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Food for Thought - Musings

Who is on My Screen?

Centuries ago, Socrates was fond of pointing out to those with ears to hear that the unexamined life was not worth living. Predating Socrates, David penned the words of a prayer asking God to make known his “hurtful ways” that he might live a life that honors God (Ps 139:23-24). And then in the 1500’s a man named Ignatius of Loyola devised a prayer called the Examen that was designed to help people become aware of and attentive to what was going on in their life and in their heart.

The Prayer of Examen is comprised of 5 steps, and an individual was encouraged to use it twice a day, at noontime and in the evening. (For more information on this most helpful prayer see a musing entitled
Becoming a Discerning Person: The Prayer of Examen in the food for thought section of the b website, b-ing.org).

In the last twenty years the Prayer of Examen has been popularized, simplified and, dare I say, bastardized by many well-meaning individuals who found the 5 steps of the original prayer cumbersome at best. In some circles the Prayer of Examen was reduced to asking two questions:

What was life- giving for you today

What was life- draining for you today

Good questions as far as they go, but hardly a proper Examen. I sympathize with those who have tried to simplify the Examen with the hopes of making it more user-friendly and I have endeavored to do the same without much success until recently. As I have studied the writings and theology of St Ignatius I have found much that is insightful and extremely helpful when it comes to living a life given over to following Jesus and bringing honor and glory to God, two things Ignatius was committed to in his own life and in the lives of his followers.

Studying St Ignatius’ definitions of the terms consolation and desolation, I believe I have stumbled on a wonderful tool that will help us to take our spiritual pulse in any given moment, a sort of instantaneous Prayer of Examen. This is not to replace the Prayer of Examen, but it can be used to augment that wonderful prayer in the times leading up to its noontime and evening usage. Before delineating the mini-me version of the Prayer of Examen, let me direct you to look at the two terms consolation and desolation that form the foundation of this mini-me Examen.

The terms consolation and desolation first appear in the Spiritual Exercises in a section entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements, which are caused in the soul.” This section is comprised of 14 such rules. It is in rule 3 and 4 that Ignatius defines consolation and desolation respectively. He writes:

Third Rule
. The third: OF SPIRITUAL CONSOLATION. I call it consolation when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can in consequence love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of them all. Likewise, when it sheds tears that move to love of its Lord, whether out of sorrow for one's sins, or for the Passion of Christ our Lord, or because of other things directly connected with His service and praise. Finally, I call consolation every increase of hope, faith and charity, and all interior joy, which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one's soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.

Fourth Rule. The fourth: OF SPIRITUAL DESOLATION. I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord.

Now, on the surface it would appear that when you are feeling good, it is consolation, and when you are feeling bad, it is desolation. But that is not the case. For St Ignatius did not see the terms consolation and desolation solely as terms of affect, but more precisely he viewed them as internal movements of the soul either toward God (consolation) or away from God (desolation). So although St Ignatius would always stress the importance of owning, naming and exploring one’s emotions, his greater concern lay always with the direction of one’s soul. The critical question was not what are you feeling, although very important, but where is this taking you – toward God (consolation) or away from God (desolation)?

In this mini-me Examen the focus is not on the given event or interaction, nor on the emotional response, but it is centered on where the event, interaction, or emotion is taking you, namely, toward God or away from God?

Now let’s look at this practically. A person is overcome by their own brokenness, their inability to have victory over sin. The individual begins to express self-condemnation, uselessness, and an inability to live a holy life. At first glance this may look very noble, but what is the focus in it? Is the focus toward God (consolation) or on someone or something else (desolation)? In our example the individual’s focus is actually on the self. God is not a part of the equation, even though the person is mourning sin. They are in desolation.

Another way the above individual could have responded is by using his or her own sin and brokenness to take them to God (consolation). The person could have said something like “God, I thank you that you love me even in my brokenness and that my own inability to live a holy life is an apt reminder of my original and ongoing need for all that flows to me from the life, death and resurrection of Christ.” This response firmly affixes to the individual’s heart, mind and soul on God.

So then, consolation is an outflow of your interior movement toward God, while desolation has to do with interior movement away from God, regardless of your feelings of pain or peace, comfort or confusion. One way to picture this is to think of the focus of your life as being a computer screen, and consolation means that God is on the computer screen, while desolation means God is not on the computer screen. The critical question becomes not “what am I feeling?” but “who is on my screen?”

So what?!

Well, the ‘so what’ is remarkably simple, while also outstandingly brilliant when it comes to living life with a renewed sense of awareness and attention. As you journey throughout your day this definition of consolation as putting God on your screen and desolation putting anything else but God on your screen can help you instantaneously take your spiritual pulse in any and every situation. You merely ask yourself “where is this taking me?” or “who is on my screen?” In any given movement you may not know what exactly is on your screen, but you will know if it is or is not God.

The questions “where is this taking me (to God or away from God)?’” or “who is on my screen (God or something or someone else)?” provide us a means to check the condition of our heart in a moment’s time throughout our day.

So, let’s say you have just completed a task and have been given huge accolades from others. Is this success of yours a consolation or desolation? On the emotional level it would be a consolation, but on the deeper level of your internal focus, what is it? The answer depends on your answer to the question “where is this taking me/who is on my screen?” It can be either one!

Your Invitation/Challenge

This month, I invite you to make use of one or both of these questions (where is this taking me/ who is on my screen?) as a means of checking your heart and soul regarding following Jesus. This is a simple yet profoundly useful and accurate tool for spiritual self-awareness.

So, why not give it a go? Take a moment right now and ask yourself, who is on my screen and/or Is my life headed toward God or away form God? These two questions can help you redirect a wayward heart back to your first love, and live life from a place of connection with God rather than separation from God.

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