By Alli Bobzien
My water bottle clatters to the floor as I struggle to maintain my grip on the stationary bike. Loud pop music blasts through the speakers, slightly muffled by my oh-so-fashionable earplugs, and lights flash in a rave-like fashion. This is far from my ideal workout environment. In fact, for many years the thought of jumping into a new exercise regimen in front of other people would have had me sweating before the workout even started.
Yet somehow, amidst the party-like chaos of this class, I find myself grinning and perfectly at ease with my novice attempts. My feet pedal so far off the beat it’s laughable, but this doesn’t faze me like it usually would. Instead, I am filled with gratitude for my unwieldy, off-balance body. A silent prayer flows from lips: “Thank you for movement. Look what my body is capable of, one step at a time.”
I have not always approached health in this manner. Raised playing sports, I tied my identity closely to athletic ability. Competition thrived, and continual improvement was the name of the game. Giving myself grace when starting a new activity or easing back into exercise is not a strength of mine. However, health humbles you, and this past year taught me the wisdom of gentleness with myself and my body.
My autumn did not go as planned. Over the course of three months, I had accrued eight visits to the emergency room, three surgeries, and a week and a half stay in the hospital. I was weak, exhausted, and minus a few kidney stones and a gallbladder. Suddenly my pre-hospital exercise goals of “three times a week at the gym” became “practice walking down the hall,” “breathe deeply 10 times” and “attempt the stairs.”
Recovery progressed slowly, plans were set by the wayside, and the drastic shift in my abilities began to affect my mental health in a negative way. Then, in my newfound free time spent lying in bed, I started praying with the examen.
In the past, I’ve viewed the examen as a grade for my day: What did I do well? What did I do poorly? How should I improve? How wrong I was! The examen, like so many contemplative practices, is meant to be entered into with gentleness and grace. My new understanding looks more like this:
- Open with gratitude for God’s love. Enter into his presence and feel that love surround you.
- Ask for grace and understanding as you reflect, yearning to see how God is moving in your life.
- Ease back through your day, noting what events or feelings stand out to you.
- Reflect on these moments, both your inward and outward reactions. Contemplate whether these reactions brought you closer to or further from God.
- Look ahead to tomorrow, considering how you might walk more in line with the Lord.
As I slowly recovered, finding solace in the examen, I began using the practice to help reframe my views on health. I would breathe in with gratitude for a healing body, pray for grace in handling my limitations, think back on how I cared for my health that day, and reflect on whether those actions drew me near the Lord or created distance. Then I would think ahead to the following day, considering what could be different and what had been helpful.
Each day, I saw my vision of health expand. When the stairs proved to be a daunting task physically, I made space for that disappointment and then reflected on how taking the time to talk with a friend had improved my mental health. When I found myself falling deep into the crags of comparison on social media, I decided that on the following day texts and phone calls would be a healthier form of communication.
These were not hard-set goals to strive and strain toward; instead, each was entered into with a gentle understanding of doing my best, paired with the knowledge that my best would shift day to day. The examen allowed me to look more closely at what was working and what was not, what was bringing me closer to the Lord and what was driving a wedge in that relationship. Instead of a grade for each day, it was a reflection that allowed for pivots and adjustments. Far from a static standard, the examen is meant to be flexible and grace-filled.
So, months later, as I wobbled and fumbled my way through a stationary biking class, I found this practice filling my mind with gratitude and a deep sense of gentleness toward my own humanity. Granting myself grace in my inelegant moments and trusting in God’s work in my heart, I laugh aloud as I realize that maybe tomorrow, I should try tightening the bike’s screws.
Now it’s your turn. Here is a gentle invitation to practice praying the examen over your health:
- Close your eyes and feel God’s presence and love in how each breath fills you. Offer thanks for your body and the healing or nourishing you practiced today.
- Ask for grace in how you approach limitations, both physical and mental, and gentleness in how you view your humanity.
- Reflect back on your day: How did you care for your mind and body? What moments or feelings stand out to you?
- Contemplate these moments and how they affected you. Instead of categorizing them as good or bad from a strictly health perspective, consider whether they drew you nearer to God or distanced you in your relationship with God.
- Consider your day tomorrow: What are practices that worked well that you can continue? What are things that need an adjustment or pivot?
Alli Bobzien is a full-time mom and a nap-time graduate student of theology at Fuller Seminary. When she isn’t playing outdoors with her two spunky daughters, she writes about nature, family, spirituality and women in Scripture. You can find more of Alli’s writing in her monthly newsletter The Pondering Heart and on Instagram @bobz.alli. Her writing has been featured in Grotto Network, Live Today Well Collective, Wallflower Journal and Wisdom’s Dwelling.