When my mother thought the garage would make a nice study, my father—a talented designer, builder and woodsmith—got to work. She eventually took her leisure in a splendid room lined with bookcases and boasting a fireplace with hidden storage, but she’d had to trust him about it, because Dad never drew out a plan. He just kept it all in his head.
We children apprenticed, and would hand off hammers, wood planes, plumb bobs, and vises to him—like nurses to a particularly intense surgeon—while he worked.
My favorite of his tools was the level—the long steel frame with three round windows containing marked tubes filled with liquid. When the little bubble in the tube was centered between the markings, it signaled that a balance had been achieved; the lines were straight, the measure sound.
My depression-era father, who had left school in the fourth grade in order to work, probably had no idea that when he pronounced, “In the middle is perfection,” he was echoing Aristotle in praise of the “via media”—the desirable golden mean that signifies a right-effort.
The via media speaks to the life of faith, too. We seek stability as, with God’s help, we continually do the interior work of spiritual repair and new construction. Virtus in medio stat, wrote Thomas Aquinas: “Virtue lies in the middle,” away from the extremes and all that is out of order or unbalanced. As with that bubble in the level when it is dead center, when we are aligned with God, we are aligned with the center of all things.
During the seasonal pageantries of the church we need to frequently check ourselves and judge whether we are maintaining a proper balance in our observances—neither overdoing Lent to an overscrupulous degree, nor becoming so lazy in Easter as to keep grace at a distance. Our renewed excitement over Christ’s victory over death often requires a recalibration of sorts: we need to take another look at the work we have done, discern which tools we can put away for now, which we must keep handy, and which we need to pick up as we head toward Pentecost.
The one indispensable tool, however, is that level—the sacred gauge that can warn us when we have lost our center and are working on something that is tilted and liable to collapse under pressure. For me, this gauge is St. Ignatius Loyola’s examen—a five-step process of discerning my own spiritual drift, so I can make adjustments early and often.
The meditation begins with Light: we can see nothing in darkness, and so we ask God to give us his light, that we might look back on our day not only with our own eyes but his as well. Like Bartimeaus, we want to see. (Mark 10:51).
The second step is Thanksgiving: a sincere expression of gratitude for the day itself, which is a gift. Cultivating a daily sense of gratitude is essential to developing a consistent sense of joy.
After Thanksgiving, we make a Review of the whole day we have just lived through, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide our attention most particularly to what God wishes us to notice and dwell upon. There is always something to learn.
Then, we Recognize where we have failed or fallen short: as with any good examination of conscience, we face up to our faults. Perhaps we were so preoccupied with ourselves that we missed another’s need, or lost our temper without just cause. This is where we check that gauge: were we moving away from God, who is at the center, or moving nearer? What was the catalyst to pull us out of balance in either case, and can we entrust it all to the Lord, in his mercy?
Finally, because we do trust in that mercy, we let it go, and Look toward tomorrow—really go into the details of what is before us and where we know we will need God’s help.
The examen concludes with an Our Father.
We need this tool kept at the ready, each day, because it doesn’t take much for us to lose our equilibrium. Every new bit of stimulus, from a troubling headline to an unexpected celebration, can tempt us away from where we want to be. Trained in the examen, we learn to detach from much that comes our way—everything doesn’t have to impact us in dramatic ways. Some things can simply blow by.
We do well to consider how difficult it must have been for the Apostles to maintain a sense of spiritual steadiness. Imagine entering Jerusalem with Jesus amid palms—“the throng wild with joy” (Psalm 42:5). It must have felt like a promise of future conquest.
And yet within days, the same mobs, malleable and ever-fickle, were calling for crucifixion. Jesus was dead, and Peter and the rest were hiding in an upper room. Imagine one’s bubble drifting first in one direction—trending triumphal—and then veering into the other direction, full of fear and doubt; in neither case able to find the still center, where God resides.
Disorientation must have doubled when Jesus appeared to Mary of Magdala. He entered the upper room and talked to the apostles while noshing on a little baked fish!
Forever after, their lives were full of challenges and upheavals; there were shipwrecks, imprisonments and in-fighting, and those bloody martyrdoms by which the faith was seeded and grown.
Up and down. Back and forth. The Church was built through a shifting of triumph and tragedy, over and over again. Just like our lives. Each shift requires another glance at the level to ensure that we’re building something straight, sane, and strong.
Life can change on a dime, so to speak, and when it does, it is always confounding, sometimes even frightening. But to be mindful of how regularly each day brings us slip-sliding into the next helps us maintain a balance in how we receive and process what happens around us, and whether or not we permit the unavoidable highs and lows of life—all the spiritual and mental jostling we cannot prevent—from disturbing our centered balance in Christ, who is our peace.