February 12, 2023 Essay: Just Checking In

Feb 3, 2023

I had a friend who, with rare exception, called me on a weekly basis for close to 30 years and always began the conversation by simply saying, “just checking in.” Jack was a prominent Boston attorney who was a student in an estate planning course I taught at Boston College Law School. As I look back on it, our conversations of 15 minutes or longer on everyday kinds of things like the weather, local and national politics, how the Red Sox were doing, or how our golf swings were improving, were something I looked forward to each week. “Checking in” was our way of expressing how much we valued our friendship.

 As Jack was approaching death at the age of 57 after a difficult terminal illness, he became uncommunicative and our calls became less frequent, but not for a lack of trying on my part. Full of life and jovial in demeanor and spirit, his fear of death overshadowed his desire to live. He isolated himself from the very people who cared about him and wanted to be present to him in his time of greatest need. After all, isn’t that what true friendship is about, knowing that in times of need we can rely on one another to help, even if it is only with a prayer? Sadly, although surrounded at his death bed by those who loved him, Jack died feeling unloved and abandoned by God. He simply threw up his hands and surrendered to the demons of fear and despair. At his Funeral Mass, those who he regularly checked in on filled the church to capacity.

Approaching the season of Lent that will begin in two weeks’ time as well as the anniversary of Jack’s death on February 15th, I am reflecting on my friendship with Jack and the importance of the Examen in my daily life as a way of “checking in.” You may already be familiar with this method of prayer that is one of the indispensable components of Ignatian spirituality. In the Examen we are invited to enter into a conversation with God to talk about the everyday kinds of things of our lives, to express our gratitude for the generosity of God’s love, and to ask for help in those areas of our lives where it is needed. The great surprise that comes to those who practice the Examen on a daily or regular basis is the growing awareness that we are speaking to a friend who looks forward to our calls that begin, “just checking in.”

In the course of my long history of calls with Jack, I came to understand better how to pray the Examen. Friendships are not one-way relationships. There is an intimacy that develops as hopes and dreams, joys and successes, disappointments and regrets are shared sincerely and honestly. It is being fully alive to who we are without the need to window-dress reality. Faultless, no; sinful, yes; beloved, definitely! The graces that flow abundantly from the Examen are spiritually nourishing and life-sustaining.

And now, what is there in the Examen that makes it more than a one-way communication? If the season of Lent invites us to reflect on how we have forgotten to check in regularly with God, the Examen opens our hearts to hear the voice of God expressing God’s desires and hopes for us and for the world. We will hear God asking us, as any friend would, to help heal the wounds that we humans have the tendency to self-inflict. We will be impelled, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, to care for one another and for the world, our common home. We will draw closer to God as we befriend our sisters and brothers. In praying the Examen we will appreciate more than ever that we are never alone, never unloved, never abandoned by God.

Our faith will be tested, as it was with Jack in his illness. One of my regrets is that I failed to encourage him to check in with God more frequently. If he had, I believe the end of his life would have been markedly different. In his memory, I invite all of us to pray the Examen and “check in” with God throughout the season of Lent and beyond.

— Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J., Pastor