Friday, December 28, 2007

Keeping a Spiritual Journal

The other day a friend said to me that he was thinking about starting the practice of keeping a journal and I had kept one for a while, hadn’t I? We chatted a little about it, but it was neither the time nor the place to go into any depth. Since we had that conversation Christmas has passed, the Kews have moved with animals across a wide ocean, and now we have a long weekend to adjust to being a family of husband, wife, dog, and cat together in our English home before I get back to work and Rosemary begins teaching online.

As I couldn’t talk to David while in Tennessee I am going to talk to him through this entry – and allow anyone who wants to eavesdrop on what I say. With the New Year beginning, starting to keep a journal might be something that others want to do.

I got into the business of journaling forty years ago. I didn’t set out on my journal for any highfaluting reason but because I was having trouble concentrating on my prayers. Praying has never been an easy business for me as I have one of those minds that zips off after every red herring. While sometimes red herrings can be substance for prayer, most of the time they are distractions and diversions with little to do with the task in hand. My journal began as an act of desperation: the only way I could keep my mind on my prayers was writing down what I wanted to say to God.

So, having purchased a modest notebook I set about the process. It wasn’t clever or sophisticated, but it did the trick because I find myself writing jibberish if I don’t keep my mind on the task. I really envy those for whom prayer seems to come naturally, with a flow of words between themselves and God that is akin to a conversation!

I guess from that point onward what I was doing evolved, and over the years it has been on the pages of several dozen rather ordinary notebooks that I have wrestled through my relationship with God. Here’s the first important point about keeping a journal, what you write in it is between you and God, and is certainly not the business of anyone else, even your nearest and dearest.

A few years ago I was reading a biography of Tolstoy. The great Russian novelist kept a journal for many years, but his biographer suggested that he wrote with one mind on eventual publication and so there was some posturing. Also, as his relationship with his wife deteriorated he realized that she was reading it after he went to bed, which then prompted him to use it to poke at her knowing that she would never admit to peeping. This was obviously a man engaging in keeping a journal for questionable reasons!

What began for me as a place to record my petitions gradually moved beyond that. Certainly all these years later I write out my prayers like I always did, and it is obvious that the journal is addressed to God, but it is also the place where I bring into the presence of God far more of myself than that.

I am writing this the day after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan, a cause for great anxiety and much grief both in her homeland and beyond. Her death will definitely have a profound impact upon the world and I found myself writing and praying about that, but I went beyond looking at parallels in history and the meaning of God’s providence in such tragic circumstances. My journal entry became about God’s nature and purpose, enabling me to ponder the mysteries of the divinity as they intersect with the fallenness, evil, and foolishness of humankind. I said nothing new and definitely did not develop my own understanding of the Lord any further, but it enabled me to grapple with and lift to God a tragedy within the context of my praying.

Sometimes my journal is fed by the Scripture that I am studying in my own devotional life, and I might meditate on a the whole passage or just one tiny fragment of it. At other times I find myself ruminating on something someone has said or an insight (pleasant or otherwise) about myself. My journal is a place where I can bare my soul not only to God, but also to myself for I find myself able to identify and tussle with things about me and my personality that I would often prefer to avoid.

Yes, my journal is filled with joy and delight, but it is often a place of confession and penitence, and there have been occasions when the writing has been accompanied by tears and deep heartrending. It is because my journal is designed for the Audience of One that I am able to do this, pulling no punches about myself as I do so. I hate let’s pretend religion, and have discovered that this spiritual diary has the capacity to keep me honest not only in God’s presence but with myself and with others.

If a journal is a place of confession and penitence, it is also a place where the immensity of life is agonized over. One of the problems for many of us is that we tend to live life on the surface, either ignoring or avoiding some of the deeper and more tangled challenges. There are many doubts and fears that I find myself mulling over and trying to work through. I loved what Os Guinness wrote years ago that doubts are the growing pains of the soul, and my journal is definitely a place where doubts of all kinds surface and are explored.

Sometimes, like a sore in my mouth that my tongue refuses to leave alone, I will come back to these issues ad infinitum, kicking them around, poking at them, and trying to get inside why it is that this thing might be troubling me. But this is what God intends for us. Our faith does not grow and deepen if our life remains unexamined, and a component of prayer is examining ourselves and our mind in the presence of the Most High God.

What is fascinating when going through journals years or even decades later is how things that seemed insurmountable issues back then have now either melted away or been put into an entirely different perspective. In addition, requests are made and there is a record of those prayers being answered. Diaries and journals that have a prayer-related orientation are a wonderful record of God’s dealings with each of us. One of the pleasures of keeping such journals is going back over them and discovering not only how we have grown and changed, but also how within the context of this happening we have gained a clearer understanding of what God is truly like in the manner that he confronts, cares for, and shapes us.

Just as I am bound to spend time with Scripture each day, because my journal and prayer life are now so closely interwoven I also try to spend daily time with it. Now there are days when I don’t manage it, and I don’t put myself onto a guilt trip for missing this important part of my life. It is when I go two or three days in a row without getting into my journal that I start getting anxious because it tells me that I am letting my spiritual disciplines slip. But there is more to it than that, because when I avoid my journal it is evidence to me that I am seeking to avoid something in my life that needs to be dealt with: be it sin, shame, confusion, guilt, a relationship gone bad, or whatever. I probably know in my heart what it is, but I am not necessarily eager to see what my heart thinks there in blue-and-white upon the page.

And it is important to me that it is written on the page because I know I would never do it properly if I used my laptop. Others might be different, but just as it is important to me to receive communion kneeling if I possibly can, so it is important to me to have the white, lined page before me and the pen in my hand. There is an indelibility when the words are on the page, while on the computer it can be erased or edited until I think I have got it right. Often what goes on the page, even if the spelling is rotten and the grammar awful, is the heart truly speaking.

Sometimes I will open my journal not knowing what I will be writing about, at other times the subject matter may have been on my mind for days and now I am letting it out to see the light of day. On those days when I don’t know where to begin I just start writing, seeking God to guide me into all truth. It is often amazing what come flowing out and some of those entries are the most fruitful.

Entries don’t have to be long. Sometimes I will write no more than half a dozen sentences, and there are rare occasions when I might write several pages, but most of the time it is 300-500 words. This works for me, but others may go about this in an entirely different way.

Not long after C. S. Lewis’s death, his brother, Warren, was discovered making a mighty bonfire in the garden at The Kilns of letters and journals by his brother. While some were retrieved, others were lost. I like to think that my journals will be destroyed in the same way by my survivors after I am gone from this world because there is much in there that is between me and my Maker. Through my journals I have learned to pray, and praying can at times be a raw and messy business, as are some of these books.

So, David, I hope that will get you started…

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