Americans trace our celebration of Thanksgiving Day back to the Pilgrims. But harvest celebrations go back to the earliest agricultural societies. Autumn is harvest time, a reality we are not sensitive to anymore because so few of us put plants in the ground and harvest their produce when it is ripe.
Not so many decades ago, most people in this country had a direct relationship to dirt and growing things. Quite a few of us now, in the country but also in suburb and city, have gone back to gardens, for various reasons. Perhaps this is because we still sense, in our very bodies, that it is good to cycle through times of gathering and gratitude.
We know that we cannot simply plant seeds, and plant, and plant some more. The next thing must happen: the work of helping seeds burst their shells and grow into their future selves. But they cannot grow forever, and neither can we. We carry an acute need for harvest; we long for the growing thing to bloom or bear fruit. We long for our own lives to produce something tangible and good. In a sense, we do grow forever until we die. There is always interior evolution, even as the body decays and fades. We feel within our lives a continuing movement underneath the daily actions. However, we are not programmed to attend this constant movement forever and without pause. We need times of stopping, times of assessing. Times of harvesting—what I call gathering times. Autumn can be a period of profound gathering.
St. Ignatius of Loyola possessed a canny sense of interior movement and growth. His Spiritual Exercises help people attend the movements and changes in their souls and use that information for ongoing discernment. But Ignatius was a driven kind of guy. Back when he was a soldier, he was 150 percent there. When he converted to become a man who served not an earthly king but the King of Kings, he was just as ambitious to do this Christian soldiering well. Not surprisingly, his drive and focus got in the way of the growing he needed to do, and God got through to Ignatius over time, teaching him a more measured and healthy way to move forward. One prayer that helped Ignatius—and this is the prayer he considered the most important in the daily life of a Jesuit—is the Examen.
The Examen is a prayer of review. I consider it a gathering prayer. To do this prayer, you look back over your day or over a portion of your day. You ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in this review so that you see your life honestly. And you do a little harvesting. You notice the moments when God’s grace was apparent: the good conversation, the comfort of a friend’s glance, the task you were able to do well, the snap decision you made not to react to someone in anger. These are fruits of your growing life in God. They grow from your own personality and gifts and work. They also grow out of your community with others, as the fruit of another person’s harvest might bring you crucial help. Some of them grow without any help from you whatsoever—they simply happen because this is God’s garden, too.
So, you harvest the good fruits of your day. You savor the memory of them. Maybe you become a bit teary-eyed about an instant that blessed you. And you give thanks. Yes, you pause, take a deep breath, and say thank-you for this harvest—and it’s only Tuesday! Tomorrow will have a harvest of its own.
The Examen prayer also provides an opportunity to see what did not go so well. Your response might be to say, “Sorry” and ask forgiveness, from God or another person. Then you end the prayer looking toward tomorrow, the next day, asking for the help you think you will need.
The shape of the Examen can fit an hour, a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Because it is autumn now, we can apply this prayer to the past year, thanking God for the illnesses survived, the relationships mended, the marriage or the birth, the reunion with loved ones, the employment found or the help found when the employment was lost. Looking over several months is not a ten-minute project; this gathering time can last an hour or a few days. But it is worth the energy and attention to gather up our memories, pause with them to say “thanks,” “sorry,” or “help,” and use that spiritual momentum to power us through the winter holidays and into the beginning of the year to come.
What do I gather from this year of my life? What are the shapes, textures, colors, sounds, tastes, and intuitions that are my harvest? Can I meditate on these gifts? Do I find abundance here? If not abundance, then how would I describe this harvest? How do I respond to what I gather from my one, holy life?
Contributor: Vinita Hampton Wright
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Vinita Hampton Wright has been a book editor in the religion market for 26 years, serving as editor for Loyola Press for 19 years. She's an author of fiction (Dwelling Places, HarperOne) and nonfiction (The Soul Tells a Story, IVP; The Art of Spiritual Writing, Loyola Press). Wright presents workshops and retreats on writing, creativity, prayer, and Ignatian spirituality. She lives in Chicago with her husband.