For years my mother has been dealing with a host of medical problems. Since I was 9 years old, I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t sick. Often I’ve sat by her hospital bedside comforting her while I was falling apart inside. When the depression that accompanies pain and illness enveloped her, my father and sister would grow increasingly depressed as well. As a teenager and throughout my young adulthood, I have usually been the one who has talked my family off of the proverbial ledge.
But in helping to guide my family through their dark moments I have sometimes felt that—though both my mother and father are still alive—I have lost my parents. I have become the grown-up now, the parent of my parents. In the last few years especially, as my mother’s health has declined significantly, I have had to be the brave one, rationally discerning options for her care.
I recently shared some of these difficulties with a Jesuit priest-friend who responded by asking: “Who do you get to be “The Pieta” with?” I was confounded by the reference. The Pieta (pictured) is Michelangelo’s priceless 16th century sculpture of the dead body of Jesus lying in the arms of his mother, Mary. It is the epitome of pure vulnerability. Sadly, I wasn’t sure if there was anyone in whose arms I could lie during my weakest moments.
He reminded me of St. Ignatius’ great spiritual discipline known
as the examen; a practice that he encouraged me to use in my own prayer life. Like rewinding a film, each evening before bed I review the events of that day and pay attention to the moments that pop out at me. I try to look at these moments objectively and then notice what feelings bubble up to the surface as I watch. I usually ask myself what I feel grateful about in the given moment and what I feel ashamed or uneasy about. I then pray with gratitude and also for forgiveness for the moment of insight I receive. It is the one moment of my day where I can simply be.
Inevitably, during my examen at least one person per day comes to mind with whom I can let my guard down and share my most vulnerable moments. I often forget that I have the support of some good friends, ministry colleagues, and of course, my wife. When I think that I am all alone, I find solace in my daily examen—God’s reminder to me that I am not alone.
It’s no coincidence that I do my examen in front of a crucifix and with a picture of the pieta on my computer screen nearby. In both images our Lord is defenseless. In the first, Jesus dares to ask “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” And in the second, our Lord has given up his spirit and the son of God finally rests in the arms of his mother. How humbling those moments must have been for the human and even the divine Jesus, upon whom so many depended. How difficult that moment must have been for Mary to receive the dead body of her son and God.
I have found that God is most present to me in my deepest wounds and for me that is a sacrament, a sacred outward sign, where Jesus lies in solidarity with my own suffering. For me, this is my true communion with the blood of Christ.
I close my examen each day with a prayer for the strength to simply be present in all my human brokenness with others in my life, without any need for pride. I thank God for those in my life who reach out to me in my weakness. But above all I pray that, when necessary, I will be humble enough to allow myself to be The Pieta.