As I looked around this morning, I realized that I absolutely must clean my office. I have to admit to you, that’s not something that happens very often. I can handle a certain amount of messiness in my life. It’s not that I necessarily like the clutter, but I have priorities other than cleaning. Clutter and mess also just don’t really bother me most of the time.
That said, sometimes there comes a point where the clutter is just too much for even me to handle. The papers on my desk are out of control. I’m starting to lose track of where things are. This is about the point of messiness when my mind stops functioning properly. Suddenly, things go from organized chaos to just plain chaos, and it’s like this switch flips in my brain and I can’t think of anything else until I have gotten rid of this mess that I don’t even notice most of the time.
Today the switch flipped. And tomorrow, scheduled into my calendar, which is far more neat and organized than my office, is a time for cleaning – for going through papers, putting away books, getting everything back into its proper place.
Eventually, one way or another, every mess we make needs to be cleaned up.
In a month or two, a lot of people will engage in the annual process of spring cleaning. For me, the extent of that is usually switching out my winter and summer clothing, but for many people, spring cleaning is serious business. It’s a time when they go through the house with a fine-tooth comb, scrubbing out neglected corners, shaking the dust from rugs and curtains, weeding through possessions and deciding what should be kept, what is better donated to someone who needs it more, and what can be thrown away. Or better yet, recycled. Every spring, the mess that has been accumulated through another year’s living is straightened up, swept out, put away. Eventually, every mess we make needs to be cleaned up.
Even though I’m not a very dedicated spring cleaner, I like to think of Lent as spring cleaning for the soul. For forty days and forty nights, we are given an opportunity to look into the cobwebby corners of our lives, the places that get neglected and forgotten most of the time, the areas that get passed over in favor of more urgent priorities.
People often call Lent a season of penitence, which conjures up images of self-flagellation or repeated Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I think a fuller understanding of this season is that it is one of self-examination. If we are brave enough to delve into ourselves, this is a time when we are invited to pull our habits off of the internal shelves, take a good, hard look at them, and consider whether they are a benefit to our lives and the lives of others. We are invited to take the time to open those forgotten drawers and pull out those things that we’d usually rather not think about – the emotional equivalents of our 80s pleated, stone-washed, tapered leg jeans. We’re invited to examine our motivations, our thoughts, and our actions, to blow the dust off of all that is good, and to send the garbage outside for pickup. A lot of things can accumulate in a year of living – a lot of beautiful things, and a lot of mess. And eventually, every mess we make needs to be cleaned up.
This is one of the reasons people give things up during Lent, or take up positive new practices: it helps them to examine what is really necessary in life. It slows them down, makes them more mindful, helps them notice the grime on the baseboards and remember that burned out hallway light bulb they keep forgetting to change. Removing or adding things to the daily routine we take for granted can help us be more aware of how much we depend on things that aren’t necessary, and how little time and energy we direct toward our relationships with God, other people, and creation. It’s a tool to help us clean up the messes we sometimes make in our lives. It’s also why we begin this season with ashes: because they represent purification, cleansing, the burning away of things in our lives that are harmful to ourselves or others.
The cleaning metaphor aside, during this Lent, whether or not you choose to give up something or have ashes mark your forehead, I’d like to commend to you an ancient practice called the examen, which is traditionally a daily prayer of reflection and self-examination, but I think it would be appropriate for some spiritual spring-cleaning as well. The examen gives steps in which we become aware of God’s presence, review the day – or year in this case – with gratitude, pay close attention to our own emotions and what God may be saying through them, choose something specific that has happened to pray about, and look toward tomorrow.
Our interior lives are kind of like my office: you might be able to live with the clutter for a while, but eventually, it starts to take over. You can wait, as I have in my office, for it to become overwhelming before you do anything about it, until the mess starts to creep into other areas of life and affect you and those around you. Or you can take this gift of Lent that God gives us, this season of penitence and self-examination. Eventually, one way or another, every mess we make needs to be cleaned up. And we’re in luck: it’s spring cleaning time!
Praying the Examen
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude. Gratitude is the foundation of our relationship with God. Walk through your day in the presence of God and note its joys and delights.
3. Pay attention to your emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day. Ask what God is saying through these feelings.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that God thinks is particularly important. It may be a vivid moment or something that seems insignificant.
5. Look toward tomorrow. Ask God to give you light for tomorrow’s challenges.