Each year at the beginning of the Christian Manhood course I direct my students’ thoughts to the very important question of what to do with their time. Since I see senior year as a sort of bridge between high school and college, one of the topics discussed is how much time each of them will have on their hands next year as they begin their collegiate journeys.
We look at the typical college schedule – five classes worth three credit hours each – and compute that an average student spends around twelve and a half hours in a classroom setting each week. We leave aside the absurd price tag associated with those twelve and a half hours, and focus on the fact that this average course load leaves each student with 155.5 hours of “free” time per week. That’s almost 93% of each week where a student is taken off his leash and allowed to run free to do whatever suits his desires and, his parents hope, his needs and duties.
Given those parameters it seems rather strange that any college student should ever need to pull the dreaded “all-nighter.” And yet…
So the first real work for a real grade in my Christian Manhood class involves each student keeping track of his time, hour by hour, for a week. Each senior has a grid divided into twenty-four sections where he can describe what he did during each hour of the day from sleeping to eating to travelling to and from school to binge watching Netflix. In addition, he is asked to make a judgment about each hour: Was it time wasted or time redeemed?
The determining factor for whether an hour was wasted or redeemed has some grey areas, but basically time is redeemed if it moves you forward as a person. Doing homework? Redeemed. Working hard at band practice? Redeemed. Getting sleep? Redeemed. Watching YouTube videos of performing cats until 3 AM? Wasted.
Once the week has ended and they have their filled-in grids I ask them to look over how they spent their time and to ask themselves some important questions: Where did I redeem time? Where did I waste time? What can I do to diminish the latter while increasing the former? Am I happy with my general time-spending?
In a sense, that exercise is what Ignatius asks of those who take the spiritual life seriously, and he called it the Examen of Consciousness or simply the Examen. Note, it’s not an examination of conscience but of consciousness. As the opening line of the Marquette University webpage on the topic begins: “Have you ever come to the end of the day and wondered where the time went? Or have you ever come to the end of the day, and felt burdened by regret?” Who could say “no” to either of those questions?
So the Ignatian activity of looking back through our day to see where we have been and to ponder where we might go, to better understand our actions and our motives, to be more aware of God’s presence in all that happens to us throughout each day is what can help us to be more of who God created us to be. If the goal of the Spiritual Exercises is “to find God in all things” then the Examen is an essential component of that quest. The Examen was mindfulness before mindfulness ever became “a thing.”
So beyond any academic exercise the focus on what we do and why we do it is not just for those souls who happen to be assigned to my Christian Manhood classes. The focus on what we do and why we do it is for anyone who believes that life has meaning or possibly might have meaning.
The time that each of us is given is like sand in an hourglass – finite and swiftly “going to ground.” While we’re in it we might as well take the time to examen it.