When I was growing up, my family took a summer road trip out west. My parents, who were former experiential educators, always made good use of each “teachable moment.” We stopped at historical markers where Conestoga wagons left ruts in the prairie or where people made dangerous ferry crossings along the Oregon Trail. After my older sister and I endured a history lesson, we went into the tourist-trap stores that had sprung up around these sites. We begged for rock candy and little drawstring bags filled with “fool’s gold”—the garish, shiny crumbles of this gold look-alike, which tricked many a pioneer eager to strike it rich in the great American West.
These stores would invariably have small sieves we could borrow to use in the nearby creek, an object lesson in searching for our own gold in the wilderness. My big sister and I, our cheeks and fingers sticky from rock candy, would pull on our baseball hats and carry the sieves to the banks of the Deschutes River, squatting in the easy manner of children, our stork-like legs folding neatly underneath us. Back and forth, back and forth, I would move my sieve through the sand and water. Each time the sand would filter right through, leaving behind the occasional snail shell or stubby stick, but no gold.
The movement was meditative, soothing; back and forth, back and forth. And though we never found any gold—not even fool’s gold—we kept trying, kept hoping that some shiny nugget would land in our sieve.
Sifting for gold is a good metaphor for a spiritual discipline that has, in the smallest of ways, been transforming my life. For the last six months, my husband and I have been practicing the Examen together. It’s the last thing we do before dropping off to sleep. The four-hundred-year-old practice is straightforward; otherwise, we’d never manage it while tired and ready for bed, our teeth brushed and eyes heavy. As we face each other, our heads resting on side-by-side pillows, we ask each other about the most joyful and least joyful part of our day. Easy, right?
Even though it’s simple, Saint Ignatius of Loyola said the daily Examen is the most important of all prayer; that if his monks had to forgo his other spiritual exercises, they should not forgo the Examen. This is good news for someone like me who has struggled with prayer. It’s even good news for my husband, who doesn’t believe in God at all, but knows the power of regular, reflective practices.
Where have I experienced joy today? Where have I felt pain? The Examen asks me to take a sieve and move it back and forth, back and forth, through my day. I remember the fight my husband and I had over grocery shopping. I recall the harsh words I spoke to our toddler during his umpteenth meltdown of the day. I remember the giggles of my kids when they wrestled with their dad before bedtime and the great yoga class I took at the YMCA. I feel gratitude for my parents, who offered to babysit, for the neighbor who stopped to chat.
If I never pause to reflect, to consider the moments caught in my sieve, I would forget the good things. Richard Rohr writes about the neuroscience of negative bias, which is the way our brains latch onto criticism. A disparaging comment will stick to our minds like Velcro the moment it’s spoken. Compliments are the opposite: they slide right through. Unless we sit with joy, actively meditating on the good for at least fifteen seconds, the memory of that affirmation will sift through our minds. And in a world where despairing news is constantly ricocheting through our social media feeds, grabbing hold of joy is essential.
When we first got married, my husband and I asked our friends and families for marriage advice. One piece we got often was, “Don’t go to bed angry,” which I never really understood. When I’m angry, one of the best things I can do is go to sleep—recalibrate, rest those angry neurons, and wake up ready to restore the relationship. But sometimes I sleep on my anger in hopes that it will just go away. And it’s that avoidance the Examen confronts, forcing me to face painful emotions. It gives me a chance to explain to my husband why that snide comment hurt so much, or to apologize for not being patient earlier in the day. Even if total reconciliation doesn’t happen, having a safe space to air those grievances has been helpful. I’ve found I can speak them and let them go.
Ignatian spirituality teaches that it’s God’s will that we experience more of God and, therefore, more love and peace. It’s God’s will that we would know life abundant; overflowing, dripping downward, spilling out to nourish others. Identifying the areas of life where there is joy is a clear indication of God’s activity in our lives and that we should be doing more of that thing. More tickle fights, more walks in the woods, more early mornings spent writing.
In the same way, the areas of life that take our joy—a long morning commute in traffic, a toxic relationship, a life-sucking task—are also potential signs. Recurring areas of stress are indications that something might need to change. If your job consistently shows up in your nightly Examen ingratitude list, then maybe it’s time to consider a change. The Examen is a tool for discernment, a way to identify what is valuable in your life.
And meditating on the good things—those gold nuggets that get caught in my sieve—has changed my brain. I wake up more grateful for my children, who reliably make my “greatest joy” list. When the light catches the trees and the summer wind makes the leaves pinwheel and dance, I stop and consider that this is what I will have the most gratitude for in my day when I do the Examen later.
As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
In my parents’ basement a few years ago, I found a small canvas sack of fool’s gold—a relic from that western road trip over twenty years earlier. Loosening the drawstring top, I shook a few brassy clumps into the palm of my hand.
As the light caught its garish shine, I wondered, What did the faces of those westward-bound pioneers look like when they first caught the rocks laced with pyrite in their sieve, thinking they had struck gold? After all that work chasing the dream of easy wealth, they must have been grinning like fools. They were high with excitement. They had a long way to fall.
Once they learned the truth, those dreamers must have sat in the dust of disillusionment and skepticism, a place with which I am well acquainted. Why sift again through the river when all that turns up is seemingly false hope? Could they trust their senses, their ability to discern between what was real and what was fake?
Why engage with an ancient spiritual practice when some days God’s presence feels like a joke, like playing make-believe?
Pyrite, the mineral in fool’s gold, isn’t worth much, but it develops under conditions similar to when gold develops. Catching pyrite in one’s sieve is a signal that true gold is nearby, sometimes intertwined in the same rock. That’s a good enough reason to keep sifting, seeking, searching. To grab at any glimmer of God, by any means possible.