Whenever someone sees me to discuss some problem or difficulty, one of the first things I ask him/her to do is to step back from the situation and regain perspective.
This process is also one of the key elements in the formation program we run, mainly for public-school teachers, but also for other sectors. We bring our participants in the program back to their dreams; the meaning or mission they once saw with great clarity; the dream—the original inspiration—that made them leave “home,” their comfort zone, and take the journey they are in now. It is regaining perspective.
One simple exercise we do in our formation sessions is to ask a volunteer to look at a painting from a distance and describe it. The volunteer will describe its beauty, the scenery, the colors. We request him/her to go closer to the painting, and place his/her face an inch or two away from the artwork. Then we ask, “What do you see now?”
Often the initial response is, “Nothing.” We would ask them to concentrate and try to describe what they see. Then they begin to talk about the rough strokes of the painting, start making sense of blurred figures, etc.
Most of us go through this point in our journey, losing perspective and seeing “nothing” in our life. There are so many terms to describe the experience: depression, burnout, desolation, spiritual dryness, crisis, the dark night of the soul.
This Sunday’s Gospel portrays this experience in an almost cinematic manner. In the darkness of night, or early morning, around 3 a.m., and in the midst of strong waves and winds, the disciples were gripped with fear as their boat was tossed in the sea. Then Jesus appears “walking on the sea.”
The disciples’ first reaction was to be terrified, thinking Jesus was a ghost. But Jesus’ words steadied them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus makes them regain perspective. This gives us a good process to go through when we lose perspective. “Take courage,” face adversity with—as the dictionary defines courage—calmness and firmness. It is not simply being brave and meeting the challenge head on, but it is to be calm and firm, to step back and regain composure, to attain balance again or equanimity.
The process then leads us back to our interior center—“It is I.” We go back to the centrality of Jesus in our life.
In a recent seminar we ran for different groups—people for the corporate world, schools, local government units, parishes, and civic/religious organizations—we made them do an exercise of writing their schedule of a typical day from the time they get out of bed to the time they get back to bed to sleep.
Then, across each activity, we ask them to identify the role they play in doing the activity, i.e., as mother/father, wife/husband, colleague, mentor, friend, daughter/son. For each role, we make them reflect on the expectations they believe come with each role.
This is always an eye-opener for people. They realize how a simple day can pull us in all directions and how we often lose sight of our center. Not rooted and grounded in this center, when problems or crises set in, we often panic, and going back to our center or regaining perspective does not become our default mode. This is when, hopefully, we realize the need for that center, the centrality of our relationship with Jesus— “It is I.”
There is an Ignatian prayer called the “examen.” It is to be prayed at mid-day and at the end of the day. It is a good example of developing that sense of “take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
It has five steps: An awareness of God’s presence as one looks back on the day’s events; reviewing the day with a sense of gratitude; being aware of one’s interior movements, one’s emotions or feelings as one went through the different moments of the day; focusing on one key moment, allowing the spirit to lead you to this moment and praying from this moment; and looking ahead at the next half of the day or the following day, seeking God’s presence and guidance and looking ahead with hope.
(Please refer to the Loyola Press website for a detailed description of the examen.)
The last step in the examen makes us face the future without fear—“Do not be afraid.” A fearlessness that springs from a sense of gratitude developed from an awareness of God’s presence in our day-to-day life.
There is a story that made the rounds of the Internet in the late ’90s. I am not sure if it is a Fr. Anthony de Mello, SJ, story.
It tells of this tourist attraction supposedly in one of the Asian countries. Several times a day, a show had a man walking on a rope over the falls and a kid sitting on his shoulders as he did this. What made the show even more thrilling was that the man was blind.
At the end of one of the shows, one spectator asked the kid, “Are you not afraid that he might slip, and being blind, don’t you think the risks of him not being able to save you are higher?” The kid, without any hesitation, responded, “No, I do not fear that, not at all. He will surely keep me safe. He is my father.”
“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
This is a mantra that can accompany us on our journey. It will always give us the ability to live the day to day within the horizon of our dream and mission. In trying times, it helps us keep, if not regain, perspective. It centers us in our dream and mission, rooting and grounding us in our central relationship with Jesus, and makes us not just fearless in living our life but calm and firm, grateful and hopeful because “He is my father.”