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The Ignatian Examen Can Stop at Step One…Gratitude

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

Jen is an illustrator, writer, crafter and an Ignatian Prayer of Examen teacher. If you know me a little bit, you understand why we might get along well! :) I am thrilled to get to share her insights on Gratitude with you. Enjoy!

Written and Illustrated by Jennifer Willhoite from CobbleWorks.

Gratitude is expansive, a spiritual yeast that grows reality right before our eyes. It often starts with courtesy, but quickly deepens into our daily bread because it feeds our hope and lets us share that hope with the world. When we practice gratitude, we might name one singular thing only to awaken to the fact that it is connected to the universe of things. From this intertwined place of comity, grandeur, vulnerability and particular joy, we begin to realize that we have entered an intimate conversation with the Holy and that we are safe here. We call this process "prayer" and its effect is relationship. The Ignatian examen guides us through and to both. Its first step, unsurprisingly, is gratitude. 

Gratitude is a potent form of honesty. When we give thanks, we are telling the truth about ourselves, if only in part. In our appreciation, we admit that something matters so much to us that we can’t let it slip by without recognition. So giving thanks is deeply personal and revelatory. And like truth, it is freeing rather than controlling. Consider this: Gratitude does not diminish or soften our desolation. It is not a pair of rose-colored glasses. Gratitude does not pretend our suffering away. It is not a form of denial. Gratitude does not encourage us to ignore the negative and only look for the positive. It is not a pair of blinders or a silencer. It is a giant conjunction, a companion. It comes alongside our pain and confusion and expands our horizon so that we see a fuller sense of reality in the present moment. We might say, "I feel disconnected to my work. I am grateful I have friends I can share dinner with tonight." Our friends may not heal the fracture we have with our jobs or have an answer to the existential reality of what we are doing with our lives, but appreciating and acknowledging them even as we feel discomfort somewhere else immediately shows us that while suffering is a part of our reality, it is not the whole of our reality. (Personally, I consider this a small form of deliverance and salvation and I rely on it regularly lest I live in glass-half-empty consciousness.) This thing that seems to start with mere pleasantry can root us quickly and firmly into a foundation stronger than ourselves. Simple and honest statements about what we cherish about our lives nurture joy within us and our vision expands. This helps us feel safe. This helps us find sanctuary. This helps us consider that there may be more than what our initial desolation told us was going on in life. We start to wonder, “If the sunshine is present even when storm clouds are in the sky, could it be that life is more than sheltering from the storm?” Hope lives in the “could it be…” bit. Hope lives in that space where we wonder if the shadow may not be the whole picture. And it’s gratitude that gets us wondering.

With practice, naming what we are grateful for ushers us into a place of deeper connection where we can admit more of our feelings and more truths about our present moment — the shadowy cloud parts and the sunlit parts. It's not long before we find ourselves falling into honest conversation and union with our deepest selves and the Sacred (which is what the examen is — a structure for a sacred conversation). No wonder St. Ignatius made gratitude the first step in the examen! It gets us out of our corners and reaching out to God…within our hearts and around us in life. So I invite you to practice the examen for a week and just do step 1, gratitude. I’m sharing four things with you to help. The first three are an illustrated example of an exercise you can do when you feel little inspiration for giving thanks.

Pick something in front of you, a glass of water, a laptop or your house keys, for example, and then name qualities about them you are grateful for. In the illustrated example, you’ll see I did this with a saw I’ve been using while dragging my feet on a huge DIY project in our kitchen. When I picked up the saw and begrudgingly got back to work, I heard my conscience say, “If you can’t be grateful for the work, can you be grateful for what enables it?” It was enough.

What came next in this contemplative experiment was a natural set of questions that had me wondering about the other people who were somehow also connected to this saw. If you print out the page, you’ll see some of the thoughts I noticed popping up in my head. This isn’t a reflection of my brain so much as a reflection of what practicing gratitude does for us: it takes us from the personal to the universal with a sense of wonder.

The last page of this mini series affirms what I learned from going through this personal gratitude challenge. I invite you to try the same thing for yourself using an object in your own life and make note of your own noticings. Will it fix and cure all things pulling at your heart? No. Will it make you feel less alone and like you are connected to the larger human family? I think it will. Will it stir up questions that maybe you are longing to unburden yourself of and drop at the feet of the Sacred? I think there’s a strong possibility for that as well. The important thing I want you to consider is your own experience.

The fourth thing I’m sharing with you is my Gratitude Tree. I offer this as a personal tool for you to write down all the things that you cherish in a day. Maybe some feel like blooming opportunities and so you write them at the end of branches. Maybe others feel like a stable presence so you pen them near the roots. Just close your day with this tree and see how full it looks when you are done writing down your gratitude. Write down the challenging stuff too if you’d like—let those live among the things you value so much you simply couldn’t let them pass by without remarking on them. I wonder how it might feel to let gratitude and challenge mingle so closely. For me, it’s like seeing my day as a garden, vibrant and alive…even when some things are fading from the season.

Click the images to download the 3 parts of the illustrated story.

Click the image below to download Gratitude Tree printable worksheet.

  • Follow Jen on Instagram at @CobbleWorks for her wonderful illustrated spiritual stories and explore the Examen prayer tools that she creates on her Etsy Shop.

  • You can sign up to Jen's periodic newsletter where she shares beautiful reflections like this via the link here.

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