Developing attentiveness, day by day

by
08 September 2017

Chris Webb draws on an ancient practice to help recognise the presence of God in ordinary life

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BROTHER LAWRENCE spoke about the “practice of the presence of God” as an intentional activity; a habit we can learn and cultivate rather than an inherent inclination or personality trait.

It’s tempting to talk as though some people in this world are more “spiritual” and “reflective”, while others are “practical” and “down to earth”; the business of tuning in to God’s presence then becomes the preserve of the religious and introspective types.

But it’s simply not true: in my experience, it’s no easier or harder for any given person to develop attentiveness to the presence of God. Those who are most aware of God’s presence in their day-to-day lives are usually those who’ve troubled to train themselves in being aware.

 

ONE helpful way of learning to recognise that presence is an ancient practice known as examen. Drawn from the old Latin word for the indicator needle on a pair of weighing scales, examen invites us to weigh the events of each day in order to discern how God might have been at work in them, and how well or badly we’ve responded to that.

Since it is an exercise most easily done after the event, it is one step removed from the moment right in front of us, but it does help to hone our spiritual attention. In its simplest form, examen simply involves taking a few minutes each evening to review the events of the day, and ask two complementary questions. In its classic form, the two questions were: “Where did I experience consolation?” and “Where did I experience desolation?”

Consolation is one of the more obvious signs of God’s presence and work in our lives. Paul wrote in the New Testament about “the God of all consolation”, and the “consolation [that] is abundant through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1.3-5), and we often discover that God gives encouragement in our brightest moments, and strength on our darkest days. By contrast, desolation, the sense of spiritual emptiness, is often a powerful indicator of God’s absence.

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Recognising whether our consolation genuinely stems from the Spirit, or when God is present to us even in the midst of the deepest desolation, requires a great deal of experience in the spiritual life, together with a measure of wisdom and discernment. But, in general, these two questions can provide a helpful lens through which to review our day-to-day lives; to discover where God has been most active, and where least present — and to ask why.

 

THERE are other ways of framing these questions. Some prefer to ask, “What today has been life-giving? And what has been life-denying?” Or, more directly, some will ask, “Where has God been present? And where has God been absent?” (Although, peculiarly, many people find it harder to recognise God’s presence and activity when looking for it so straightforwardly; often, the indirect glance can be more fruitful.)

One pair of questions that might be particularly helpful in our context would be: Where today have I experienced loving community? and Where have I experienced the loss of love and community? One by one, we allow the events of the day to rise up in our memory and weigh them against these two questions. Breakfast with the family. Riding to work on the train or bus. Walking in the park with a friend. An argument with a colleague at work. Handling a difficult phone call. Sharing a meal with friends.

Without criticism or judgement, either of ourselves or of others, we simply ask where love and community were evident, and where they were lacking. And as we do this we learn to recognise the subtle signs of the Spirit’s work in our everyday lives, in the ordinary events of each mundane day.

Perhaps we had a challenging conversation with a neighbour, but were surprised to find that it ended with some degree of agreement, a more amicable resolution than we expected. Can we see the gentle work of God in this? On the other hand, in the angry complaint we made to the woman working in the coffee shop, can we sense the breakdown in community we caused as we ceased to allow the Spirit to speak kindness through us?

To engage in this examen once can be an intriguing and interesting experience of an ancient spiritual discipline. Over a few days, it becomes a little more illuminating. But it is most powerful when practised over many months or years, even if only for a few minutes each day.

 

WE SLOWLY accrue an accumulation of wisdom about the day-to-day activity of God in our ordinary lives, noticing patterns of presence and absence, and understanding more fully our response to God’s actions. As we practise this examen, continually reviewing our days seeking to recognise God’s presence, we also become far more attuned to noticing that presence in the moment, as events are unfolding. The presence of God we have taught ourselves to look for retrospectively becomes more immediately apparent.

If we have also taught ourselves to become increasingly attentive to the present moment in which God is present and active, we may discover that the mysterious breathing of the Spirit through our life, and the lives of others around us, is far more visible than we ever suspected. Because we are looking, we begin to see.

 

This is an edited extract from God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom spirituality by Chris Webb, published yesterday by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).

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