The prayer of Examen is a space you create to reflect on (to examine) your day in light of God’s presence. This is a practice I’ve been using in recent weeks, as I approach my 25th birthday, and I’ve found it helpful and comforting.
“…to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
— Mary Oliver
This extraordinary time of life has lent itself to more personal reflection, the reorganization of priorities, and renewed awareness to life’s complexity. We must continue to examine our understanding of “normal,” and for many, our privilege, and seek to conform our hearts and minds to Christ.
Practicing the Examen
There are a few different variations of this form of prayer and if you decide to practice the examen, you’ll find your own rhythm that works best for you. I’ve found it helpful for my own practice to associate the steps with something tactile: gardening. Similar to adding motions to a children’s song, the gardening metaphors help me to remember the rhythm.
Begin by planting seeds of gratitude. Offer thanks for whatever comes to mind. The “seeds” are all different sizes, some harder to pick up than others. There is a power in recognizing what you’re grateful for, even if you don’t *feel* very thankful in the moment. The seeds will continue to grow and fill up your garden.
“It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich!”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Be Present with God
Don’t be quick to wipe the dirt from your hands. Allow yourself to be fully present with God. One of the best parts of gardening is putting your hands in the soil. Its mildly therapeutic, in my humble opinion, and encourages me to be mindful of the task at hand. In silence or with a few words, invite the Holy Spirit to guide you as you pray.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways…Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
—Psalm 139:1–3, 7 NRSV
Reflect on the Day
Notice how the garden has grown. Where have light and water nourished the garden? Where have weeds taken over? Allow the Holy Spirit to direct your attention to God’s presence in your day.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
Any every common bush afire with God,
But only [s]he who sees takes off [their] shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
— Elizabeth Barret Browning
Identify Areas of Growth
Remove any weeds from the garden. Invasive species or common weeds are inevitable and must be tended to with a sharp eye and gentleness. Where is pruning needed? Ask the Lord for forgiveness where you’ve been wrong. How can you initiate or participate in reconciliation?
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
— Ephesians 4:31-32
Look to Tomorrow
Water with care. Reflect on your hopes for the next day and ask God to help you in any anticipated temptations or challenges. The act of watering is an act of hope for new growth and new life.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
— Lamentations 3:22-23
We all get overwhelmed and sometimes it’s too much to think of the entire prayer, or the entire garden, if you will. If this describes your day, it may be easier to ask yourself just two questions:
Where have I spoken or acted in love?
Where have I spoken or acted in fear?
As you ask these questions, allow yourself to be present with God, even for a few minutes.
For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?
In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction.
Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”
In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking.
The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns.
If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)
Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions
This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition.
We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.
“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.”
There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.
I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.
Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.
Eucharist Every Week
Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)
“Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.“
— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)
On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.
At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.
These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!
Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences:
*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition.
(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church through liturgy. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)
Not all churches or religious spaces are “liturgical” like the Catholic or Anglican communions might be. Yet, all churches have particular spiritual languages and practices that order their worship and shape the way their audiences view their relationship with God and others. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, songs, prayers, gestures, as well as scripture readings, creeds, and rituals give form to one’s faith and directs worship. In this post I’ll be using the term liturgy to refer to these general elements.
Liturgy can edify but it can also silence and re-traumatize. It’s role in perpetuating cycles of sexual violence in the church and associated households cannot be underestimated. At the same time, liturgy has creative and theological power to address and interrupt spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual violence.
Further reading to consider as you read through the following two major areas of concern:
Reorganizing Victimization: The Intersection between Liturgy and Domestic Violence by Marjorie Procter-Smith in Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender (Portions of the book are available here. This chapter begins on page 380.)
The Bible, as well as religious language often in used in Christian contexts, frequently refers to the divine imagery of God as a King, Lord, and Father with exclusive male pronouns. Submission and surrender to God may also be included alongside this imagery. Combined with the authority of predominantly male clergy, this can be harmful for survivors of trauma.
Although female clergy may be increasing, men are often elected/hired/called as leaders in evangelical congregations. Yet there is a significant gender gap in the pews. Research finds that women may pray more and attend services more regularly where they make up the majority of many Christian communities.
“Not only is scripture interpreted by a long line of men and proclaimed in patriarchal churches, it is also authored by men, written in androcentric language, reflective of religious male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question, the Bible is a male book.”
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
Perpetuating the exclusive patriarchal nature of these images, terms, and environments fosters potential justification of abuse of power and resulting violence. Even though they may believe the Bible to be inspired and authoritative, these factors can make it difficult to participate in worship and connect with God as not only as survivor but also as a female. Trauma can feel alienating and isolating, perhaps even more so within one’s faith if it feels as if God has abandoned or betrayed them.
To echo the concern of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in the words of Mary Daley, “If God is male, male is God.” If we believe the idea God is a sovereign male ruler of “his” children, then the hierarchy of male leadership over women may also exist. This is fertile soil for abuse of power. Women and survivors alike may ask, is there a place for me? Will I find relief or protection from my suffering?
So, is God male? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male?
God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.
It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.
The Eucharist is one of the most fundamental practices of the Christian faith. It can be spiritually nourishing for both the individual and the community. Yet just as something has power to inspire and provide sustenance for the soul, there is the potential for this power to be damaging.
Sitting, standing or kneeling, bread or wafers or crackers, grape juice or wine, small plastic cups or drinking straight from the silver chalice — the combinations for communion abound. The prayers associated with each element may differ but often reflect the story of the Last Supper.
Researcher, Hilary Jerome Scarsella sees the eucharist and other ritual acts as “a negotiation of power relations.” From the language to the posture, communion can be interpreted as harmful for those who have experienced sexual violence. Trauma can be relived, unfortunately. Hearing the words and prayers of the eucharist, kneeling to receive the bread and cup from male clergy, or simply kneeling at the rail to drink from a cup, may produce a strong, if not visceral reaction from those who have been abused.
“The survivor who shared the second glimpse described taking the bread and wine as practice for the next time the person abusing her would force his body on her. Her communion participation, then, seems to have functioned as practicing the role of abuse victim quite literally. In communion, she took on and embodied the role of one who does not have the power to decide what will and won’t be allowed into her body.”
Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Victimization via Ritualization: Christian Communion
Scarsella was also included in a Menonite group who adjusted the language in their communion prayers in an effort to frame the unjust, bodily sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a light unique to him. Their work resulted in two alternative texts for prayers included in their eucharist. The first removed the words “body” and “blood.” The second left these words but added more contextual information (or “framing words”) to better communicate the message of freedom and salvation from sin and suffering.
“In other words, does our worship release captives? Or recover sight for the blind? This process felt like participating in what Jesus announced his whole mission to be about.”
The fact that scripture and faith practices of the Christian tradition have been used to oppress and re-traumatize others does not invalidate their ability to provide restoration and healing. Often this requires stepping outside of “the way things have always been” and humbly listening. We read scripture and participate in our faith with lenses unique to our personal biases and experiences. Recognizing this and allowing others the space to speak and be heard could be transformative.
Here are some examples of liturgies for survivors of trauma and sexual violence. While researching on purity culture and the damage done at the hands of the church, these prayers and songs inspired me to continue, especially this song.