Gregory H. Carruthers, sj
The Awareness Exercise (2) is a spiritual exercise to help one find God in all things. The modern understanding of the Awareness Exercise is rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, (3) especially in the exercise called the Contemplatio.
The spirituality of this exercise, the Contemplatio, is the spirituality of finding and loving God in all things. The Contemplatio assumes God's love for us and it is an aid to help us in gratitude to grow in our love and service of God. This exercise has a contemplative quality to it and is focused on our inner experience of the Trinity. How is God "drawing" me (John 6:44) in my existential awareness or consciousness? Hence, the name Awareness or Consciousness Exercise. In the Awareness Exercise we are not focused on our conscience but on our consciousness, i.e., on our awareness of what is going on in our interior experience. Thus the Awareness Exercise is related to the discernment of spirits.
The discernment of spirits is about detecting among the various influences at work within me which ones lead to God and which ones lead away from God and how I am responding to them. The Awareness Exercise, then, is a daily focused exercise of discernment in a person's life. Our focus in the Awareness Exercise is on the presence and action of God in our lived experience.
This spiritual exercise asks the questions: how has God been present to and active in me today in the people, events and circumstances that I have experienced? How have I responded? The St. Augustine's Seminary Spiritual Program states it this way: "The focus of this exercise is your growing awareness of the presence of Christ in situations, events and persons during that day, and the nature of your response to this presence". [emphasis mine]
Each of the underlined words is important and will be explained in greater detail in subsequent sections. But for now:
2. Praying On Our Experience
The Awareness Exercise is about finding God in all things, i.e., about becoming aware or conscious of the presence of Christ in the people and events of my daily life. The content of this form of prayer is our lived experience.
What does it mean to pray on our experience? To answer this question it may be helpful to place it in the context of other forms of prayer.
First, there is Liturgical prayer. The content of this prayer is the liturgical symbols, words and actions. It is through these mediums that one encounters the presence of the risen Lord. This is foremost in the case of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Under liturgical prayer we would also include the Liturgy of the Hours. We can call this form of prayer in which the Lord addresses us as the Ecclesial Word.
Secondly, there is Scriptural prayer. The content of this prayer is the inspired word of God in the Sacred Scriptures. It is through reading, meditating and contemplating the word of Scripture that one encounters the presence of the risen Lord. Lectio divina and praying with the imagination are traditional methods of this form of prayer. We can call this form of prayer in which the Lord addresses us as the Prophetic Word.
Thirdly, there is prayer on our experience. The content of this prayer is the people, events and circumstances of my daily life. It is through these mediums that one encounters the presence of the risen Lord. One performs, as it were, a Lectio divina on one's own experience. That is, one reads, listens to and mediates on what one's experience has been. How is the word of God speaking to me here and now in my daily experience? We can call this form of prayer in which the Lord addresses us as the Existential Word.
As with the first two forms of prayer, praying on our experience is crucial to any growth in holiness. St. Teresa of Avila writes in her Autobiography: "There was nothing I understood until His Majesty [God] gave me understanding through experience." Karl Rahner writes that with the breakdown of cultural Christianity in the West, "the devout Christian of the future will either be a 'mystic', one who has experienced something, or he will cease to be anything at all." Ladislaus Boros, a spiritual writer, has said. "The Christian must seek his great God everywhere, even in the slightest things" [emphasis mine]. Another spiritual writer speaks of the "catechism of our experience." Above all, we think of Luke 2:19 where the evangelist writes: "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." What things? The things that were happening to her, what she was experiencing. Mary is the great model of praying on our experience.
The theology behind this prayer is that God is always present to us, always addressing us. He is always disclosing himself to us and offering himself in relationship to us. He is always acting in our life. He does this in the concrete. This form of prayer is Incarnational.
One spiritual author has said if God is not in the concrete, He simply is not there. If I cannot find God in the concrete circumstances of my life, is then a truly spiritual life really possible? God is present to us at all times and in every area of our life. God is present at the deepest dimension of our experience. It is there that He draws us. Jesus says: "No one can come to me unless the Father draw him" (Jn 6:44). The Awareness Exercise pays attention to this drawing of the Father.
God's presence and action in our lives does not have to be felt. He can work at the deepest levels of our mind, soul, psyche and spirit. We may not be aware of this. (Mk 4:26-29). Yet, God's grace can also be experienced. Otherwise, we would not be able to discern His will. St. Augustine writes: "Thanks be to Him who is desired before He is seen, whose presence is felt, and who is hoped for in the future." (Sermon 24.1, emphasis mine).
3. "Pay attention so that you may live," Is 55:3
The Awareness Exercise is about paying attention to our experience in order to detect the presence of Christ. A word about 'paying attention' is in order.
The first step, the sine qua non of any spiritual growth, is to pay attention. We cannot be led by the Spirit if we do not first pay attention to His promptings. Before we can respond to the Spirit we must first pay attention. In one translation of Is 55:3 we read, "Pay attention so that you may live." If we are to live in the Trinity, if we are to be "Trinified", we must first pay attention to the presence and action of the Trinity in our daily life. Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit theologian, writes that the foundational precept to all self-transcendence is "Be attentive." There can be no self-transcendence into the love of God if we do not first pay attention.
We pay attention to our experience. But we do not pay attention to our experience to find ourselves. We are seeking to find God in all things. The Awareness Exercise is a prayer, a spiritual exercise; it is not a psychological test. It is not self-introspection or navel grazing. It is certainly not self-perfection. It is not focused on me, but on God, and God's presence and action in my daily life. It does not end in myself. It does involve some reflection on my interior life, on my thoughts, words, actions, desires, feelings, urges, motives, moods etc. But these are all simply mediums to help me encounter the presence of Christ in my life. The focus of this prayer, and the goal of this prayer is to encounter Christ and to unite myself to Him as He reveals himself to me and acts in me in the people, events and circumstances of my daily life.
The Awareness Exercise, then, is done in the presence of Christ and seeks to deepen that presence. It is about intimacy, intimacy with the Lord. One spiritual writer has said: "Next to the Eucharist, the Awareness Exercise should provide the occasion for the most intimate encounter of the day with Jesus."
4. Two Analogies
The Awareness Exercise is a prayer for developing awareness of our relationship with God as it is played out in the day to day routine of our lives. The atmosphere of this spiritual exercise is relaxed, conversational and reflective. One spiritual writer uses this analogy: this prayer in its tone is like a young married couple who, after the dishes are done and the kids put to bed, sit around the kitchen table with a pot of tea and share with each other what their day has been like.
The Awareness Exercise is a reflective conversation with the Lord about my experiences that day in order to become aware of where the Lord was present to me and to savour those moments. It also includes resting in the Lord with those experiences that were difficult or uncomfortable or where the Lord seemed absent. Bring these experiences to the Lord as well.
The quality of this spiritual exercise is one of relaxed intimacy. Fr. Michael Prieur suggests: "Get comfortable with God: have a cup of tea or a glass of wine, relax and listen." Allow God to manifest to you where He was present to you this past day.
Although there is a very simple method to this prayer, like all methods in practice, it is to be adapted by each individual according to his personality and needs.
A word about method in prayer. A prayer method at first can seem mechanical and awkward. One spiritual writer uses the analogy of learning to sail a boat. At first it is mechanical and awkward. You have to keep one hand on the rudder, the other on the boom, one eye on the sail, the other on the water etc. The first few times may not seem very enjoyable. But once the method has become second nature to you, you forget about it. It serves its purpose of freeing you up to enjoy the wind in the sails taking you for an enjoyable sailboat ride.
The same with method in prayer. At first you may be focused on the steps involved. But very soon the steps become second nature to you; you forget about them. They allow you to be led by the Spirit blowing in the sails of your life. You are freed up to focus on and move with the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.
5. Method of Awareness Exercise (4)
The usual time for doing this spiritual exercise is towards the end of the day since one is reflecting on what happened during that day. It is good to do it approximately at the same time each evening inasmuch as that is possible. The Exercise takes about 15 minutes. For it to bear fruit, it needs to be done faithfully every day.
Different spiritual writers speak differently of what one is seeking in the Exercise. Some speak of becoming aware of the presence and action of the Trinity, others of the presence and action of Christ, still others of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, there is no contradiction in these options. I have used all three so far in this explanation. For the sake of consistency in presenting the method, I will use primarily the language of the Holy Spirit, but at times it is more appropriate to speak of the Trinity or of Christ.
There are 5 steps in this prayer. Usually Step 3 is at the heart of the prayer. But if the Spirit moves you to pause longer in any of the other steps, then follow the Spirit. The 5 steps can be listed under 5 headings:
A word about thanksgiving. St. Ignatius once said that the most abominable sin he could imagine was the sin of ingratitude. He knew that an awareness of God's goodness and generosity is the foundation of our relationship with God. Once we recognize God's goodness, we spontaneously feel gratitude.
Also, gratitude is the foundational motive for all of our service to God. If we are grateful to God we will offer to Him all that we are and all that we have for His service. If our gratitude cools, our service will collapse into empty routine.
As our spiritual life deepens, we become more and more aware that all we have is gift (1 Cor 4:7), given to us far beyond anything that we might expect or deserve.
Sometimes we might find ourselves in a mood of resentment or depression where a feeling of gratitude is hard to muster. At that time, it is all the more important for us to express thanks to God. Not to pretend to feelings we do not feel, but to acknowledge, at whatever level we can, the truth of God's goodness to me.
We need to ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten us about what has transpired today because we are only too aware of our own blindness to see Him in the persons and events of our day. We can be ignorant of the movements of our heart, rationalize our motives, deceive ourselves about what is going on. To truly know ourselves is not something we are able to do on our own. We need to ask the Holy Spirit for the light that can reveal us to ourselves. Knowledge of God necessarily involves knowledge of self. In this way we can come to understand the ways of the Trinity in our life.
What interior events were significant for you? Notice what stands out even slightly, such as joy, pain, turmoil, increase of love, anger, harmony, anxiety, freedom, enchainment, isolation, presence of God etc. Which ones were leading me toward God, and which were leading me toward myself? Where and when did I sense I was being led by God's Spirit? How did I respond to these persons, events and experiences?
(To assist you in reflecting
on finding God in all things of your day
The review of our day is not simply earnest introspection, it is prayer. It is going through our day with God, attentive to our inner feelings and thoughts and desires which is where we experience God's call in the midst of everyday activity.
In the spiritual life it is important that the head and the heart be integrated. Some fall into the danger of reducing the spiritual life to thoughts. Others fall into the danger of reducing the spiritual life to feelings. Both are important and need to be paid attention to. This Exercise does that. We also mentioned that the Father draws us to Christ. He does this through holy desires. This Exercise assists us to pay attention to and discern those desires.
This Exercise can be done anywhere - in a plane, on our sick bed, out for a walk, etc. As such, at those times when we may not be able to celebrate Mass or say the Office, we can find intimacy with the Lord each day by praying the Awareness Exercise.
Eventually, we look for interior experiences of consolation and desolation which enable us to discern the presence of the Trinity and how we are to respond. It is important to know whether we are in consolation or desolation because when we are in consolation we are likely to make good decisions, and when we are in desolation we are likely to make bad decisions.
(To assist you in knowing
whether you are experiencing consolation or desolation
When we sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in this Exercise we pause and savour the experience allowing the texture of His presence to deepen within us. If we are having difficulty sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit, we simply bring this person, event or circumstance to the Holy Spirit, expose it to Him and wait. Desolation, although not necessarily right away, eventually gives way to consolation.
Through the Awareness Exercise the Holy Spirit becomes our constant companion and guide. A beautiful prayer of St. Augustine comes to mind in this regard (this prayer is not necessarily part of the Review):
into me, O Holy Spirit
my heart, O Holy Spirit,
Insofar as we have discovered God's presence and our graced, free response, our present response is one of gratitude and wonder for the work of God in our soul. Genuine freedom always comes as a surprise to us, because it involves a sort of self-transcendence that we know we do not have in ourselves. When we discover that in our day, we need to praise God for it. And so we thank God for the persons, events, circumstances and unselfish attitudes in ourselves that have mediated His presence to us.
Conversely, when we discover our lack of response and self-centeredness during the day, then our present response is remorse and contrition. Contrition is not to be confused with shame. Contrition moves us out of ourselves and towards God. Shame simply moves us deeper into ourselves. So we ask God for His forgiveness in failing to respond to His presence.
It can also happen in reviewing our day we become aware we are being nudged to focus our attention on something in particular, for example, some recurring selfish response. Discuss this with Jesus. What kind of response is required, e.g. desire for change, some specific action to be taken...?
We live the spiritual life one day at a time. With trust in God we ask for His "bread" for the needs of tomorrow. We do not look at changing our whole lives, we simply look at what we want to change tomorrow, and ask God's help for it.
We conclude this prayer in trust, surrender, and confidence in God, and in making an offering of ourselves to Him. God's love and presence will be with us again tomorrow and we desire to respond more fully.
6. Fruits of this Exercise
If practiced daily, it is not long before certain effects start to be experienced. After a week or so the following fruits may be noticed:
7. Finding God in all Things
The Awareness Exercise, as we have said, helps one to find God in all things and so become a contemplative in action. It is an apostolic exercise, that is, it is based on the revelation that the Trinity is at work in the world and invites us to join Him in that work. We are called to be united to the work of the Trinity in the world. This is a mysticism of union and service.
The spirituality that is the basis of the Awareness Exercise is the spirituality of finding and loving God in all things. While there is an analytic dimension to the Exercise, the analysis is to lead to contemplation. The Awareness Exercise is all about love, God's love for us and our love for God. This Exercise helps integrate these two loves. The faith assumption underlying this Exercise is God's love for us, the absolute and unconditional love by which God loves us before we love Him (1 Jn 4:10), the love by which God teaches us to love. The fruit of this Exercise is to assist us to grow in our love for God, to make a radical self-offering of ourselves to God. The grace of this Exercise is to grow in loving in the way God Himself loves.
Where do these two loves meet? Where does the exchange of these two loves take place? The answer is in the persons, events and circumstances of our everyday life. God, for His part, gives Himself to us in love through all things; and we, for our part, give ourselves back to Him in love through all things. As we have said earlier, God gives Himself in the concrete. That is where we find and love Him. St. Ignatius in the Contemplatio speaks of this reality in two points:
The second point of mutual communication indicates that behind, within and through these deeds of love one ultimately gives oneself. God offers Himself to me, shares His very self with me in concrete deeds. I am invited in turn to offer myself to Him, to share my very self with Him in concrete deeds.
What these two points come down to is that God shows His love to me in and through everything; in turn I aspire to find and love God in everything. This is the love of friendship. It is the desire of the beloved to give in return.
God's love for us expresses itself in action for us; including in the persons, events and circumstances of my daily life. In this action God shares what He has and (as far as can be) gives of Himself. This is the model of our love, which in turn expresses itself in deeds of service, in the gift of all I have and possess and indeed in the gift of my very self back to God.
The Awareness Exercise is to lead us to make a radical offering of ourselves to God. This self-offering is beautifully expressed in the prayer of St. Ignatius:
my memory, my understanding, my entire will;
All I have and possess you have given me,
I return it all to you.
Gregory H. Carruthers, S.J., S.T.L., S.T.L., S.T.D., Associate Professor, Systematic Theology, St. Augustine's Seminary of Toronto.
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