By Philip Nahlik
The crowning athletic achievements of my life are two silver medals from my only season on the freshman wrestling team at St. Louis University High School. Despite my long dry spell in the athletic world, I have recently begun to appreciate the value of taking five minutes to stretch my muscles to prepare myself for any physical activity in my day. I prioritize this time every day to ensure that my muscles will be ready to function when I need them for anything more intensive than my ten minute walk across campus.
Similarly, I have found value in my daily Examen to stretch my awareness and expression of gratitude in my life. I make time in my crammed schedule for this spiritual stretch, because I know that it prepares me for more demanding exercises in the future. The Spiritual Exercises require a more intensive use of my reflective muscles, just as a wrestling tournament requires the intensive use of other muscles. Both of these strenuous activities require different types of training and commitment. My experiences with the Exercises would not have been the same without first straining to say my Examen every day or struggling to enter imaginatively into Scripture. I have experienced the Spiritual Exercises mostly in an academic setting, either in a classroom or through a school-sponsored retreat. Although short, certain moments of studying the Exercises have allowed me to deepen my understanding of my relationship with God through Scripture and through my imagination. For example, one time in reflecting on the Annunciation, I thought about what Mary would have been doing before and after talking with Gabriel. I can imagine her working on household chores inside, as she is often depicted. Then after her life-changing conversation, she may have had a moment of thinking about whether she could or should go back to doing the same mundane chores. This imagining brought out two points for me. Firstly, that God can enter our lives even in everyday moments to change us permanently. Secondly, when life-changing events occur in my life, I have the choice of responding lovingly and openly as Mary did or of continuing to live my life as if it had not changed at all. This segment of the Spiritual Exercises especially prompts me be receptive to these significant moments in my life where I have a chance to say “Yes” and to grow for the better.
The invitation of the Spiritual Exercises to imagine conversations with Jesus has helped my understanding of my personal relationship with him. Often, it is easy for me to appreciate Christ as an idea or as a historical figure, but it is much more difficult for me to think about my relationship with Jesus as a someone with a personality, who has conversations, who makes jokes, and who cares intimately for me as an individual. In reflecting on Peter's threefold denial of Jesus, I imagined what I would say as Peter in talking with Jesus after this denial. As a result of my daily Examens, I was able to connect moments when I had a high opinion of my own morality, compared to which I fell vastly short in my actions. How could I justify that moment when I ignored a friend whom I had not seen in a while because I was in a hurry, even though I like to congratulate myself on keeping up with old friends? In imaginative conversation with Christ, I realized I had failed to live up to my own standards and promises as Peter did. I imagined Jesus bluntly telling me, “Yeah, you messed up.” Then he might say, “But you can always come back and make it right again.” Just as Peter made a threefold profession of love for Christ, this reflection helped me to seek amends after making mistakes both with friends and in my relationship with Jesus. The use of imagination and Ignatian contemplation has helped me to envision more readily the personal relationship of Jesus with myself and with others.
These experiences have helped me carve out both short and long periods to prepare for living each new day for the greater glory of God. It is one thing to pray that I may “toil and not seek for rest,” but my experiences of the Spiritual Exercises have shown me that the most abundant toiling in my life will require me to stretch a little first.
Philip Nahlik attended St. Louis University High School and is now a junior at Loyola University Chicago.