The first article in this series set the context for Christian prayer, including journaling, as distinctly different from non-Christian beliefs and practices. Our second article explained journaling in general, as a means to dialogue with God. In this final article, we will look specifically at the journaling of prayer because we are endeavoring that this time with God directs our thoughts, actions, and choices throughout the day.
Journaling helps us to capture and understand two important aspects of prayer: the experience of praying itself, and the dialogue that took place with God during that prayer time.
1) Ignatius has us spend 3-4 minutes after mental prayer noting the experience of the prayer time itself. Consider your thoughts, psyche/emotions, and physical state going into prayer, during prayer, and at its conclusion. Particularly consider the content or focus of any distracted thoughts. These often are clues as to conversations that God wants to have with you. For example, a common distraction in prayer is suddenly remembering a task undone or an item that must be purchased at the store. A simple remedy is keeping a piece of paper and pen next to you when praying, then stopping to write this down and resuming your prayer. However, if this repeats itself frequently, it may have some importance to your mental well-being. God may be wanting to talk with you about your need to attend to details.
Another example is noticing when the distraction begins. What were you thinking, or God revealing, just before your thoughts wandered? Sometimes the mind can subconsciously, without your awareness, divert attention when faced with an uncomfortable truth. It can also do this when realizing God’s closeness to the soul. Distraction can be a manifestation of fear. Take note of when distractions happen and ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten you as to any underlying meaning to that timing.
2) The content of our conversation with God, the dialogue that took place in prayer, is vitally important. When journaling is approached as prayer, the attempt to formulate thoughts and put this experience into words is guided by the Holy Spirit. One cannot articulate God; words do not suffice! But over time you develop a ‘language’ of sorts that communicates that which God has done in your soul, enlightenment given by Him, and your reactions to Him. For those completing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, this review of each day’s prayer is important to receiving the transforming grace God desires for the retreatant.
“I presuppose that there are three kinds of thoughts in my mind, namely: one which is strictly my own, and arises wholly from my own free will; two others which come from without, the one from the good spirit and the other from the evil one.”
From journaling prayer, one can learn to discern God’s ‘voice’ and presence as distinguished from our own thoughts and emotions as well as those placed upon us by the enemy. The passive posture taken in prayer, as one endeavors to be receptive to grace, presents “a real danger of illusions, hallucinations, of motives stirred by subconscious forces or even by Satanic spirits.” As one grows in the spiritual life, Satan will try to mimic God in their prayer, leading them to false conclusions, resolutions, ‘insights’ etc. How often people think they have heard “a word” and presumed it to be The Word? Journaling becomes a mode through which the Holy Spirit forms our soul in love by bringing opportunity for honest confession to God of one’s error, pride, or self-righteousness. Many saints experienced authentic visions, locutions, and even were instruments of God’s public miracles. Yet these same saints also mistook their natural experiences to be supernatural and wrongly interpreted their experiences and visions as being from God. Fr. William Most explained that “It is especially easy for this to happen with ideas that appeal to our own desires or fit with preconceived ideas”. Fr. Thomas Dubay furthers this, saying “A sensible awareness of the divine nearness is not a sure witness to His presence, just as the dryness and desolation are not an indication of His absence…Hence when we think we have a good, clear idea of Him, we are probably farther away than when we meet Him in the darkness of faith.”
The journal is our record of our ‘God moments’, the moments we experience His affections or the inspired thoughts that come to mind during the day and during prayer. It helps us to continue that conversation with Him. Recollecting in our encounters with Him that occurred both in and outside of prayer helps us to build the intimacy for which He created us.