How to Keep a Spiritual Journal

© Michael Anne Haywood, 2003

What is a Spiritual Journal?
Mary Warren, writing in the Forward Movement Publications pamphlet How to Keep a Spiritual Journal, first makes the point that a journal is not a diary. For example, "I went to the Braves game yesterday, and they lost their seventh game in a row," would be an entry in a diary. "I must be out of my mind remaining a Braves fan when they crush my hopes every year, without fail," might well be a journal entry. A diary is all about "what;" a journal is all about "so what?" and "what now?" A journal is a helpful way of keeping up with our spiritual journey. A spiritual
journal is different from a regular journal. It is a written record of personal reactions on spiritual matters. A journal has benefit in itself, providing a cathartic dumping ground for thoughts, feelings and ideas. But a journal also has benefit in where it leads us. Honest and regular journaling can be an intellectual or spiritual aid, cultivating deepening understandings, clarification of thoughts and new discoveries. It can be a kind of "rearview mirror," focusing on one's spiritual history, but it can also be a sort of "archeological dig," a focus point of discoveries.
We remember a very small percentage of what happens to us each day. We also forget most of our feelings and reactions to what happens to us. If we write these feelings down-in a notebook, loose-leaf binder, fancy-bound blank journal book, or, increasingly, in a personal, locked file on a computer or on audio tape-we have the ability to see, even months or years from now, connections that can almost blow us away.
You've probably read a couple of published Spiritual Journals and didn't even realize it. "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas a Kempis and "My Utmost for His Highest" by Oswald Chambers are a couple of examples. Although May Sarton never considered herself a spiritual writer, I find her writing, especially her journals, full of spiritual reflections.
Benefits of Keeping a Spiritual Journal
Journaling . . . . .
~ clarifies one's understandings of the nature and will of God
~ organizes one's thoughts
~ gives one a chance to play with ideas
~ brings out thoughts that might never have occurred to one otherwise
~ records spiritual thoughts and realizations one has, so they're not forgotten
~ forces one to take time out on a regular basis to sit with God and make some sense of life (sometimes we're so busy living life that we don't take time to get perspective)
~ makes a record of one's spiritual growth, kind of like pencil marks on the kitchen doorway of one's spiritual life
~ helps one to keep a balance between head and heart
~ can help one to know oneself better.
Kinds of things one might record in a spiritual journal
~ Insights, promises and revelations from your devotional life.
~ Specific prayers you have prayed.
~ God's answers to your prayers.  
~ Personal behavioural struggles (e.g. with family, work, finances, sexuality, leisure....)
~ Needs you have in personal, spiritual and practical areas.
~ Insights and helpful passages in the Bible.
~ Meaningful quotations from spiritual books one is reading.
~ Confession of sin, and recognition of God's disappointment, forgiveness and mercy.
~ Personal identity struggles. (e.g. Just who am I? What am I supposed to be doing?)
~ Lessons you have learned in the school of life.
~ Daily events of personal or spiritual significance.
~ The leading of the Lord in specific areas of your life.
~ Experiences when one has been keenly aware of God or God's will, or wondered where God was.
~ Disappointment, hurt, pain and suffering.
~ Victories, failures, joys and sorrows.
~ Precious insights from daily life.
~ Praise and thanksgiving for God's grace.
~ 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
~ Special experiences (retreats, pilgrimages, "mountaintop" moments)
~ 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.
Needless to say, no one would be able to write about all off those things all the time, but any of them are worthy of including along the way. One way to narrow the scope is to choose to journal on a subject or a task. Fear not; your decision will not be written in stone. You can always change your mind.
What kinds of Spiritual Journals might I consider keeping?
You might try writing a journal like any of these:
~ a journal of spiritual readings: Bible readings, spiritual/devotional books, spiritual concepts in secular books
~ a prayer journal
~ a book of lists (memories, joys, sorrows, blessings....)
~ a journal of problems and solutions, worry and obsession, hopes and fears, goals and ambitions
~ a periodic (once a day or once a week) perspective journal -- taking one experience and working with it, looking for God in it (Molly Wolf does this in her Sabbath Blessings.)
~ a series of letters-to...., letters to God, to various Bible characters, to wise folks of times past....
~ a general kind of spiritual journal, including anything and everything that relates to your spiritual journey: daily events, prayers, readings, whatever.
But whatever you decide to start with, of course you need to reevaluate from time to time, and if necessary, change the model. It's a good idea to make an annual check on how your journaling is going, and whether the model you've chosen is still working for you. You might want to do this on your birthday, or at New Year's, or at the beginning of Advent -- any time that is convenient for you. And if you decide to change your mode of journaling, take the opportunity to write your decisions into your journal, change gears, and move on in your new mode.
What do I need to have to start my Spiritual Journal?
One of the many assets of journaling is that it is probably one of the least expensive therapeutic devices one can use. All you need is a way to record your journal (notebook & pen or computer and keyboard, or a tape recorder) and a time set aside for journaling.
People have different preferences for their notebooks. One says, "..... buy a journal that has a feel of importance about it. I often go to a first class bookstore and buy a journal that is made of genuine bonded leather. This type of journal has a feel of permanence to it, and it will last." Another recommends, "Get yourself a good, sturdy book for it, because you'll be taking it with you when you move, travel, 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." Yet another says, "Personally I find that a spiral bound A4 size notebook suits my needs very well.  On average I would use two of these per year.  I find them to be a convenient size to carry when I am travelling and the page size is generally sufficient for one day's entry.  Should one of these journals ever be lost, I have only misplaced about 6 months records. Whilst such a loss would be tragic enough in itself, I am saved a more serious dispossession." And another says, "Buy a strong exercise book, memo book or one of the slimmer bound journals - large enough for ease of writing or sketching, but not too bulky to take on your holidays or to retreats. Some people prefer blank pages, others prefer lined pages." In other words, use whatever pleases you and works best for you.
What kind of scheduling should I consider?
Time of day.
Some people function better at night and write in their spiritual journal just before going to sleep. Others, the "morning people" among us, write each morning. Some do their journaling at a midday break. And still others of us write at any time, as the Spirit moves them, but so they won't omit to do their writing, they set a minimum schedule of frequency. Early morning, a midday break, or late evening before going to bed, all have their advantages, depending on the rhythm of your life. The important thing is to find a time and place that suits you best and set yourself the discipline of following your chosen schedule.
Some people write every day, some once a week, and some even less often. For most people, it's good to write at least once a week, if not daily. As you begin, you might want to decide on or experiment with the best time of the day or night for writing and reflection. Some people "religiously" make daily entries, others weekly, and others only when particular events or experiences (a dream, illness, conflict, decisions, etc.) seem to require a special focus on movements in your relationships with God. It should be used as frequently as seems necessary to stimulate and encourage growth in your inner life - and most of us need that very frequently rather than occasionally. Discipline is necessary, as in all areas of significance in our lives.
How do I get started in writing my Spiritual Journal?
Idea for an opening entry.
When first starting your Spiritual Journal, it is helpful to write down why you are doing this, what prompted you to start, what you hope for in the exercise, any hesitations you have about writing your Journal, and some kind of commitment such as 'daily entries for one month' or 'at least weekly entries for six months'. Make a commitment to revisit your process at the end of the given period of time. Hopefully such trial periods will demonstrate the ongoing value of journal keeping, and if changes are needed in your plan, they'll be easy transitions at these reassessment times.
You may want your Spiritual Journal to have some form of organization.
Some prefer a free-form, just starting in the front and filling pages one after another. But if you have a specific emphasis for your Journal, you may want to organize it. A Prayer Journal might use facing pages for Intercessions and Thanksgivings. Another method is to use the front of the book for your thought life - recording events and thoughts, and your prayerful reflections on these and turning the book upside down and using the back of the book for your unconscious life - recording and commenting on dreams, visions, the disturbing thoughts that bubble up now and them, and the substance of and answers to prayers. One person says she uses a five-point organization for each Journal entry.
First read and study a Bible passage.
Meditate on How does it apply to me?'
Write down my worries and concerns.
Think about the needs of my family and friends.
Give thanks.
What's a good way to approach my regular Journaling?
A gentle start.
1. Start with a few minutes of being still and quiet in a comfortable but not too relaxing position. (Right, you don't want to fall asleep.) Be still, and listen to the sounds around you; then seek to still your inner thoughts and the busyness of your mind. Praying the Lord's Prayer or other prayers, a mantra or Bible verse, to help you to focus attention on God, whom you wish to serve in your journaling. To relax and focus your thoughts, breathe steadily but quietly, consciously letting go of muscular tensions, or changing your position to lessen pressures on your body. Pray quite specifically something like: "Lord, I want this time to be of benefit to my relationship with you. Help me to put aside my fears and hesitations; help me to deal with distracting thoughts as they bubble up -- which they inevitably will. Help me to attend to my spiritual discipline of journaling. Help me to see your hand and your will in the experiences of my life, in scripture and in the wisdom of others. I come to find out more about your love for me and for those I love and serve in your name."
Date and location.
2. Date your entries. If you're away from home, jot down the place and why you are there. It will help to put your journal entry into a context. This will get you going, putting something down in your journal, and as you look back over your journal, it will make it easy for you to see how you're progressing or regressing.
Flow and momentum.
3. One journeler says, "Write fast, write everything, include everything. Write from your feeling, accept whatever comes to mind, and note it in your journal."
Banish the editor.
Another suggests,
Banish your internal editor. This is that voice that booms from the darkest recesses of your brain: "You shouldn't be writing that."
Here are a few tricks to banish this voice.
* Write quickly, allowing the words to freefall from your subconscious.
* Keep writing. Don't erase or cross-out any words. If you're heading in a direction you would rather avoid, start a new paragraph. These accidental forays may be telltale signs for issues you need to address. And erasing just takes more time that you could be using to focus on you.
* Date each entry in your journal. Note the time, place, and any details regarding your mood and emotions that will be necessary for context when you read back on your work.
What are some journaling techniques?
Remember, there's no wrong way to keep a journal, just as there's no wrong way to pray. If it works for you, it's right. But what makes it work?
If you're journaling, you made a commitment to this discipline. Stick with it. A journal is like a muscle : when you use it regularly, it can carry more spiritual weight in your life.
It may be helpful to keep a file (or pile) of photographs, news clippings, and notes of world events to jump-start your thoughts. They'll come in handy for "dry" days.
For the most part, it works if you make connections between parts of your life that you might not make otherwise. If you come to know yourself better and see what feeds or starves your spirit when you review your journal entries over a period of time, then you have gained self-knowledge that might have escaped you without the journal.
A fun technique is to begin with an image. "This period of my life has been like trudging along on a narrow bridge (or like running off a cliff, or like Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, or like sailing on a lake on a gentle, sunny day, etc.)" Then, explore the image, relate it in various ways to how your life has been.
Have a conversation with Jesus about something that's going on in your life.
1. See Jesus sitting across from you. What would you say to Him? Write this down.
2. Write out one thing you are afraid to tell Jesus. Then tell Him why you have been afraid.
3. Meditate on a helpful passage of Scripture, and write down questions -- things about the passage that you do not understand, or things you'd like to explore, how you'd like to
apply it.
4. Ask the Lord to stay with you as you take these thoughts through the day. At the end of the day, write down His response to you; describe the experience, writing down new insights you have gained.
Bible study.
1. Select a passage that speaks to your life experience, something current, something you're
working on, or would like to work on.
2. Read it slowly, then read it aloud. If you like, use several versions of the Bible.
3. Write down the reference (book, chapter, verses) and how this passage connects with your life.
4. Write down how this passage advises you.
5. Write down several things you find comforting or encouraging.
6. Write down several things you plan to do differently, more intentionally, or more intensely.
7. Pray that God will be with you in your efforts.
After you have finished a journal entry, take a walk or get up for a glass of water before you reread your entry, and remember to reread this entry with compassion. Then, write an Insight Line -- a sentence or two about what you think the piece is trying to tell you. Sometimes this Insight is as plain as day. Other times, it will take a little reading between the lines. If the subject is a delicate one, there is nothing wrong with putting off re-reading it for a few hours, days, even weeks. Some entries you may not read again at all. The Insight comes from the act of writing itself, the Insight Line simply helps you discover, name and express it.
What do I do if I get stuck and can't get going with my journaling?
It doesn't hurt to skip a day of journaling, but it's a bad habit to start if you've made a commitment to the discipline of keeping a Spiritual Journal on a regular basis. It's better to battle through and make an entry, even if it's just to examine your not having anything to write. What you don't want to do is spend a lot of time doing nothing, and you don't want to break your discipline.
If you're stuck, or when you're brand new to all this, one way to get started is to simply write down and save quotations - from scripture, novels, newspaper articles, plays, TV shows, dinner-table conversations, encounters with other people - that have particularly moved or inspired you. If you have a personal quote-book or quote-file that you can refer to when you're feeling reflective, you'll begin to see how you have slowly formed yourself by what you have saved from others.
Clustering (a simplified version of mindmapping) is one technique that works well when ideas don't flow on their own. Choose something you'd enjoy thinking about, and put the idea in the center of the page and circle it. Then, without pause, make associations, placing them in new bubbles and tying them to the main idea. The result is a complex matrix of ideas, many of which you didn't even know you had. If you wish, compose these thoughts (now or later) into a cohesive paragraph or essay that says exactly what you want to say.
If you have trouble writing at some point, get creative with the writing techniques you use. We all have a subconscious mind that communicates to us in different ways. If you are stuck and have nothing to write, try something different from the usual.
Try recording snippets of conversations, facts, feelings, fantasies, descriptions, impressions, quotes, images, and ideas.
Pull ideas from the newspaper, a book you're reading, or a TV program you watched.
Pick a subject and look it up on the Web, using a search engine.
Pick a controversial topic and examine both sides of it.
If words don't flow, try another means of expression. Draw pictures. Make a collage from a magazine. Choose an interesting object in your house (you may want to take its picture or draw it, and include it in your journal). Explore how it connects with your life.
Use the technique that best suits the way in which you express yourself. You know your own mind and how it best communicates with the world. You'll have an even better sense of the way in which your mind works after the completion of a few journal entries.
Should I share my Spiritual Journal?
Of course you can share things you've learned from journaling, but that's different from handing someone your journal. Journals are private, unless you choose to share them with someone you trust, but think twice before sharing a journal.
Think about:
Why do I want to share my journal?
What kind of response do I want from the person?
Do I have an agenda right now for sharing this private part of myself?
Do I really want to put my journal into someone else's hands, or might I just talk with them
about a specific part of what I've journaled?
What would I feel if I didn't share this today?
Gordon McDonald writes:
I became aware, little by little, that God's Holy Spirit was directing my thoughts and insights as I wrote. On paper, the Lord and I were carrying on a personal communion. He was helping me, in the words of David, to 'search my heart'. He was prodding me to put words to my fears, shapes to my doubts. And when I was candid about it, then there would often come from Scripture or from the meditations of my own heart, the reassurances, the rebukes and admonitions that I so badly needed. But this began to happen only when journaling was employed." [Ordering your Private World.]
I don't think Gordon had those beneficial results right away. Like a sport, journaling takes some time to bring about noticeable results. One becomes better with practice, with keeping to the discipline, and with focus and intention.
Journaling can be hard work if one doesn't find a way to enjoy it.

Bibliography of Online references:
Spiritual Journals, Dan Phillips
Journaling: A Tool For Your Spirit, Susie Michelle Cortright
Journals, Diane Patterson
Spiritual Journals, Joyce Claus, MEd.
Keeping a Spiritual Journal, Gavin Williams
Devotional - 97-02-19 - Using A Spiritual Journal, David (last name not given)
How to keep a spiritual journal, Kevin Axe
Keeping a Spiritual Journal, Sherye Hanson
The Prayer Diary Or Spiritual Journal, (name of author not given)
Writing Exercise: Spiritual Journal, Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT
Keeping a Spiritual Journal, Daniel Victor
Keeping a Spiritual Journal, (name of author not given)
How to Keep a Spiritual Journal, Mary Warren, Forward Movement Publications pamphlet (Put title into their Search block.)
How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: A Guide to Journal Keeping for Inner Growth and Personal Recovery, Ronald Klug
Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God, Richard Peace
A Book of Life: Spiritual Journaling in the Twenty-First Century, Katrine Stewart
The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron