The Nuts and Bolts of Christian Journaling
The first article in this series differentiated from Christianity the common non-Christian views and practices of being a ‘spiritual person’ and possessing a spirituality. Christian prayer is God-centered, not self-centered, relies upon God for desire and inspiration to engage, and serves to develop our relationship with Him. Journaling is one of the many fruitful prayer practices in our Catholic tradition. How to go about it, though, can remain a mystery.
First, consider the value of reflecting upon our lived experiences with God. St. Ignatius of Loyola has us review our past week of prayer, such as on a Sunday, and also our past month. This organically expands into journaling about our day, not just our prayer time. There are many benefits to this:
- First and foremost, gratitude. We can recall all that God has done for us and see any change on our part too.
- Often in the review, God gives new understanding to past experiences. We recollect into His presence, and the memory of grace disposes us to grace.
- We can earmark those times of acute affection and consolation. These become our desolation-busters. In times of desolation, we reject the enemy’s lies by returning to our journal which reminds us over and over again of the truth of God’s love and care for us.
- We can identify patterns of behavior, both those leading us closer to God and those creating barriers to Him.
Without a journal, however, this would be difficult, and these recollection experiences might be missed altogether. The journal becomes your written memory of grace. The journal review can then easily segue into mental prayer with your loving Father.
How often in life have you sat down to write a letter, correspondence, or blog post only to experience ‘brain freeze’? Pen in hand (or fingers on keyboard), your mind cannot sort its thoughts into coherent statements. Fear of not knowing what to write may also prevent you from starting to journal. The beauty of journaling, however, is that you are not alone in its creation: “the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). Our loving Lord sends us His Spirit, whose Divine Mission is to form our will to love, and He gives us the speech of love with which to write. Journaling isn’t a love letter to God. Rather, it is a memory of love written with God. With this in mind, one can begin as with any prayer: thanksgiving to God followed by stating the grace desired from this journaling. Simply ask Him for help in remembering His loving care of you this day. Or ask for help in sorting through the racing thoughts in your mind and the chaos in your heart.
It may seem easier to begin journaling if someone is naturally a writer, yet the risk is sitting in an introspective monologue with yourself rather than being still in God’s presence and letting His Spirit influence your writing. Another ‘trip up’ is thinking of it as a diary, which is also a monologue with oneself. In a diary, one records their ups and downs, wrapped (or trapped) in their own thoughts. People often shy away from journaling because these past attempts at it may have led to excessive dwelling on painful experiences which they do not want to revisit. As with any prayer when properly approached, God gently leads us into our past and present, revealing memory of His presence while also slowly healing our memories of pain.
In the beginning, you may find yourself just jotting down brief descriptions of your prayer or an experience from the day; this is coupled with the sense that God is leading your soul somewhere unknown. Over time, this sense deepens as you begin to see yourself, Him, and your life differently. Journaling helps to capture the paradigm shift taking place in your soul while also growing in understanding of that new paradigm so as to cooperate with Him. God inspires the ‘topic’ of your journal entry either directly or by growing your desire for Him. For example, He may give you partial illuminations in your daily Examen prayer to later journal and then thereafter sit in silence (mental prayer) with God. Or, as your awareness grows of His presence in your daily life, notes can be made during the day and kept for journaling later, at which point more complete information might be written. Sometimes one will alternate praying and journaling during their mental prayer. God works in many ways. The beauty of spiritual journaling is that, as the thoughts are formed to write, the gift of understanding is often given.
(This is the second in a three-part series on journaling. Our final article will look specifically at journaling prayer.)