Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 20, 2015

This Tender World: Learning to find God in all things

In his story “Beneficence,” Vladimir Nabokov writes about a moment where one of his characters is awakened to the beauty of our world.  This epiphany is set off as he observes a scene where a homeless woman is given a cup of coffee.  As he witnesses this moment he suddenly,

became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all creation; and I realized that joy breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain.  I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed on us and unappreciated.

I read this quote a couple of weeks ago while sitting outside the old rustic cabin at Lake Whatcom that was built by Julie’s great grandparents.  As I spent a week surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the lake I gained renewed awareness of God’s work in our midst.  I experienced the psalmist’s observation that, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.”  I gained a renewed appreciation for the Christian affirmation that this world is God’s “good” creation and that God is actively involved in it.

The Moon Rises As The Sun Sets Over Lake Whatcom

The Moon Rises As The Sun Sets Over Lake Whatcom

I was particularly enamored with the numerous swallows that inhabit Lake Whatcom.  Every evening at around 6pm they would put on a show.  With great acrobatic skill they would fly over the water to catch their evening meal of flies and bugs. The tenderness of the earth was on display as these tiny birds followed their finely honed instincts to find the provision they needed.  Like Vladimir Nabokov’s character, I was re-awakened to the miracle and the gift of creation.

Yet, as Nabakov’s character observes, this gift that is bestowed on us is often unappreciated.  Indeed, we often go through the day overlooking the signs of God’s presence and provision in our midst.   Perhaps we have grown numb due to our saturation with technology, perhaps we are distracted by the busyness of the day, or perhaps we have bought into the modern assumption that God is not real.  Dallas Willard suggests that Christians are not exempt from this last danger.  “Our souls,” he suggests are, “soaked with secularity.”  We are immersed in a culture that calls into question the existence and intervention of God.

One of the ways I have sought to recover an awareness of God in the midst of daily life is by practicing the “Ignatian Examen.”   I gained a deeper understanding of this form of prayer in a book I read during my vacation titled, The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything, by James Martin.

I’ve outlined the steps to this prayer before.  They follow this sequence:

  1. Start by taking time to be grateful for the blessings of the day.
  2. Ask god for the grace to see the things you need to confess.
  3. Review the day hour by hour and confess the sins of the day.
  4. Conclude by asking for God’s forgiveness and for his help.

Martin helped me to recover the importance of step one.  I used to see the Examen as primarily a prayer of confession; however, Martin suggests that the first part of the prayer should receive equal attention.  The first step in the Examen affords us the chance to reflect on where we have seen God at work in our midst throughout the day.  We look for signs of truth, beauty and love.  It does not have to be big things.  It could be the taste of a good meal, a smile you observed, a feeling of peace, or the laughter of a child.  Martin uses the term “savoring” to capture the point of this step.  He writes, “for Ignatius many things— no matter how seemingly inconsequential— are occasions for gratitude. You recall them and you “relish” or “savor” them, as he would say. Savoring is an antidote to our increasingly rushed lives.”

Martin notes that Ignatius made this practice a priority.  Ignatius left room for a lot of flexibility in the spiritual life, but he wanted the Jesuits to make sure they did not skip the Examen.  I can see why!  Over the course of the past two weeks I have made a point of ending my day with this practice.  This practice has opened my eyes again to the tenderness of our world.  I have been reminded of how many signs there are of love, beauty and truth in a single day.

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