Journalling is, I think, one of the more misunderstood spiritual disciplines. There’s a sense that you have to be super spiritual to keep one, or write 5 sides of A4 a day. Certainly if you were to read the journals of spiritual “heavyweights”, it could be quite a daunting and demoralising experience.
It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece though, and the simple act of writing down your thoughts, and occasionally going back to reflect on them is extremely valuable, as well as being an interesting and enjoyable exercise. The first rule is to ditch the guilt. It doesn’t matter if you do it three times a day, once a week, or once a year at Easter (or whatever). That said, the more you use it, the more valuable it is, and I’d suggest that less than once a year is probably too infrequent to make it worthwhile. Of course life ebbs and flows, I’ve certainly gone for more than a year between entries once or twice over the 16 years I’ve been keeping one.
So what is a journal? Well, I would describe it as record of thoughts and feelings, particuarly of a spiritual nature. I also include significant events in my journal, as I believe we are holistic beings, and occurances like getting married, having a child, losing a parent, changing jobs, moving house, taking on or dropping responsibilities, and so on will affect us spiritually as well as emotionally and physically.
Personally, I use a filofax (I’m actually on my second now), because I find it useful to be able to write entries on loose-leaf filofax paper and insert them later if I’m away without my journal. Many people use a hardback notebook that’s solely for that purpose. Whatever you choose, it should be a book that is special in some way, and only used for journalling – it needs to hold up to decades of use. At its best, it’s an extremely personal, intimate, cherished thing, and a dog-eared A4 refill pad is unlikely to be helpful to the process!! I would encourage you not to use a computer in this instance – the enforced slowness and personalisation (and permanence) of hand-writing is valuable. You should use a pen that is, at the very least, comfortable and writes well (I don’t actually use a fountain pen, by the way.)
You should find a way that’s most the helpful the easiest for you to actually do. Here’s how I write mine; Firstly, I find a quiet spot, ideally with a cup of coffee. I open up to a new page, and write the date, and usually some form of heading. My headings are often where I physically am at that point in time (e.g. “Willersely Castle”) – although this is more a reflection of the fact I tend to write it more when I’m out and about than when I’m at home! They can also be an indication of whatever has prompted me to write an entry.
I then just write as little or as much as I feel like, or have time for. I have entries that are literally one or two words – often a picture or word that someone has had for me. Other times I will write at length about what’s going on with me – things that are great, things that aren’t so good, things that I’m confused about and trying to work out. I often find little thoughts pop in to my head about things I’d been intending to journal, but hadn’t got around to (e.g. “That reminds me – a few weeks ago in Church, there was a sermon all about that, and I’d never really thought before how Jesus did so and so and his disciples reacted by doing this and that!”).
I also usually try and intentionally finish an entry – even if it’s as simple as “That’s all for now.” Otherwise it can feel a bit disconcerting when you come back to reading them in the future, and an entry stops what feels like halfway through.
If you exercise spritual disciplines like Lectio Divino or the Awareness Examen, journalling is the ideal medium to make a note of it. Similarly if you worship in a more charistmatic/prophectic tradition, words and pictures should absolutely go in the journal.
In case it isn’t already clear, you should read it back to yourself from time to time! Maybe not the whole thing cover to cover, although I try and do this once a year – and of course when you’ve just started journalling it doesn’t take long to read it all back. I also find that when I’m writing an entry I will sometimes want to refer back to something I’ve written on the subject previously.
Finally, don’t let anyone else read it. By all means read passages out to someone if it’s appropriate – say a mentor or prayer partner – and perhaps even let them view a specific entry. But in general it has to be sacrosant and private, a place where you can write down the deepest and darkest truths. Somewhere you can admit to yourself your sin, struggles and fears; perhaps as a first step to admitting them to someone else. If you allow other people to read it, you will (subconciously or others) start write for them, or for your image, and not for you.
If you need further convincing, here are some of the benefits I’ve experienced over the years:
- The very act of stopping and writing reflectively has slowed me down and deepened me as a person.
- Having to actually put thoughts and feelings into words on paper crystalises them, and sometimes helps you realise that you don’t actually think what you thought you thought!
- It becomes a record of what God has done, over time, which builds faith and worship. Sometimes it is only years later that an answer to prayer can be recognised, but this is only really possible if the prayer has been recorded in the first place.
- It’s a key part of my decision making process. Both as a way to martial my thoughts, and also to reflect on any similarities with situations I’ve faced in the past.
- You can’t argue with pen and ink (or edit it) in 10 years time! It’s a “warts’n’all” record of what you were thinking and feeling at a point in time.
As to the spiritual “heavyweights”? Perhaps an analogy is helpful; If you visit a top-notch restaurant, and are served the most exquisite food, you don’t expect to be able to go home and re-create the dish the next day. It takes skill, equipment, experience, ingredients, and a whole lot of practice to create something that amazing. What you can do is cook something, and perhaps try and learn some of the techniques, keep improving as a chef. You may never create a meal as wonderful as the professional, but I can guarantee that you can make something delicious and unique.