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What Is a Spiritual Journal?

Devotional journals have been everything from a child writing down her daily thoughts about God in a notebook, to complex systematic projects with structured Bible passages and discipline exercises and such. Dan Phillips calls it simply "a written record of personal reactions to spiritual matters". The key thing about writing a journal is that it's a place to spiritually share yourself with God and with yourself. You're pouring your thoughts out to God, but you're also part of the audience, because you go back to it to see how you've spiritually grown -- or perhaps shrank. (It's not just journal-writing, it's also journal-keeping.)

What kind of things go into it?

  • stuff that comes to mind as you study the Bible;

  • things you sense around you (observations);

  • places you've been and what you draw from them (pilgrimage and travel);

  • insights you've had along the way;

  • prayers you've prayed (formally-written, poetic, or said/screamed/sobbed toward God).

  • special things that others have written or said;

  • ways you've surprised yourself;things you've discovered while looking back in the journal.

  • dreams, if your dreams have some sort of spiritual angle to them;that which comes to you while meditating on something.

As with most spiritual practices, there are important guidelines that help to make the journal effective. The most important is that you must be honest with yourself and God when writing. You probably won't get that right from the start. Few of us have any idea of what it really means to be honest to God, and so we have to learn as we go along. Another good guideline is that the date and time should be marked with each entry. You can refer to that when you're looking back, or trying to remember. And, it is most helpful if the entries are tied into a rhythm of regular Bible reading (such as in a lectionary cycle) and private prayer.

This is a spiritual journal, not a diary. A diary is a record of events; it's about the 'what?'. A spiritual journal's focus is on the relationship between you and God, not you and your boyfriend or you and your pastor or you and your psychiatrist. It may include those other things, but it's not about them. It's about the 'why?', the 'what now?', the 'what am I feeling, experiencing, and/or thinking?'. Those others can be part of what you write about -- anything can -- but for the journal, they are to be seen through the lens of your relationship with God and with yourself, and through your attempt to live a life that is honestly spiritual.

Get yourself a good, sturdy book for it, perhaps a leather-bound journal with lots of pages. You'll be taking it with you when you move, travel, go on a retreat, or make pilgrimage. It's too important a task to be left to a flimsy notebook. Leave the book you're currently using in plain view, so that it can beckon you to come and write. Then be somewhere quiet where you can be alone with your thoughts. Or, as an alternative, write where what you're observing is taking place. Think without analyzing. Leave yourself open so the Spirit can get you to share honestly as you're writing. And don't tell yourself, "nah, that's too strange a thought". Don't censor it, just write it. Also, don't use other people's thought or experience, though you can use your reaction to what someone else did or said, if it really moves you.

A journal is like a muscle: when you use it regularly, it can carry more spiritual weight in your life.

Many spiritual leaders have kept journals. Some are mundane, some are so thoroughly personal as to be out of reach for anyone who reads them. But Thomas a Kempis wrote a journal, and it became "The Imitation of Christ". John Wesley kept a journal; at times it reads like a diary or a sermon, but at other times it bears some of the most amazing thoughts and experiences about spiritual growth and renewal of faith, drawn from the daily events of his life and travels. Oswald Chambers' journal became "My Utmost For His Highest", and its impact is named in many a person's spiritual journal. But you don't keep a spiritual journal in order that others read it; don't ever think of it that way! It's for you, and your spiritual journey.

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