Sleeping With Bread: Adapting the Ignatian Examen for Children and Small Groups

Day 3 of my 30-day writing challenge.

Friday night is Bible study night at the Myers house, and has been for over a decade now. Tonight’s study featured friends of more than 10 years and a friend of less than 1. We’ve almost always started with dinner (Pre-made lasagna tonight, plus the transcendently crispy wings and buttery garlic knots from the small Italian place one block over) and informal conversation before moving to the study portion, but in the last few months, we’ve started by asking people to share their “highs” and “lows” for the week.

This routine is something we first learned about from friends. Their family would go around the dinner table every night, giving every person a chance to say the best and worst thing about their day. We loved the way it gave everyone, no matter their age, a chance to reflect, speak, listen, and connect, and we started doing the same thing with our family.

Recently, we revived this practice again, after I read about it in Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Its dreamy watercolors make it look like a children’s bedtime story, and one of its aims is in fact to make the Ignatian examen accessible to children, as well as to anyone looking for a basic, gentle approach to this practice.

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The examen is a way to review your day – how God was present, and how he might be inviting you to move forward – by asking yourself, “For what today was I most grateful? For what I was least grateful? Over time, paying attention to where in your days you find grace and life, and where you experience pain and resistance, points you towards how God might be moving and guiding you. It builds awareness and discernment, hope and faith.

For children, authors Dennis, Sheila Fabricant and Matthew Linn simplify the examen questions to precisely the ones we learned from our friends: “What was your high today? What was your low?” These are concepts children can easily understand – our five year old answers them quite vocally. We’ve also found them to be helpful in our small groups. They are non-threatening enough that most people don’t mind answering them, even visitors and new members. People can provide answers as detailed or as vague as they choose, sharing small ups and downs or deep joys and sorrows. Finally, the questions are easily explainable to English language learners; that’s an important criteria in our church, which was started specifically to welcome immigrants and internationals and to foster diversity.

Our group continues to gradually learn more and more about each other – what each person cares about, what they are going through, the unique ways they relate to God. And if we are good listeners, then each person has a chance to feel heard, valued, and loved.

Around the room tonight, the group’s highs and lows were predictably varied. My twelve-year old’s high was that there was no school on Monday; My kindergartener was excited that her graduation cap and gown were delivered today. There were a lot of lows pertaining to work – finding work, the wrong work, conflicts at work.

After completing our group examen – although we never actually use that term – we read Psalm 8 together. Psalm 8 juxtaposes God’s glory and the vast universe he’s made with his intimate care for all of his creatures, down to the very smallest. Verse two says “You have taught children and infants to tell of your strength.” Sleeping with Bread and the examen can help parents do just that – partner with God in teaching their children to be aware of both God’s majesty and his daily involvement in their lives. And it’s good for the adults too.

Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction (Book Review)

Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction

by Christine Valters Paintner and Betsy Beckman

The book’s premise is that “a primary way that we can experience God’s mystery is through the process of our own creative expression,” that the “arts are the language of the soul” and that “God has been inviting us into this sacred dialogue since the earliest awakenings of humanity.” Art is individual, but also collective, rooted in human memory (the authors are fans of Jungian dreamwork) as well as in the primal rhythms and movements of communication between mother and child. The authors link art with right-brain activity, and claim that art making can bring balance between the two hemispheres of the brain, with their different kinds of wisdom. They conclude that we all have divine creativity within us, meaning we are all in essence artists, and write from this same perspective of openness towards many religions and spiritual experiences.

The authors describe the expressive arts as similar to prayer in that the focus is the process, not the outcome. The art-making process is a kind of pilgrimage – a journey that risks the unknown as a way to encounter the sacred. It is also a way to create a tabernacle for the inner self – to create space and welcome for one of the many voices inside you clamoring for attention to emerge, and be heard.

In the context of spiritual direction, the spiritual director becomes an “artist for the soul,” and the artistic process is an invitation to listen to the self without judgment, and to be fully present in the moment.  The book includes guidelines for the direction experience – confidentiality, mindfulness, honoring limits, risk-taking, honoring wisdom, and expressing needs to the group – as well as initial guidelines for engaging the arts that are too many to list here, but would be useful for any practitioner.

The book is broken into three sections: Spiritual Direction and the Arts, Explorations of Different Art Modalities, and Working in Different Life Contexts. It’s a nice mix of background and underlying philosophy, examples of exercises, snippets of artistic products (poems, Psalms, photographs of artwork, descriptions of dances), and responses to exercises from a variety of people, both directors and workshop participants. Each exercise is keyed with a symbol so the reader can easily tell what modality is used, whether storytelling, imagination, movement, visual art, music, or poetry.

Paintner and Beckman have created a useful resource / toolkit for those interested in using art in spiritual direction, either with individual directees or with groups. I do think that experiential learning in addition to reading the book would be helpful, and perhaps necessary, for most people who wanted to use these modalities, especially if (like me in several of these areas) you lack expertise or comfort in the arts.