And while the absence of a sequel to the parable gives us the opportunity to guess our way into the possible continuation of the parable, I would like to imagine that after forgiveness has taken place today in his father's house, the prodigal son does not resume his old ways tomorrow. He has come to his senses and has gotten another chance. He must be a new man, building on the gifts that were already there but never used before.
The readings are not tales of fictions. They are mirrors of everyday life. We can connect to Micah as much as we can connect to the father and his two sons in the parable. The different roles of the two sons show how differently people respond to God's generous love for us: some with stunned and humble delight, others with proud and peevish resentment. Who among us has never sinned against the Father and our fellow human beings? Is there anyone who has no experience of ache of remorse as well as the joy of being forgiven? But we should look also into our hearts and see if we harbour any of the elder son's spirit. Do we secretly envy sinners, crave for the pleasures they indulge in? Do we feel cheated when they return to God, thus seeming to have won the best of both worlds? Do we stand in the way of forgiveness and love? Surely, one would have to be an outright optimist or skilled with self-delusion to claim that one has no sin from which one wants to be forgiven and to forgive others.
But there is something that sets the act of seeking forgiveness and forgiving, of looking back and wanting to return to the Father in motion. It is the examen. This is the salient theme of our readings today. The examen is way of praying that allows you to review how God has been present to you throughout your day. It is, one Jesuit said, an act of "rummaging for God" like "going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be in there somewhere". While rummaging, examen invites you to look at the quality of your response to God in everyday life.
This way of praying builds on two realities. First, we have a great deal to be thankful for: our health, our family and friends, our opportunity to learn and to use our talents, the way in which we have helped people – all are moments of our partnership with God. Second, we usually had some areas of life where we need to forgive and to be forgiven. We can be hurt. We can also hurt people. We can waste the opportunity that life gives to us through God. We can get caught in gossip and bigotry and paltry angers.
The power of the examen lies in the way we become aware of our collective and individual relationships with God, others and the world. During the examen, we begin by expressing appreciation to God; then seek light; then review our life; then note our experience of life in patterns; and then orient our future. The position which forms the background from which Micah and the prodigal son speak shows an act of thanksgiving. Micah starts his prayer with a convincing hope that God cares for the Israelites, knows them and loves them with an everlasting love. On his own part, the prodigal son juxtaposes life in his father's house and life in the pigpen, and realises how much of the father's love he has taken for granted. Micah's prayer and the story of the prodigal son are also evidences of people seeking meaning of life and their place in it. By hacking back to the Sinai covenant, and by replaying his position in his father's house, both Micah and the prodigal son sought clarity about who they are, what their gifts really are, to learn from who they are – children of the prodigal sons and daughters.
Seeking light is necessary for reviewing one's life. While noting their gifts and blessings Micah and the prodigal son also noticed where they felt closer to God and where they felt distant from Him and asked for pardon and self-acceptance. God's presence to Micah's forefathers in the land of Egypt and the enumerable acts of forgiveness are necessary indicators of how he stands before God, reviewing life. The prodigal son looked back that the comfortable live he led in this father's house as opposed to the one he found himself in in the distant land that hosted his extravaganza, as a review of his life. Both Micah and the prodigal son relied on their individual history to be led to a more personal sense of how God calls them, noting patterns.
But their examen did not end with noting patterns. They also orient their future. Both look ahead out of the failures and successes of their experiences. They now would live with the growing sense of God's mercy and trust in their lives. At the welcome party, after the son had repented and committed himself to a new life, the father clothed him in a colourful robe. Whatever else the robing accomplishes, it is, most certainly, not meant to honour his son's past life. Rather, it is a sign to the son and to everyone else (even to the puppy in Esteban's impression of the story) that something important has taken place. He was the same old son, but he is a new son, and acceptance of the robe is a sign of a covenant between the repentant son and the loving father.
This is what this season of the Church's liturgical calendar invites us to. The Lord invites us as a loving Father to confess, to amend our lives, and to walk always in his paths. The God that Micah addresses in his prayer and the God Jesus speaks of in the parable is not a bookkeeper who tallies every lapse and decree lashes for each offense. In His home we are always welcome.
Lenten season, as we have seen in our readings, is a period of shedding and of germination. To rise and go to "my[our] Father" require naked sincerity of heart and purpose. But to make this bold, redeeming step we have to examen ourselves: what we are before God and man, and who we must become – prodigal sons and daughters who know that reconciliation with the Father, others and the world is important for the life we called to live.
We live in a fast-paced world, where stuff is thrown at us and where we throw ourselves at stuff. And we can lose our balance in the process wilfully or not, if we do not take great care. Examen gets us back on balance as it did to the prodigal son. It can also reinforce our relationship with God. Examen can help us come to our senses. We come to examen as prodigal sons and daughters to meet the Father already waiting. You are wise to stop now and do an examen, however brief. May God give you eyes keen enough to discern any traces of the elder son in your heart, give you a Micah's spirit of thankfulness and the prodigal son's self-discovery and renewal during the time of our Lenten journey and thereafter.

*Mr. Eziokwubundu Amadi, SJ is a Jesuit Regent who teaches and is also in charge of the service program at Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria. 

 

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