Public Realms, Quiet Gifts
"I didn't even know he was sick."
In public spaces the day after news of pop icon David Bowie's passing became public information, it was a common sentiment. It was the sentiment of flabbergast, as if death seemed irreconcilable with a persona so large. It was a sentiment that seemed to fit with my own most vivid memory of Bowie, trapped somewhere between fantasy and reality, with those eyebrows and that hair and the gaze of the Goblin King in Jim Henson's 1987 film Labyrinth.
He died three years ago. But I still remembering being struck by how many times I heard the statement. "I didn't even know he was sick." "I didn't even know he had cancer." It is the honest shock of a public so accustomed to the knowledge of everything and anything filed away in public realms of accessible information and social media over-sharing. The shock of the death of an icon is compounded by the shock that we somehow missed the immensely personal news of his diagnosis, followed by the shock that we didn't know because it actually wasn't trending news, that we didn't know because that he didn't actually share it in the first place.
There are times when we are given glimpses of the status quo and invited to see it somewhere beyond "life as usual." If ever so briefly, like fish learning to see the very water in which they are submersed, it is a gift if we will receive it. We live in a world of news feeds that never stop offering us something on which to comment, something to forward or post, tweet or retweet, something to fleetingly consume like ravenous furnaces burning through information in kindling-like segments at a time. We are expected to share everything with friends defined by our social media circles, people who, in the original sense of the word, are likely closer to strangers. What once would have been understandably and guardedly private is now fodder for sharing on public walls, "walls" we are so at home with that we fail to question how they are changing the very people they contain. Our own walls included, we seem somehow less able to imagine what might exist on the other side.
An unlikely, counterintuitive practice of prayer called the examen may offer to train our eyes to see beyond the barrage of public news-feeds which invite us to imagine that we can know everything, have a right to access anything, and a need to share it all. I say unlikely because in a world obsessed with a public domain for sharing self-made profiles and walls of endless information, prayer, or any such habit that smacks of religion, is strictly restricted to private realms, stored quietly somewhere behind our public personas. Prayer as a solution is further unlikely because by the world's standards it is at the very least unproductive, if not crazy: What utility does prayer serve? What information is gleaned? And with whom are we sharing if it's not actually made "public"? But I also say counterintuitive because the examen is a practice that looks backward on the day as a way of learning to see presently. Quite counterintuitively, we listen to our lives by coming "in secret" to the one who sees the public and the private—the one for whom there is no division between these realms in the first place.(1)
First practiced by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Christian Jesuit movement in the fourteenth century, the examen asks two questions at the day's end, though these questions can be asked in various ways: Where did I most experience consolation today? Where did I experience desolation? What was the most life-giving encounter today? What was not life-giving? For what was I most grateful today? For what was I least grateful? Conjuring the word "examination," the word examen comes from Latin and refers to the weight indicator on a balance scale. The word itself conveys the idea of an accurate assessment of the true situation and the hope that over time and in the quiet repetition of withdrawing, Christ, self, and neighbor come more openly and truly into focus. Prayer indeed sets aside the demand for utility and the lure of publicity to quietly and wastefully be present with the God of abundance. The examen is a means of listening to and looking after the places where this God is at work giving life, which is what the Father has done abundantly in Christ, and conversely, those areas that are drawing us away from God's life-giving presence. It is a means of silencing the barrage of public information and the temptation to share ourselves in a way that draws attention. Prayer fills us instead with a quiet gratitude, so that we learn to tend closer to these spaces privately and corporately, and in turn, to bring the very countenance of the one who gives life back into the public domain.
In the words of the late David Bowie, I know something is very wrong/ The pulse returns for prodigal sons/ I can't give everything away." Thankfully, we were not meant to give everything away. Mercifully, there is one who has shared so abundantly of himself that it is worth silencing our public clamor to listen more intently for these signs of life. The very human pulse of the Son of God brings us back to ourselves and into the kind arms of the one who sees most clearly.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) "Do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:5-6).