It came as the very last question of the evening, from a retired mother of six. Holding up the pamphlet I'd shared with them, she said, "This sounds like something I might want to try, but tell me, how has the examen changed your life?"
Now I know how my graduate students feel during their oral prelim exams. Just when you think you're done, someone asks a simple, direct question that demands you defend your entire thesis in one sentence. Or three.
In the talk, I had described an experience of the examen that enabled me to find grace in a bracing cup of tea one morning (the day had been otherwise dreadful, difficult, demanding….and would have been far more so without those pre-dawn draughts of caffeine and God's steadfast spirit in the kitchen). While the examen had enabled me to see God in the rear-view mirror that night, I had to admit it would be hard to extrapolate from that one event to the effect the practice had had on my life as a whole.
I'm always afraid when I write of crossing the line from reflection to pious platitudes (or worse yet, sanctimonious preaching). What could I say — on the fly, no less — in response to this question that didn't sound trite or evasive or too self-revealing?
The examen wears paths in my life. My feet know the actual paths that I walk in daily life, even in the dark. I know where the water pools, where the uneven spots are in the sidewalk, and where the entrance to some never-yet-seen creature's house gapes, waiting to trap the ankle of the unwary. I've walked these routes for years.
The examen offers me that same familiarity with the entirety of my life. My soul can find the graced paths to follow, it's aware of where the stumbling blocks are. So I sometimes notice in real time the way the leaves rustle as though the Spirit's breath is stirring them -- having thanked God so many times in the examen for such a visitation. I occasionally catch myself before I meltdown over the dishes in the kitchen, recalling how often I've winced when replaying a similar scene with God sitting next to me on the sofa. Each passage through my day wears the path just a bit deeper, makes it just that much easier to find.
I re-read this and it still sounds like trivia, except that trivia is what my life consists of: the dishes, finding my husband's missing shoes, talking to students, and figuring out how many yards of black fabric you need for a 300 square foot backdrop. It's all small stuff, grand deeds have not been asked of me, and likely never will.
Karl Rahner, S.J. writes, in "God of My Daily Routine" that he hopes to see the few precious instances when the grace of Your love has succeeded in stealing into an obscure corner of my life”. I can hope for no more than that, and truly the examen is what gives me eyes to see the obscure and mundane as holy. It's what let's my day pray.