Growing in Gratitude, Thanks to the Examen

The author’s treasured owl mug

A few weeks ago, I was shopping in the grocery store when my eye caught an owl mug sitting on top of the clearance bin. I smiled, carefully took it from the mess of items, and placed it in my basket. I knew it would fit perfectly with several other owl-themed items in my house, and I couldn’t help but love the price tag! Every time fall comes around, I tend to see owl-shaped items that I cannot help but pickup. Why?

My oldest son’s first word was “owl.” It was one of only a handful of words that he had at 18 months old, and I cherished every time I heard it come from his little mouth. I remember seeing an owl ornament at the store that year and buying it for each of his daycare teachers so that we could all remember his first word. At the time, I thought this word would be rapidly followed by others, so I did not want to forget it. However, at 2 years old, it was still only one of a handful. 

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From ages 2 to 5 of my son’s life, we were on a journey trying desperately to figure out why he was not communicating well with us. It was only a couple months shy of his fifth birthday, right around this time of year, that we finally discovered the cause: hearing loss. Once we did, we started a whole new journey of learning about hearing aids and embarking on lots of speech therapy to get him to the happy, inquisitive first grader he is today. 

Gratitude is a popular conversation topic around this time of year, but it is not easy in practice. As a parent, I know all too well how challenging it can be to be grateful when you’re watching your child struggle. For me, it would have been so easy to let myself get caught up in thinking about what might have been if we had only known about the loss sooner, instead of taking time to recognize and treasure the gift of people and technology that gave my son a life bigger than owls. Luckily, I had been introduced many years before to a practice from St. Ignatius of Loyola called the Examen. This daily practice of looking for God’s presence in my days made finding moments of gratitude in even the most challenging times easier. Without the help of St. Ignatius and his gift of the Examen, I think I would have missed so many opportunities for gratitude along the way. 

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St. Ignatius wanted his followers to be contemplatives in action — people of reflection who lived in the world serving others. This meant that finding time to pray each day could be difficult. He often told his followers if they were able to do nothing else prayerfully during the day, they must make the Examen twice daily — once at midday and once at night. The Examen was a brief 10-15 minute prayer during which a person examined their day, looked for where they found God and where it was more difficult to find God. It was a regular, reflective period of time that allowed the person to consistently ask “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?” And, most importantly, this Examen prayer begins with and is rooted in gratitude. 

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Practicing the Examen over the years has given me a tool to both recognize and relish moments of gratitude in my experiences. Regularly asking “Where have I found God present today?” and just as regularly saying “Thank you God for your presence” has allowed me to find God more easily and recognize God’s presence even during more challenging times. It helped me see tougher moments, like the day I sat in the waiting room hearing the confirmation of my son’s hearing loss, as a gift even through my tears. 

I brought home the owl mug from the store that day and immediately made some tea to enjoy in it. As I sipped my tea, I listened to my three boys chattering together about Pokemon in a nearby room. My oldest son was talking about a Pokémon named Tapu Koko. I smiled holding the warm mug close thinking, “My son just said Tapu Koko along with a lot of other complicated, multisyllabic words with ease.” Even — and especially — in these simple daily moments, I can tangibly feel God’s presence. And my heart overflows with gratitude.