Reading – 1 Peter 1:3-5
2016 is already over for most of the globe and will soon be so for all of it, to the joy, anxiety, and relief of many. The past year has certainly seen its fair share—and, according to many, far more than its fair share—of disappointment, fear, tragedy, and pure befuddlement: more celebrities than usual have died; the war in Syria continued despite several attempts at ceasefires (though the latest appears to be generally holding); terror attacks and hate crimes plagued both Europe and the United States; and the U.S. presidential elections proved, to put it mildly, less than fun for almost everyone involved in them. People across the world are ready for 2016 to be over, and I am one of them. At the same time, I think that we have to look at the past year more holistically and reflect on how we approach the new one more deeply.
I subscribe to a daily meditation from Father Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico (highly recommended!). In his reflection for today, Fr. Rohr invited the reader to participate in the Examen, a component of Jesuit spirituality introduced by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. The Examen has the individual look on their thoughts and behaviors over the course of the day and evaluate them not by standards of success or failure, piety or wickedness, but rather of attentiveness and openness (or their opposites) to God’s love. Fr. Rohr proposed participating in the Examen and looking back not only on this day but on the whole year of 2016. I chose to examine my life in the past year and also to use the Examen as an opportunity to count the many blessings I received in 2016.
The Examen is not an easy prayer for me. I find it much easier to focus on and think about being right or wrong, winning or losing, than I do reviewing a day with gratitude and seeking moments of grace in it. On starting the exercise, my thoughts immediately flew to the “thorns” in my life: those several root sins that will (most likely) accompany and tempt me for the whole of my life and that generate most of my sinful activity. One of these, fittingly enough, is not responding to invitations from God to treat myself and others with more patience, confidence, and compassion. I often refrain from reaching out to other people because I am scared what they will think of me or of making a mistake. When I thought about this sin, I realized that I was committing it right then and there; I was holding back from God’s invitation to look at myself in a different, more loving way.
Another difficult aspect of the Examen for me is looking toward tomorrow. The challenge is not thinking about tomorrow; my mind is almost constantly planning and thinking about what I have to do the next day. This compulsion probably contributes to the real challenge: truly looking forward to tomorrow instead of staying stuck in the past and whatever I happened to do wrong during it. I love history (at least, I hope I do; I’m studying for a major in it!), but I tend to focus on it, particularly its nadirs, excessively when it comes to my spiritual life. Instead of appreciating the past in a healthy way–looking at the lessons that came my way and holding them in my heart–I gnaw it over and over without really changing my behavior and truly moving forward.
What does all this have to do with tonight’s reading. I’ll finally get to that:
Though the Examen certainly challenged me (and perhaps in part because it did), I found it a refreshing and relieving experience. Looking to God’s presence in the past day (or year) and asking for that presence and awareness of it in the future enables one to hold and express the “living hope” mentioned in 1 Peter. We realize that the past and our decisions in it shape us and affect the paths we walk in life, but we also have a liberating revelation that the past does not wholly define us. God always extends an invitation to greater life and love, to our best and true selves, no matter where we are or what we have done. By the very fact of our origin in a God without bounds or limitations, whom Karl Rahner named “the Infinite Horizon,” we are geared toward transcendence. Recall that in all the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus identifies God as a God of the living, not of the dead, “for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38, NAB). God wants us to have life and to have it in abundance; that means God invites us to move forward, beyond our sins and our expectations, ever deeper into the boundless life and love God is.
When we look to 2017, we should have hope and should act on that hope. It should not be a hope to return to individual or communal glory days (which are usually mythic, in any case) or a hope to simply be “better” or perfect. Rather, it should be a hope to love more often and more intensely, to grow in love with oneself, with others, and with God. This living hope does not dismiss the past, idolize it, or demonize it. Rather, it accepts with gratitude the lessons of the past and uses them as a foundation and fertilizer for growth in the future. Living hope does not expect unmitigated achievement. Rather, it understands that mistakes, failure, and sin will occur but also that God will be present through it all.
My advice for a good new year is this: 1) look back on the bad and the good of 2016, both personally and globally (if you’re having trouble with the good, try starting here); 2) learn what you can from them; 3) consider where God has been present and how you have responded to those presences in the past year; 4) give thanks to God for all the good that has been and is in your life; 5) ask for God to be with you as you enter into 2017 and to be more aware of His presence. Remember, God will be with you and will love you through it all.
Let us have a firm and living hope in the living God and move forward into the new year with determination, gratitude, wisdom, and love. Thank you for this year and all years, Lord. May we move through them in awareness, awe, and appreciation of your presence. Thank you. ~
P.S. Happy New Year, everyone! :^)