It occurred to me that I should perhaps explain the process of examen of conscience, for readers who may not be acquainted with this practice. (Which I think describes a lot, if not most, of my fellow Lutherans.)
What it isn't is the sort of stereotypical confession beloved of television and film, where some sweating individual is crouched in a confessional enumerating a long list of sins: "I confess that I was impatient with my mother when she started telling me how to do dishes even though I'm 45 years old and can do dishes, thank you...I confess that I had an unclean thought while looking at numerous Renaissance paintings of penitent Magdalenes, trying to find a good graphic for my blog...I confess that I ate the chocolate fudge pudding I was going to put in the food bank basket at church..." Nope; not like that.
Examen is part of Ignatian spirituality, and it's remarkably contemporary in feel. The steps of examen may vary slightly, depending on who you're talking to, but ere's one pattern for examen that I've taken from Lisa Dahill's helpful book Truly Present: Practicing Prayer in the Liturgy (Augsburg Fortress):
You start by invoking a sense of God's loving presence, and praying for enlightenment as you seek to understand the patterns of your own thoughts and behaviors, trusting that God wants the best for you and wants to lead you into healing and wholeness.
Next, you express gratitude to God for the good things in your life. Some of the good things may be obvious, big-picture things. But as you examine yourself, you may discover little, easily overlooked points of grace in your life that you can also thank God for.
Your next step is a survey of consciousness and actions...what attitudes and motivations and thoughts and deeds in your life seem to draw you closer to God, and what things seem to pull you away. I journaled this; I drew a line down the pages and did some focused exploration of both dynamics. And perhaps there are areas of your life where you feel God's absence despite your desire to feel God's presence; this is the time to come to grips with that experience.
Your next step is what is traditionally called contrition, but is perhaps more accurately described as bringing all your feelings about what you've just discovered about yourself to the table before God. You may indeed feel contrite; you may also feel frustrated, or relieved, or angry, or defensive, or thankful for insight, or any number of other things. Just as the Psalms lay bare all our human emotions, this part of examen is our opportunity to "let it all hang out" before God.
Finally comes hopeful resolution: Lifting all of this up to God in the trust that God is working a new thing in you, isn't finished yet, and is going to keep reorienting you in a Godward direction.
So, anyhow, that's what I've been working on. And it was a bit like a performance review at work; a few surprises, and actually one positive one pointing in the opposite direction than what I had anticipated...but pretty much hearing in my heart and seeing on paper what I knew already. The anticipation of spelunking deep inside myself was far more uncomfortable than the actual process, which was quite gentle and peaceful -- sort of like my recent dental adventure, come to think of it.
But then The CEO, who'd been helping me through this process, pointed to one systemic attitudinal issue I'd finally had to name to myself, that keeps tripping me up over and over again when I'm dealing with other people.
"So," he said, sounding very rabbinical, "what are you going to do about that?"
I was jolted out of sigh-of-relief mode: "Um...hmmm?"
"That. You know what I want you to do, don't you?"
I had a sudden flashback to those old Saturday Night Live Mr. Bill Claymations: Oh, noooooooooo!
"How about a do-over?" I asked weakly. "Clean slate and all that? Tabula rasa?"
He shook his head.
I whimpered a little. "I'm not used to this."
He looked right into my eyes, and then through me like a laser. "I know." I thought I detected the faintest of smiles lifting the corners of his mouth, but he was still serious enough to make me squirm.
"'Kay," I murmured.
"I'm sorry -- I didn't quite hear that."
"Good. You can start anytime."
The picture below is of me, thinking, "He's right. I know he is. But...oh, noooooooooo!"
"The Penitent," Jules Breton