"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Let's Fly! Five Moments of the Ignatian Examen

The wandering albatross. Credits: Evolving Science

I. BREATH: The secret to flying is the wing. But it is no secret at all that air must first be present before anything could even exist, let alone be lifted. We draw an analogy between the Ignatian examen and the secrets of birdlife and bird flight. Every bird relies on breathing in the air first to stay alive. Just like human beings, birds, as well as plants and fishes, are beings-with-breath. There is no genuine examen if we cannot become mindful of the basics. The basic awareness of being-with-breath directs one’s attention to the Spirit who is breath and life, the impetus for meaning who sheds light upon everything. Therefore, the examen is our constant awareness of being-with-Spirit. It is a daily bidding evoked by each breath that we take moment-to-moment. Every breath serves as the living lens to look in and recognize God's Spirit who longs for us more than we long for God and is more alive in us than we are to ourselves. Without this Spirit, there is no drive to even get up from bed in the morning, let alone, to be disposed for prayer. Human life is never solitary just like birdlife. Although a bird could be seen flying by itself, it is never alone. The Spirit is to the examen as breath is to life. Air is strong as it pushes externally and internally from near and afar against anything, including us, even if we do not feel its full might. We drink its strength when we breathe. That is why the examen starts simply with one’s breath. It is a powerful way of disposing oneself to be full of the Spirit. No wonder the words for Spirit, soul, life, and breath are interrelated in the major world languages. My breath is like the “wind beneath my wings” that propels this quarter-hour mindfulness exercise. Just think of a hummingbird that whirs its wings so fast to steadily hold itself hovering in the air while it drinks sweet nectar from a flower. I ask, “Where is God alive in me?” “Where do I sense God’s living Spirit here and now?”

II. EXPERIENCE: We have said the secret to flying is the wing, so the secret of the examen is human experience with emphasis on human choices. God, who longs for us more, is already speaking to us and we are already responding to God through our everyday human choices. Both good and bad experiences become a part of who we are which function as our wings in navigating through life, e.g., human thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions, and inactions. The person that best fits a job is the one seasoned by experience, like a seasoned pilot, and there are no substitutes nor shortcuts to that. These are like the various shapes and types of feathers and muscles that grow on the bird’s arms, which, after years of experience, are given proper shape and form. A bird’s feathers are considered the most complex body structure found in any animal. They aid not only in flight, but also in thermal insulation and in providing weatherproof shelter for the chicks. Each feather can have more than a million tiny branches called barbules. These barbules have hooks (hamuli) that tack the feather’s main branches together like zippers. So if the bird ruffles its feathers, it just strokes the feather with its beak to fasten the parts and it is back in perfect form again. A bird spends time each day assessing and grooming its feathers to ensure a hassle-free flight. Likewise, the examen is an assessment of the day through mindful scanning of the previous hours remembering thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions, and inactions that arose. It is often impossible to cover everything in a short period so learn how to pick and choose. Ask yourself these questions to assess what was imagined, felt, said, done, or not done during the day, “Was it true? Was it necessary? Was it kind?” Ask for forgiveness from God.

III. PRESENCE: With both air and proper shape of wings, flight might not still be possible without a third element called lift. It is a force that results from the interaction between the air and the wings. As the bird dives into the air it is pushed upward by air blowing over its body surface. As the air blows above the wing, the body is lifted from behind through propulsion. It is likened to an invisible hand that lifts an animal aloft. At first, the bird might start exerting a lot of effort when flying. Just as in the examen, there could be a lot of challenges too at first. Birds experience being dragged down because the wind is not propelled or directed as it should be around the body. It could be a rollercoaster of joy and frustration, especially for the fledglings on their maiden flights. But as the bird matures with more experiences in flying, it gains greater familiarity with the air flowing between its thicker feathers and stronger muscles. A bird constantly changes the shape of its wings to steer through the air. It can even move single-wing feathers to change direction. Both bird and air have become so united like two souls dancing in communion. Such is the bird’s intuition which is like the interior knowledge that is deepened in every examen. A person, like a bird, knows when to make a downstroke, an upstroke, or other kinds of spiritual movements. A bird flaps its wings too fast that we cannot see all its movements. Similarly, we are like that, living our lives mostly unmindful of where we are headed and risking injury to ourselves and our neighbors. The examen has already been done ever since human consciousness existed. There is an ancient dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The largest seabirds—the wandering albatross—circumnavigate the world three times a year. They only touch the ground to nest or to eat. Throughout their long lifespan, they are perpetually lifted being embraced by the air. Likewise, examining one’s life daily is central to living a healthy spiritual life sustained by God’s presence. No wonder St Ignatius of Loyola held the examen in the highest esteem. To skip a day without the examen is like being disconnected from God’s presence that embraces our entire body, mind, heart, and soul. To forget the Spirit’s interior movements is like a bird forgetting how to fly or how to commune with the air. It would be good to ask here, “Where did I encounter the uplifting presence of God this past few hours?”

IV. GRATITUDE: A bird doesn’t have to flap its wings to stay aloft. When the Spirit is blowing freely and we are aware internally, then it is time to just glide with the Spirit. When a bird glides, the wings go motionless. Gravity pulls the bird toward the earth, but the air rushing over its body surface gives enough lift, so the bird drops gently. If the bird starts high enough in the air, it can glide at some distance, but eventually, it will need to flap its wings to climb again. But one does not need to fly away too high. With the help of sunlight heating open surfaces of the earth, currents of warm air called thermals rise. Birds use air currents to be lifted without flapping a wing. This is, indeed, a great consolation for a bird in the form of a free lift. Gratitude is like soaring and gliding across the sky to see the world from God’s-eye view, not from our own, and realize that everything is a gift. A series of grateful examen of even just the little things that come, which, when accumulated, will bring one closely united with God’s greatest gift—Godself. Gratitude is much like a sonar that detects the proper coordinates along our path to God. Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever said was, ‘Thank You’ it would be enough.”

V. SURRENDER: It is good also to guard against two exaggerations. First is self-rejection—the greatest enemy of the spiritual life which contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the 'Beloved' (Henri Nouwen). Second is self-glorification—the greatest temptation which turns a person to become lukewarm and self-entitled. In Matthew’s parable of the talents, the lazy and lukewarm are some of the most wretched of the damned (Mt 25:14-30). They are grounded or prohibited to fly. One of the promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is for lukewarm hearts and souls to become fervent, impassioned, or burning. We are not called to be lukewarm but to be either hot or cold (Rev 3:15-17), i.e., to a discerning and self-surrendering love of the Giver who is the source of life, consolations, good gifts and talents received. St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” Love alone is what bears weight in heaven; everything else is vanity or without weight. This is linked to the true meaning of Ignatian “magis” or “more,” which does not mean ‘many’ but ‘much’ in relation to God who is always ‘more’ (Deus semper major). The human spirit is inflamed by God’s ever greater love first and then the deeds will overflow from it. After getting a free lift from one thermal, a bird glides off to arrive at its destination “con grande animo,” with a big spirit. This final part of the examen (also a new beginning) is a form of balancing, forward-looking and being led in the spirit of faith, hope, and self-surrendering love towards God’s ever greater love. Divine love is the “one thing necessary” (Lk 10:42) which is sufficient in each passing day. I ask myself, “Where is this love leading me to stop, start, sustain or surrender after receiving God’s ever greater and unending love?” Amen.

Fr JM Manzano SJ

Comments

  1. Gratitude is a moment of equilibrium. The weight due to gravity is equal to the lift due to drag force...resulting to gliding of birds..a beautiful sight to behold especially on a clear blue sky...Thanks for the wonderful analogy...For a soul to soar to Her Beloved fully and freely... any invisible string attached to its feet must be cut off. God bless Fr. Jomari!

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    1. Thanks for your sharing! I like the moment of equilibrium. I have a hunch that this is the dynamic and stable type in contrast to the static and unstable type. This is the reason why gratitude flows into the quintessential moment—a "fifth moment" of moving out of the self, so to speak, into surrendering love! GBU!

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    2. Galing! Yes...Dynamic and stable..flowing from the indwelling source within one`s being..God`s empowering love. Beautiful! Nice one, Fr. Jom! πŸ˜„

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    3. I have to say you have spiritual perceptiveness... cultivate that God-given gift you have! GBU!

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    4. New term po yan sa akin, Fr JM. I hope my understanding is right ...Thanks for telling me. I hope I can use/share this gift for others...Any tips to nurture/cultivate it?

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    5. The best tip is the one here from St Ignatius's Consciousness examen. If we do this as a daily devotion at least once a day, then your spiritual perceptiveness will be cultivated. GBU!

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  2. Hello po, Fr. JM...
    The title of your post is very much inviting... And it gives a certain feeling of excitement... πŸ˜‰
    I checked myself "How is my experience of 'Flying'?
    Quite interesting, I remembered the song, FALLIN'...
    🎡 "I'm afraid to fly, and I don't know why..." 🎡
    And from there, I also have come to connect it with your "Falling Upward"... Therefore from my examen, there must always be the question of the purpose of my existence... And everything depends on the weight of my love... Flying as in falling gives two-direction - Gliding upwardly or plunging downwardly - yet I discovered another one - staying (static) waywardly...
    Everything depends on how much love I put in my every action and intention... Is it authentic, indifferent, or capricious? So, everyday, I should ask myself, "in my flying today, have I fallen upwardly, downwardly, or waywardly?" I must have no fear, after all, LOVE KNOWS NO FEAR...

    Thank you so much po, Fr..
    GBU! TC!


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    1. Thank you for your wonderful summary "flying... upwardly, downwardly, or waywardly?" and esp the song line "I'm afraid to fly, and I don't know why..." I am reminded of my own experience of being hampered to fly when afraid. We must learn how not to feed our fears to the extent that we do not grow anymore! GBU!

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    2. Hello po, Fr. JM...
      Hmm.. In my own experience also... It takes really a lot of courage to fly... Especially on choosing what direction to take... Minsan parang sana bungee jumping na lang... At least may rope... Pero that would mean still being attached to something... Without freedom... So, sige na lang mag-plunge or mag-dive na lang... Let go and let God...

      I just remembered this poem...

      The road not taken
      Robert Frost

      Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
      And sorry I could not travel both
      And be one traveler, long I stood
      And looked down one as far as I could
      To where it bent in the undergrowth;

      Then took the other, as just as fair,
      And having perhaps the better claim
      Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
      Though as for that the passing there
      Had worn them really about the same,

      And both that morning equally lay
      In leaves no step had trodden black.
      Oh, I kept the first for another day!
      Yet knowing how way leads on to way
      I doubted if I should ever come back.

      I shall be telling this with a sigh
      Somewhere ages and ages hence:
      Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
      I took the one less traveled by,
      And that has made all the difference.

      Thank you so much, Fr. JM...
      GBU.. :)

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    3. Thank you for your sharing! We set ourselves free to enjoy every minute of our life! The road not taken poem is also like a general Ignatian examen of one's entire life! GBU!

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    4. Yes... Opo... Actually, this poem is good to reflect upon, like an add-on, especially when you are in the part of Election... It makes sense on what way of life I must take...

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