I have completed an Examen for last year 3 times now and it has reminded me of the importance of repetition in my spiritual life. This is a practice central to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.
The idea is that people pray with a passage or topic that they have already prayed with. However it isn’t just a repeat of the first experience. For a repetition they return to the place in their previous session where they were particularly moved, where they saw something in a new light or where they were reluctant to look at what God wanted to teach them.
So, for example, I recently prayed with Psalm 139, a psalm I have read and prayed with many times. However this time the words “when I awake, I am still with you” were the ones that struck me. When returning later on, these were the words I began with. A less conventional example might be the time when I sidestepped God’s invitation to ‘ascend’ with him to Golgotha. Later on I did my assignment on the Passion. Returning to this place where I had avoided this aspect, enabled God to bring out much learning. This is not in prayer but seemed to work on the same principle.
Since doing my own annual Examen, I repeated this during a prayer time shared with friends. The following week, I returned to London for a new term to discover that the first morning was spent on a long Examen. I choose to look at Advent, as in the second Examen this period was very important.
One of the primary things in the second Examen was that for some of last year, I had been fleeing from God. Yet over Advent, I discovered God waiting patiently for me. I experienced no condemnation, just acceptance. It reminded me of the parable of the Prodigal, who returned hoping to be allowed to work as a servant and instead found his father running to meet him and greeting him with love.
Towards the end of the year certain things happened which, on reflection, have started to reveal aspects of my vocation. There is a feeling that, having stopped running I might be about to discover something.
On the third occasion, I was more aware of the process I had been through and started to see that the spiritual turmoil of last year was, for me, part of the process of drawing closer to God. Facing the fact that God called me to give up some of what I put my security in, made me experience aspects of my ‘Old Self’ that would have stayed hidden otherwise. It therefore moved me closer to God, in the long run.
Looking back from where I am now, in these three Examens, I have discovered new aspects of God, of myself and become aware of the underlying process through my year of ‘yo-yoing’. In short God has deepened my experience of Him and His work in my life. And this is the purpose of repetition.
On one of the Jesuit websites, I found a very practical description of repetition. The point is made there that the process of repetition in prayer enables a deeper understanding of the mystery of God to develop and thus, in turn, enables a greater stillness in God’s presence. David T Asselin SJ, describes the same characteristic as “simplifying and intensifying an awareness of spiritual realities, especially personal presence to and service of the Lord.”
Michelle Francl-Donnay, on her Quantum Theology blog describes her experience of repetition as a “sharpening of the lens” and “to deepen what had been there from the start.”
There has been a sense from my own example, as it is of an Examen of looking back and glancing forward. However the main movement has been to deepen the understanding of the experience of the last year. The more I repeat, the more layers God shows me. There maybe more. I am going to discuss this with my spiritual director this week, so I’m sure there will be!
The tool of repetition is not always a comfortable experience, but it is one, which can bring a greater awareness and freedom to our relationship with God.