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

The Ignatian Examen And Bird Flight

Photo: Researchers are hoping
to recruit more albatrosses
to police the oceans.
(Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock)
The Ignatian Examen and Bird Flight

#Mercy2Earth #LaudatoSi

Goal of every examen: To be open to the action of the Spirit

In Pope Francis’ message “Show Mercy to our Common Home” (September 1, 2016) he invited everyone regardless of faith tradition to do an examination of conscience, a.k.a. the examen, which is the first step toward integrating love and care for creation. To help us go through this process, I have outlined the FIVE STEPS using the analogy of bird flight and adapting the examination of conscience developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. It can be done anytime as one pleases to reconnect with GodMost people have it twice a day, before lunchtime and bedtime. As 8thworkers, celebrating Laudato Si' Week, let us use it as a way to deepen our calling as “protector of God’s handiwork.”

The Five Steps

The wandering albatross
is the newly appointed
policeman of the sea.
(Photo: MZPHOTO.CZ/Shutterstock)
I. DISPOSITION: The secret to flying is the wing. But it is no secret that invisible air must first be present before anything could be lifted above. We draw an analogy between the Ignatian examen and the secrets of bird flight. The Spirit is to the examen as air is to flight. There is no examen if it does not flow from the Spirit that gives meaning, conditions life and sheds light upon everything. Without the Spirit, not only is one indisposed but the act of prayer, i.e., prayer as a relationship, is not bound to happen. In could be a constant daily invitation to relate to God, who longs for us more than we long for Him in this relationship.

Spirit and breath are synonymous. The original Hebrew for spirit (i.e., breath) iרוּחַ "ruach"روح "rūḥ" or "arwah" in Arabic; "roh" in Malay; "rucha" in Aramaic. That is why breath prayer is a very tangible way of disposing oneself to prayer. Awareness of one's breath as movement of the Spirit is a central motif throughout this quarter-hour mindfulness exercise.

 A pair of wandering albatross
Photo: Graham Robertson
II. EXPERIENCE: We have said that the secret to flying is the wing, so too the secret to the examen is human experience with emphasis on human choices. The God, who longs for us more, is already speaking to us and we are already responding to Him through our everyday human choices. That is the heart of every human experience. Good and bad experiences alike become a part of who we are which function as our wings in navigating through life, e.g., human thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions. The person that best fits a job is the one seasoned by experience, like a seasoned pilot, and there is no substitute nor shortcut to that. These are like the feathers that grow on the bird's limbs, which give its wings the proper shape. 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 waterproofing. Each feather can have more than a million tiny parts. It is shaped like propeller blades with small threadlike shafts called barbs. Two barbs are connected through finer shafts called barbules. These barbules have hooks that tack the barbs together like Velcro. 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 and reactions that arose. Ask yourself these questions to assess what was said or done during the day, "Was it true? Was it necessary? Was it kind?" Ask for forgiveness from God.

Wandering albatross in flight
Photo: Mike Doube
III. PRESENCE: With both air and proper shape of wings, flight might not still be possible without a third element called forcethe interaction or interrelation between bodies of matter. Lift is a force in the form of an upward push created from air blowing over the body surface as the bird flies. As air speeds up above the wing it is lifted up, like the presence of an invisible handlifting an animal into the air. 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 wind pulls on the bird's feathers, which slows down their movement. 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, so there is less drag. 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 as if the two are one. A bird knows when to make a downstroke, an upstroke or other kinds of bodily movements. A bird flaps its wings too fast that we cannot see all its movements but a bird has to be mindful always of every movement to avoid injuring itself or others especially during take off or landing. In the case of human experience, we have a saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living." The largest sea birdsthe wandering albatrosscircumnavigate the world three times a year. They only touch ground to nest or to eat. Throughout their long lifespan they are perpetually lifted up in the air. Likewise, examining one's life daily too is central to living a healthy spiritual life sustained by God's presence. St. Ignatius held the examen in the highest esteem. To skip a day without the examen is like being disconnected from the presence of God working in all the day's eventslike a bird that has forgotten how to fly or how to connect with the air. It would be good to ask here, "Where did I encounter the uplifting presence of God these past hours?"

Wandering albatross on Iles Crozet
Photo: Kerry Steinberner
IV. GRATITUDE: A bird doesn't have to flap its wings to stay in the air. It can glide. When a bird glides, the wings go motionless. Gravity pulls the bird toward the earth, but air rushing over its wings 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. There is more! With the help of sunlight heating open surfaces of the earth, currents of warm air called thermals rise up. Birds use air currents to lift them high without flapping a wing. This is, indeed, a great consolation for a bird in the form of a free lift. Gratitude is like soaring across the sky in order to see the world from God's eye-view, not from our own, and realise that everything is gift. Meister Eckhart said "If the only prayer you ever said was, 'Thank You' it would be enough."

Wandering albatross on Campbell Island
Photo: James Doube
V. SURRENDER: It is good also to guard against being too thankful to a fault, which turns a person to become lukewarm and entitled. After getting a free lift from one thermal, a bird glides off to arrive at its destination with renewed spirit. In the parable of the talents the lukewarm are some of the most wretched of the damned. One of the promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is for lukewarm souls to become fervent. We are not called to be lukewarm but rather to a greater love for the Giver who is the source of consolations, good gifts and talents received. This is linked to the true meaning of Ignatian magis, the more. It is not in terms of having or doing many but drawing much closer to a God whose presence is always more (Deus semper major). This final part of the examen (also a new beginning) looks to the future with hope, trust and surrendering attitude towards God's ever greater love. This love is sufficient in each passing day, even more so, a love that empowers to stop, start, sustain and surrender in light of greater union with God. Amen.

Concluding Prayer 
Conclude the examen by giving thanks for the merciful love that you received during this time and then praying the final prayer in the Pope’s message “Show Mercy to our Common Home” written on the occasion of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation (1 September, 2016):

O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, who are so precious in your eyes... God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, God of mercy, may we receive your forgiveness and convey your mercy throughout our common home. Praise be to you! Amen.

Pope Francis said during the 27 March 2020 Extraordinary Urbi et Orbi"We have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet.”

The Pope seized the occasion to pray intensely invoking an end to the pandemic which has awakened us all to our fragility and helplessness. Likewise, Pope Francis has called everyone “to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing… a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”

Fr. JM Manzano, SJ