One of the best and most ancient spiritual comparisons that describes our life here on earth is the ship sailing towards the harbor of heaven. Saint Thérèse explained that it was one of her favorite analogies:
[T]he symbol of a ship always delights me and helps me to bear the exile of this life. Does not the Wise Man tell us—’Life is like a ship that passeth through the waves: when it is gone by, the trace thereof cannot be found.’
It reminds us that heaven is our true home and that our life on earth is temporary. All ships must come in at some point and cannot stay out at sea forever.
Additionally, ships out at sea must use a compass to ensure that they are going in the right direction. If the captain of a ship does not use a compass, he/she runs the risk of drifting off course and ending up in the wrong place. A storm in the middle of the ocean can easily take a ship off course and when the waters die down, the captain must use navigational tools to steer the ship in the right direction.
So too in the spiritual life.
If we are not oriented in the right direction and do not have a clear idea of where we are headed, it is easy to get side-tracked when the storms of life come and try to pummel us. We can then end-up drifting into dangerous territory that will further separate us from our final destination.
One “compass” that can help can our lives get back on track is the Ignatian practice of an “examen.” It is typically practiced on a daily basis and Crux puts it into five steps:
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to the emotions and feelings you experienced today. Excitement? Envy? Resentment? Boredom? Anger? Joy? This is the part when you realize how you may have been, well, not your best self at different parts of the day. Maybe, instead, you were judgmental, unkind, gossipy, downright nasty, or even cruel. Consider this. Consider your feelings. Are they significant, indicative of bigger issues in your life?
4. Pick one or two strong feelings from the day and pray from them. Ask if these feelings drew you closer to God, or not. Made you feel more whole, alive, and generous, or more anxious, fearful, and self-centered? Did they hurt or built up relationships?
5. Look toward tomorrow. What’s coming up? How do you feel about the day? Nervous? Enthusiastic? Doubtful? Confident? Why? Pray on these feelings as well.
It’s a beautiful practice, one that can help a person understand what is going on in their soul and bring it God.
Taking it one step further, this examen can also be practiced on a yearly basis. The end of December is a perfect time to consider what has transpired over the past year and to look at it in gratitude. That is certainly not always easy to do, but it helps us understand God’s presence in all things. We can then look over the past year and see what common threads occurred and in what areas we need improvement.
After spending an extended amount of time in prayer, we can then look forward to the coming year and define specific goals that we want to accomplish. In the midst of all of this, we bring ourselves to Jesus and ask him to heal us and our hearts. If we want to accomplish great things in 2018, we can only do so with the help of God.
If you are looking to sail toward better shores in 2018, try the examen and let God calm the storms in your heart.