‘The disciples gathered around Jesus and they told him all that they had done.’
The disciples had been out on mission, and what an exciting experience they must have had! Jesus had sent them out two by two, with no provisions, just sandals on their feet and a staff in their hand. They preached, cast out demons, anointed the sick, and healed many people of their sickness. They must have been so excited. In our Gospel today, they have just come back from the mission, and they are telling Jesus all about it.
I have a really vivid picture in my mind of what that must have been like: all talking excitedly together; ‘Jesus, guess what happened! I anointed this man with oil and immediately he was made well. There were so many sick people coming to us, and we laid our hands upon them and prayed, and they were all made well. It was amazing. God be praised! Yes, but we two went into this town and they wanted nothing to do with us, told us to clear off! They refused to listen to our teaching. We were really disappointed, but we did as you said, and we left the town, shaking off the dust on our feet.’ It must have been very moving for Jesus to hear his spiritual children recounting their experiences. They had clearly grown and learned so much through the experience, and it is now that Mark’s Gospel for the first time calls them ‘apostles’ – they had kind of ‘graduated’! But Jesus could tell that they were also really exhausted. Ministry is hard work. So, with the kindness and gentleness of a good shepherd or a good parent, he says to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’
I think this image of the disciples gathered around Jesus is so vivid and powerful for me because it reminds me of when I was at school, with my two brothers and my sister. Every afternoon we would come home on the bus at about 4 o’clock, and as we walked through the front door, always, always, there was our mother waiting to greet us, with the kitchen table prepared for tea; sandwiches, biscuits, cakes, all waiting to be wolfed down by hungry children. We all gathered around our mother, all of us talking excitedly about our day. Guess what happened in chemistry today. Lunch was awful. I got a brilliant grade in my geography homework. Someone tripped me up in the playground. And all the while our mother listened, encouraged, consoled, handed out more cakes. We didn’t know at the time of course, but looking back I can see how that daily gathering over the tea table was incredibly important for our growth as children. As we gathered around our mother and described our day, the fun bits, the sad bits, our hopes, our fears, our anger, our confusion, we were learning, and growing in understanding and maturity. The same thing was happening when those disciples gathered around Jesus to talk about their days on mission. They described their experiences and feelings, their hopes and fears, and as they spoke, Jesus was gently guiding and encouraging them, feeding their souls, restoring their spirits.
You may not have had the same experience growing up as I had. You may have longed for someone you could really trust to talk to at the end of the day, a wise person who would listen with love and without judgment. You may long for such a person in your life right now. When I came to faith, one of my greatest discoveries was that just as those disciples could speak freely and openly with Jesus, so could I; and that all of us are invited into such a relationship with Jesus. It was wonderful to sit down in the evening and look back over the day in company with him. At first it seemed quite strange to be able to chat with God so freely. But as I did so, I felt God’s hand gently guiding and ‘restoring’ me.
I hadn’t realized that I had stumbled upon a type of prayer which is beautifully described by that great Saint Ignatius of Loyola. He calls it the Examen. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius shares his discovery that God is present and active in all of our life, even in the most ordinary parts of the day. We don’t have to look for God in just the specially ‘holy bits’! Of course, we don’t always notice God in the day to day, in the ordinary moments of life. The Examen is really about helping us start ‘paying attention’. The Examen is a way of reflecting on the day which has passed in companionship with Jesus, and recalling the people and events and feelings that seem significant, and trying to detect, to discern where God was at work in our lives. The word ‘Examen’ is a Latin word, and not easy to translate into English. The word ‘examination’ is not quite right – it sounds far too forensic! Rather it is a gentle and non-judgmental reflection on the day that has passed, in the presence of one who knows and loves us more than we can imagine. So much has been written about the Examen, and there’s lots on line, but I’d like to share just a little of my own experience of this prayer, to see if you might find it inviting.
I usually pray the Examen in the evening, sitting in a comfortable chair, often holding a mug of tea. If I’m a little sleepy that’s all to the good! I start with a prayer for the gift of light, to look back over the day and remember it clearly, and also for the gift of wisdom, to understand what I see. I then recall the day, letting my mind gently drift back over what happened, people I met, and also what were my thoughts, my moods, my feelings. I describe them all to God. Eventually I ask two questions. The first is, ‘What’s given me life today? What did I feel good about today?’ I then give thanks. That’s really important, to give thanks before everything else. Thank you, God, for what happened today which gave me joy, for the people who made me happy, for the joy I brought to others. I then ask a second question: ‘So what drained me today? What was the biggest struggle? When did I feel angry, sad, helpless? Did I do or say something which upset or hurt another? I share it all with God. I may then ask God for forgiveness, or ask God to help me understand my feelings, my needs. I then look forward to tomorrow, and ask God to be with me in every part of the day, and especially those parts which I’m not looking forward to, where I need particular strength or guidance.
During the pandemic and especially in lockdown, when time became fluid, each day merged with the next, and suddenly another week was over, I found this prayer really helpful in ‘marking’ each day, pausing and as it were, putting a frame around it, and saying, ‘This day was a gift from God, a precious, unique day. Thank you for the gift of today.’
Praying this prayer puts me in touch with those early memories with my brothers and sister, gathered around our mother after school. It puts me in touch with those disciples gathered around Jesus after their mission. But it also puts me in touch with something even more ancient and venerable, the very opening pages of the Book of Genesis. There we read the magnificent account of the Six Days of Creation. What I find most moving about this account is what God does at the end of each sacred day. God pauses, looks back at the day that has passed and ‘sees that it was good.’ That divine pause at the end of the day, the declaration that the day was good, hallows that day and makes it holy. When we pause at the end of a day, and look back at the day past, in the presence of God, we too are doing something sacred. Before the day closes we are thanking God for the precious gift of that day. We are declaring that it was good.
Year B Pentecost 8
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