Last week I participated in a two-day retreat setting with several other clergypersons. We are a new group together, and part of our modality involves the presence of a spiritual director who guides our group process and is available for individual work. Among the spiritual disciples she introduced to the group is a practice popularized by the Ignatians (a Roman Catholic order) called the examen. The examen is a spiritual practice of reflection and gratitude, typically offered at the end of a day. There are several standard questions asked which are intended to prompt and review of the day's events and an intentional effort to identify God's presence throughout the day past.
What struck my attention, more particularly than the practice (which I have been aware of for some time and on occasion practice myself) itself is a children's book the spiritual director brought with her called Sleeping With Bread. I scanned the book, but I did not have time to read it cover to cover. (I have since ordered a copy and expect to read it soon).
In his preface (or perhaps the introduction, I forget which) the author explains his title. During World War II when many children were separated from their parents (either orphaned or temporarily for their own safety) they experienced, understandably, a great deal of anxiety. Often it was difficult for children to sleep wondering if/when they would see their parents again or whether they would even have food to eat. What those working with the children discovered is that if they sent the kis to bed with a portion of bread, they found security, and were much more likely to rest well and awaken refreshed the following morning, knowing that they would had been and would be cared for.
I was intrigued with the concept, because any of us who have parented traumatized (or otherwise anxiety-fraught children) know how very difficult the bedtime process can be. Even if a children with a history of trauma eventually falls asleep, the process by which this occurs can stress even the most courageous and patient parent.
So, two nights ago I decided to try to merits of the examen with our youngest son. He has recently had a medication change which has made his night time process more difficult for him and for us. Before the medication change he would announce to his when he was tired (usually before 8:30 PM) and find his way to bed, falling asleep within minutes. Recently, however, he has become more restless, unfocused and difficult. After we had sent him to bed for the umpteenth time, I decided to step inside his room and visit with him. I snuggled up to him, and asked him what was the best part of his day. He was able to readily identify it and tell me about it. After a few minutes I said, "Dom, what was the worst part of your day?" To that he also had a response, and we talked about that. Then I said, "Isn't it great to know that God is always with us, every day, in whatever happens, good or bad?" He turned his head toward me, opened his eyes with a look that said, "Where did that come from?" and responded with a long "Yeeah." (As in, "Right, dad, sometimes you bring your work home with you a little too often").
I said, "So, Dominyk, do you ever think about God during the day?" "Well, not really too much, Dad." I realized perhaps I had pushed the benefits of the examen hard enough for one night with our ten-year-old and said, "Well, that's OK. As you get older you might do that more often."
His response, in classical Dominyk fashion, was "OK, Dad." Suffusing a yawn, he said, "Good night, Dad." "Good night, Dominyk. I love you." "Love you, too."
And that was it. He rolled over, closed his eyes and mouth, and was asleep within seconds.
While it's too soon to tell whether his relaxation mode into sleep was from my simple presence with him, the coincidental timing (he was getting physically tired by this time of night, too), or due to the spiritual practice of the examen, I think there is some merit to this practice with children who experience anxiety at bedtime.
The opportunity to think about the day past -- its good and bad parts -- to let that go, remember that a loving God cares for us and loves us through the night ... perhaps the Ignatians are on to something (and have been now for some seven hundred years).