Sean O’Rourke tells his experience of sharing prayer with his own young children. ‘I’m definitely getting a wildwest rifle and two wildwest six-shooters,’ my six-year-old son, Colin, asserted. We were entering Smyth’s toystore, he clutching his birthday vouchers. He was well aware of my reservations about this particular choice of toys, hence his emphatic tone. […]
Sean O’Rourke tells his experience of sharing prayer with his own young children.
‘I’m definitely getting a wildwest rifle and two wildwest six-shooters,’ my six-year-old son, Colin, asserted. We were entering Smyth’s toystore, he clutching his birthday vouchers. He was well aware of my reservations about this particular choice of toys, hence his emphatic tone.
I decided to make one final attempt to win him over to my view. ‘What about lego or books?’ I ventured. ‘I could add some extra money to your vouchers if you get those.’ ‘No!’ came the dismissive reply. ‘I’ve got lots of lego already and I can get books in the library.’
At this point, knowing my cause was lost, I asked, ‘Why do you want guns? ‘Because they’ll make me powerful’, came the prompt reply. ‘But why do you want to be powerful?’ I pursued. ‘Because I might be attacked by robbers or drug pushers’, was the answer.
This statement floored me. I was reduced to silence. We proceeded into the shop, and the guns were duly purchased.
The incident left me uneasy. I mulled over it in the following days. What disturbed me was the realisation that my son felt threatened by the world. He saw it as a dangerous place where he needed protection.
I was surprised, too. As parents, my wife and I had always taken steps to ensure that our two younger children were not exposed to news of crime on radio and television.
I now realised that it is impossible to prevent young children from hearing anything of the violence and wrongdoing that forms part of our society. So how could I help Colin to feel safe and confident in his life? Was there some way I could help him develop a sense of God as a loving and caring presence in every situation he encountered? It was as a result of these reflections that I resolved to begin praying the examen of consciousness of St. Ignatius Loyola with my two younger children, Colin and Aoife.
The name, ‘examen of consciousness’, sounds rather intimidating but, in fact, this prayer is very straightforward. It is simply a review of our day from a faith perspective.
It has five steps: firstly, we thank God for His presence and gifts to us today; secondly, we ask Him for enlightenment, to show us where He was present in our lives during our day; thirdly, we ask Him to help us recall the blessings of the day just lived, and having recalled them we offer thanks; fourthly, we look at our responses to God’s various calls to us in the experiences of our day. Finally, we look to the future, asking that we may be alert and responsive to God’s presence in our lives in the time ahead.
What I like about the examen is the way it heightens our sense of a provident God, present and active in our lives. It builds our trust in a divine presence, continuously loving and empowering us. It also challenges us to work at improving the quality of our responses to God’s invitations to express love in our daily lives.
I had been praying the examen myself for some time, and found it helped me develop an ongoing awareness of God in the midst of a busy life. Now, I wanted my children to develop a similar awareness.
I began using a simplified version, where we share around two questions: What was the happiest experience in my day? What was the most difficult experience in my day?
We then thank God for the joys and blessings and we ask for help and healing around the difficult experiences.
We have been praying the examen for two years now. I find that the children enjoy it, and have no trouble identifying both joyful and difficult experiences which they can bring before God in prayer. Many of these revolve around home and school life, especially their interaction with friends and classmates.
Occasionally, there needs to be some discussion about how best to deal with an issue arising from their experience. An example was when Colin announced: ‘My happy thing today was that I felt sorry for my friend Tom in school. Another boy, Joe, tripped him in the yard and he fell and cut his hands and his leg. Then I chased Joe and I thumped him for what he did.’ I asked, ‘How do you think Jesus would have liked you to handle that situation?’ After a few moments he answered ‘I suppose I could have said to Joe “You’ve been very bold. Go and say sorry to Tom”.’ Children are often insightful at working out more loving ways of dealing with situations.
The examen is an effective way of bringing closure and peace at the end of a day. Experiences that have been painful or worrying are shared, and God’s help is requested in dealing with them. Aoife’s comment one evening is revealing: ‘I like it when I’m able to tell Jesus about the things I find difficult. Then I can forget them and get on with my life.’
It’s wonderful when the perspective of the examen spills over into our experience as it happens. ‘There was a bad thing and a good thing together for me today,’ Colin shared one night. ‘John was yelling and bawling because he got stung by nettles and I felt like running off and leaving him because he was making such a racket and it was really annoying me. But I decided to stay with him because then I would be able to turn it into a good thing.’ The values of the examen can come alive in the moment.
An attendant benefit of the examen is that parents and children get to know each other better through their disclosures. Aoife’s prayer reveals her extrovert nature and shows how life-giving are her interactions with friends and group activities. On the other hand, Colm’s prayer highlights his introvert nature and his need for personal space. It also shows his upset at injustice and his concern for anyone who gets hurt. Each one’s humanity is disclosed in this very personal form of prayer.
The practice of the examen creates a sense of togetherness. There can be a real union of hearts as we listen and share. The children recognise this atmosphere of closeness and love engendered by the examen, and I think it explains in part their enthusiasm for it. They delight in the warmth and intimacy that develops during the prayer.
When children are enabled to reveal their thoughts and feelings safely and to share what is significant for them, they blossom. When their experience is respected and listened to, their self-esteem and sense of being valued is enhanced. The examen is an affirming prayer.
It is also an integrating prayer. It connects our relationship with God to our lived experience. God comes to be seen as actively engaged in our lives, gifting us with blessings, and supporting us in our efforts to overcome difficulties.
Perhaps one of the most profound aspects of this prayer is the way it helps us express and receive the beauty of each other. The true beauty of people is disclosed through the confidences of the heart. This revelation nourishes and fosters our faith. It brings us into touch with the divine mystery that each one of us is.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.