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McDonough: A 500-year-old self-help plan

A portrait of St. Ignatius at the at

A portrait of St. Ignatius at the at the Chiesa del Gesu' (Jesus' Church) in Rome by Italian Renaissance painter Carracci. Photo Credit: AP, 2001

'We could go to hell for imitating the imperfections of the saints," wrote Dorothy Day, co-founder of The Catholic Worker movement. Nevertheless, she believed that these imperfections were the very things that endeared the saints to us.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, a religious order commonly called the Jesuits, may be one of the most endearing saints. His colorful personality crafted a life that included both privilege and poverty, a quick wit, a flair for fashion, a penchant for pretty women, a stint as a soldier, and more than one stay in a prison cell. The life of Ignatius, whose feast day is celebrated today by the Catholic church, calls us to laughter as easily as it calls us to consider his unique approach to prayer, one that promises to find God in all things.

Inigo de Loyola, born in Spain in 1491, designed a prayer he called the Examen, the Spanish word for examination. True to its name, the Examen can assist people from every religious tradition, even those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, in examining their lives for signs of the sacred amid their secular activities.

It's a prayer so simple that it can be said while waiting on a long line, riding the train, rocking the baby or lying on a beach. While there have been several variations on how to pray the Examen, it generally begins with gratitude, an abiding sense that life is given by a God who longs to share in our every moment, from the magnificent to most mundane.

The Buddha, who lived 2,000 years before Ignatius, taught that gratitude is the hallmark of enlightenment. Even the most recent research of the 21st century tells us that gratitude can have profound and positive effects on our health, helping us to be happier, kinder, more optimistic and less anxious. Numerous studies have supported the premise that everyone, regardless of creed or culture, can benefit from time spent in reflective thanksgiving.

The second step of the Examen is to ask for the grace to see our sins. Unlike a traditional examination of conscience, which focuses on wrongdoings, this is an examination of consciousness that cultivates an active awareness of God's deep and ever present love, even in the midst of our mistakes and the misery that can follow our missteps. The Examen then moves toward an hour-by-hour review of the day, with a focused attention on our thoughts, words, deeds and emotions.

Ignatius insisted that God's deepest desire is to be found not only in our triumphs and tragedies, but in even our smallest decisions and most casual relationships. He taught his followers that God moves within our memories, dwells within our dreams and guides us in our grief, joy, and every emotion and activity. Ignatian spirituality suggests that God stands beside us in the kitchen and is seated with us in the car, on the bleachers or in front of the computer, consecrating all human activity with hints of holiness. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called it everyday mysticism, a concept easily embraced by both young and old, regardless of specific religious practice, or lack thereof.

The last steps of the Examen ask forgiveness for our faults, followed by a resolve to amend our ways.

Some may say that Ignatius devised a powerful self-improvement plan, while others see the Examen as a positive prayer of continual change that allows us to attain the balance that so many seek in our hectic, overscheduled lives. It pulls us out of ourselves and gently nudges us away from blame and shame toward acceptance and affirmation. Who couldn't use more of that?

The Examen is a gift that St. Ignatius gave the world. It wasn't designed just for Jesuits, but for anyone drawn to a comfortable and convenient routine that promises a happier, healthier life, filled with an attitude of gratitude.

Pat McDonough is a school psychologist and director of youth ministry at St. Mary's Parish in Manhasset.

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