When was the last time you received a letter? When was the last time you wrote one?
These days between email, texting, Instagram, and other social media, we are slowly forgetting the art of writing. Of course these means of communication can be highly useful in today’s world. However, we all know that receiving a Facebook message is not the same as having a piece of paper in your hands written by someone who loves you.
Jesus always chose to put value in concrete material things, and not only in mental or spiritual realities. He chose a sacramental logic for his Church that reflects His own way of coming into our midst — a coming made of bread, wine, water, oil, word, incense, song, colors, candles, and all that which speaks to us of the Incarnation.
Within this logic, the written word has also acquired a particular weight. The fact that we have the Sacred Scripture as a pillar of God’s Revelation to man tells us that He desires to reach us through pages that recount and recall something of the utmost importance: words of eternal life that reach us in a very concrete way.
Each one of us is a living salvation history — we are living the story of how God is saving us and how we are cooperating in this salvation. We know that Salvation History in a universal sense is recounted in the Old Testament and continues today in the Church. But we are not a generic collective; rather, you and I are living and unique stories of God’s saving intervention in our lives.
Writing plays many roles: it can be used to express, recount, commemorate, and communicate. However, perhaps one of the deepest motives for which man puts ink to paper is in order to remember. Even the stories that we invent in literature or fantasy are not meant only to exercise our imagination but most of all to remind us of who we are. The Bible also serves this purpose: to remember who God is for me, and who I am for Him.
In our journey of faith, we can enter into this dynamic of “holy remembering” through a very simple instrument: a spiritual journal or notebook. When we hear the word “journal,” there can be a slightly negative connotation, because we can think of those middle school diaries in which 11-year-old girls recount everything that happened that day: what necklace they wore to school, what their teacher said, and which boy passed them a note in class.
A spiritual journal instead is not meant to recount step by step every single moment of the day. Instead, it is an instrument that can help us recount our story of salvation: in the way we experience this story, and how we most naturally desire to express it. It is simply one way (among many) in which to cherish God’s graces, bring things to the light, discern, give thanks, and receive more generously of His word to us in that moment.
There is no one way to keep a spiritual journal, and neither is it an essential element for having a living relationship with the Lord. Reading through the following affirmations might help you to gauge where your heart is in relation to the idea or experience of journaling:
- I like the idea of keeping a spiritual journal, but I wouldn’t know how to go about it
- Just the idea of writing makes me feel burdened and overwhelmed
- I write quite a lot during prayer, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right
- Every so often I jot down a few notes from my spiritual life, but I don’t feel like doing it every day
- I keep a spiritual journal and it brings a lot of fruit in my relationship with God
These are just a few examples, but perhaps they give an idea of the various reactions different people have to this spiritual tool. If you are trying to verify if a spiritual journal could be a good fit for you right now, these questions could help:
- When I write, does it help me to enter into deeper intimacy with God, or is it a distraction?
- Does the idea of writing about my relationship with God bring me a sense of peace, hope, and joy or does it weigh me down?
- Do I feel like I have a good way to treasure God’s action in my life?
Perhaps you’re thinking: okay, I think this spiritual journal thing could work for me. Or maybe you’re just even more confirmed that it’s not a good fit for your prayer life, in which case you may want to click to a different blog post at this point. But another question arises: how could I go about keeping a spiritual journal?
As in most aspects of the spiritual life, there is no magic formula. To understand what something is, it can be useful to specify what it is not:
- A spiritual journal is not a diary: it’s not meant to recount everything you lived that day
- It is not meant to recount simply your life, but rather your life in God and God’s life in you
- It is not a place to feel sorry for yourself, escape intimacy with others, or dissect and understand everything about your life
- It is not a novel: the emphasis is not on your writing abilities or the need to produce excellent literature for future ages to come
Most of these elements are not bad in themselves; but these modes of writing are better suited to other contexts. Let us remember the final goal: fruitful communion with Christ Jesus. If my spiritual journal is not helping me in this, I can put it aside and pursue other means of cultivating my friendship with the Lord.
All this being said, there is no one method for keeping a spiritual notebook, but it really depends on how the Lord has shaped your heart, what your relationship with Him looks like, and where you are at in your journey. Here are a few practical suggestions that you might want to consider:
- Keep a gratitude journal: every day, write at least 3 specific things for which you are grateful, and speak with the Lord about these graces
- Take notes based on your daily prayer: Is there a line of Scripture that struck you today? Was there an experience today in which you encountered Jesus? Is there a question that God is placing on your heart in this period? Simply write as much or as little as you desire, in the style that you prefer. For example, some people really enjoy writing in itself, and for them recounting God’s action in their lives can take the form of multiple paragraphs or even pages. For others, a list of bullet points is more than sufficient. For some people it comes naturally to write a little every day; others may prefer to journal just occasionally. Also, some might find it helpful to write as they are in the midst of their conversation with the Lord, even in the form of a kind of letter to God; others might find more fruit in leaving the journaling to later in the day so that it serves really as a review of their prayer time.
- Grow in self-knowledge: while we never want to fall into any form of narcissism, there is a healthy self-knowledge that flows from our friendship with Jesus: it is He who reveals to us who we truly are, and this knowledge is a great help for our spiritual life. This allows us to be humble, to recognize our strengths in order to serve Him well, and to acknowledge our weaknesses so that we can receive His mercy. Writing down every so often our thoughts, feelings, and desires and placing them under His gaze can help us in this self-awareness.
- Prepare for special encounters with His grace: at times our confessions do not bring much fruit because we do not prepare very well. His grace always awaits us in the sacrament, but the terrain of our heart is not always prepared to receive well. It can be useful to take notes between one confession and another in order to see not only what sins are more recurrent, but also what is underneath them: Why do I fall in this way? What do I really desire? Where is Jesus in all this? We can do a similar thing if we speak to a spiritual mentor or director regularly: take note of what God is doing in my life in order to share it with the one who accompanies me spiritually.
- Recall my salvation history: we do not need to perform an exegesis on our spiritual journal, but it can be useful now and then to leaf through these pages we have written in order to remember how God has been at work in certain periods of my life. Or, at the end of a year, you could even take a half day of retreat to reread your journal, praising God for His faithfulness.
There are many other modes for using this tool. But let us remember: in the end, there is one thing necessary: spending time with the Lord in order to grow in friendship with Him. We are made for communion with Him and this grows through intimacy of words and experiences shared in time. Once I heard a priest say this adage: “The only type of prayer that is bad is the prayer that you don’t show up for.” Let us renew our trust in God and ask for the grace to remain with Him with an open heart.
This month’s Spring of Water reflection is by Sr. Ruth Kuefler, AVI