Journal-writing can help you have a healthy prayer experience.
Posted in , Jun 4, 2010
In the darting beam of our guide’s flashlight, the faded figures of deer and bison seemed to stir on the limestone walls. They’d been painted in this cave in central France in prehistoric times, long before written language. Awed, I found myself fumbling in my pocket for a scrap of paper to jot down my impressions so I could include them in my journal when I got home. As I scribbled, I couldn’t help but feel connected to the people who had been moved to record their impressions on these walls centuries before.
Throughout time we humans have felt the need to preserve our experiences and record moments of wonder. Journals have been kept by everyone from theologian St. Augustine to philosopher Blaise Pascal, from artist Vincent van Gogh to writer Flannery O’Connor, from pioneer women crossing America’s great plains to teenaged Anne Frank hiding in an attic during the Holocaust.
I’ve kept a journal since I was eight. I scrawled observations and drawings into notebooks and pasted in articles and verses that caught my attention. My journal was more than a record of events. It included not only the fact that I “went to see Grandmother Paisley” but also a poem I pounded out on her big black typewriter about hollyhocks in the alley behind her house, a picture of Jesus carrying a lamb she let me cut from one of her magazines, a story about my gray kitten for the neighborhood newspaper she helped me put together.
In high school and college, my entries turned to theatrical self-examination (“to use a phrase from a song in My Fair Lady, what a mutton-headed dolt am I!!!”) and lofty philosophizing (“As I cross the trembling threshold into adulthood, I realize it is in touching the lives of others that life gains real significance and beauty”).
As the years went on and I tried to always be strong and confident, it was a relief to know there was a place I could be my truest self-where I could spill out my disappointment and longing. As I returned less and less to visit my hometown in West Virginia, I felt “the sadness of slipping away as if on a boat drifting from shore.” And when an uncle I adored lay dying in the hospital, I wrote of a “longing, deeper than any well, to make him better again.” In the words of Isak Dinesen, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story.” So can anger. Once, upset because someone else got the promotion I thought I deserved, I raged so hard on the pages that the paper tore.
By now it’s probably clear that none of this was formal and well organized. I used notepads that fit in a pocket and huge binders that could swallow a phone book. I wrote in lined spiral notebooks left over from high school and in sketchbooks from the art supply store. My bookshelves and desk runneth over with “journals” of every shape, style and color-all filled with lost loves, sweet dreams, hard-earned wisdom and incredible moments of beauty.
When I was in my 40s a dying friend gave me a book by writer Natalie Goldberg and underlined this sentence: Let your writing be the loving arms that will enfold you. I found this to be true with each passing year. After a day of rushing or worry, I would grab a pen, flip open my journal and sink into its comforting embrace. “I consider the time spent writing in my journal as Sabbath time-a time of rest and solitude,” says Ronald Klug in his book How To Keep A Spiritual Journal (Augsburg Fortress). “It can also aid us in the basic Christian discipline of wakefulness. I’m impressed with the number of times in the Gospels that Jesus says, ‘Wake up! Be alert! Watch!' Your journal can keep you more aware of what is going on inside you and around you. It will make you alert to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit within you.”
Shortly after reading this, I came upon an old notebook that I’d entitled “Soul Stirrings.” As I flipped through it, I was able to see parts of me opening like a bud into full flower. Where once I’d prayed for answers, I saw myself gradually learning, as the poet Rilke put it, to love the questions. And to trust that the blessings of life will multiply as surely as the loaves and fishes.
Sometimes months might pass when I’d never touch my journals. But sooner or later the day would come when I’d impulsively reach for a ledger and flip open to entries that had become some of my favorite reading material. Until I revisited my journal I’d forgotten about the day when a winter storm swept in at Easter yet the daffodils pushed through the glistening snowbanks; when I’d been downhearted and looked up to see a live elephant and the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz standing in front of me (the elephant was in a show at Radio City, Horowitz had been signing autographs in a music store); when a bird taking flying lessons landed on the head of my god-dog Scottie, who endured the indignity still as a statue.
And, all too often, old entries seemed to uncannily address an issue that was troubling me in the here and now. One day, feeling insecure and anxious that my life had taken a drastically wrong turn, I opened the pages of an old journal to read this: “Oct ’62, talked with Pastor Carlson (my college chaplain) about how I’m frightened and questioning everything. ‘When you think you’re totally out of it, you’re often right in the center of things, he said. ‘When we feel farthest from God may actually be when we’re the closest. Our emotions go up and down like a roller coaster, but God’s presence never wavers. That’s what faith is all about.’”
And on a recent morning when I was feeling blue, I opened a journal from 1987 and was reminded of a day when, shrouded with gloom, I uttered a prayer for help. I turned to see that the sun had emerged and a shaft of light coming through the window was casting a glowing rainbow onto the fur of my cat. There is a rainbow on my cat! I wrote, and 13 years later, the image lifted my spirits again.
It finally occurred to me that what I had been doing in these pages over the years was praying. Opening my heart and sharing my deepest feelings with a presence that could be trusted-that of the Holy Spirit. My interactions with my journal anchored me to the past, grounded me in the present, and acted as a kind of spiritual sextant to chart my path to the future. And on this path it was clear I was anything but alone.
How can you nurture your own desire for this kind of communication? Some teachers suggest writing as soon as you get up in the morning (before your conscious mind has a chance to start monitoring and judging) or doing a “fast write” where you scribble thoughts full speed without editing or reflection. Grammar, neatness and a polite demeanor are not important. Honest feelings and insight are. When Jesus said, “Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy laden,” he didn’t add, “but only if your handwriting’s neat, your words are spelled right, and you’re in a good mood.”
Do you have to write every single day, at a specific time, and in a fancy book? If that works for you, fine. If it doesn’t, don’t be intimidated. Forget sitting in a silk kimono, writing profound reflections with a calligraphy pen on the cream-colored pages of a leather-bound volume. For those of you whose lives are more turbulent than tranquil, I present . . . the sacred baggy.
Yes, the sacred baggy. A simple plastic bag always at the ready into which I thrust notes, ideas and reflections that one day may or may not be transferred into an actual notebook. On a rain-dappled bulletin I recorded the words of an elderly rector who greeted me in a small London church surrounded by the high-rise bustle of the financial district: “Feel it!” he said fervently. “Feel the silence! Outside people rush about making money. But here, here is the peace of God.” On a torn phone bill I’d written what a friend said as we stood watching a sunset a year after her painful divorce: “Listen,” she whispered, her face radiant, “my heart has started to beat again.” And on a hotel brochure I scrawled the prayer I saw on a plaque on a stone wall in Italy that changed the life of Francis of Assisi: All highest and glorious God, cast your light into the darkness of my heart.
So what did I write on that slip of paper as I gazed at the paintings in the caves of France, observing those journals of lives so long ago? I remove that tattered note from the sacred baggy and read what I’d jotted down. Millenniums dissolve. Some have come before, others will come after. The Holy Spirit unites us all. I feel a deep communion here.
You too can be part of that communion. Get a notebook—or a sacred baggy. Open your eyes and your heart. And start journaling.