When I was in high school in southern Virginia, my dad bought a 27-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser. It was not a big boat by Destin standards, but at the time it seemed to me to be a veritable yacht. Like any kid my age, I wanted to learn how to run the thing. It is precisely at the moment I voiced my desire that I was introduced to a whole new world of discipline.
A fighter pilot by profession and passion, my dad spent his adult life working to stay alive in a world filled with lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. One of the ways pilots lessen those risks is by adhering to rigorous pre-flight checks before and post-flight checks after every mission. Dad applied the same principle to the operation of our boat. I can still remember all of the steps he went through before he ever turned the key in the ignition to start the engine.
Among them was what he called “the smell check.” We had a single gasoline-powered inboard engine. The “smell check” involved lifting a heavy wooden hatch on the aft deck and sniffing for any gas fumes. The hatch remained open until the engine started. Then we proceeded through the rest of Dad’s check-list. I was rather irritated by what I considered to be unnecessary and time-consuming practices on a new boat. That irritation ceased the day we arrived at the marina only shortly after another boat owner had started his inboard gasoline engine without a smell check — and blown his 40-pound hatch through the hard top of his vessel!
Years later as a young clergyman I found myself spending time in the company of some Roman Catholic Jesuits. I discovered that they had adopted for their journey in the faith the spiritual equivalent of a pre- and post-flight check. They called it an “Awareness Examen” and they performed it every day. Shortly thereafter I discovered that the Jesuits weren’t the only ones who did this. In fact, all sorts of Christians have done something similar for centuries. The Jesuit version was pages long, very specific, and had the person look at every aspect of his life in the presence of the Lord.
I am not a Jesuit, but the idea of such a discipline captured my imagination. Having a time each day to go before the Lord, to reflect on how the past day went, and to ready myself for the day to come, seemed not just a good idea but a great one. So I resolved to do so. The problem was that my daily schedule as husband, father of young children, and priest of a growing congregation was full to overflowing. Long and involved daily spiritual introspection was realistically not going to happen, so I shortened the Examen to three questions I could ask myself while I brushed my teeth, took my shower, or drove to work:
Lord, in what ways either consciously or subconsciously did I walk with you this day?
Lord, in what ways either consciously or subconsciously did I do things my way without you?
How might I have done things differently?
Three simple questions, but through them the Lord has deepened my relationship with him. The first thing I discovered is that the Lord uses the initial question to remind me just how much he is a part of my life every day. Looking back over the past 24 hours, God lets me rejoice to see how much my faith plays a role in a lot of what I think, say and do. Yea!
The second question, however, gives me the reality check that my default position is to do what I want when I want without giving much thought to him. As I go through the past day, the Spirit reveals to me the times when I took the reins of my life as if everything depended on me. Ouch!
The last question gives the Spirit an opportunity to help me think through how I could have handled events and people during the past day in ways that would better reflect him. This is particularly helpful because, while life can be incredibly complex, there are really only a few themes — pride, anger, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and sloth. Every sin we experience is simply a variation on one of those themes. Thus, as the Spirit leads me to how I might have handled a particular situation better, he is at the same time preparing me to better handle the underlying sin when next I encounter it.
Keeping up with my dad’s check-list before and after each boat trip took time, but diligently following it enabled us to spot problems and address them while they were still small, way before something catastrophic and even life-threatening happened. Being diligent in a spiritual awareness examen does very much the same thing — it both encourages us where we are doing well and enables us to spot potential problems in our journey in faith before they cause real damage. Hurray!
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Mike Hesse, former senior pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, is now retired and living in Destin.