Ready for an adventure in prayer?
A prayer journal can help us to see how God is working in our lives. Becky Widdows shares her own experience and offers advice on how to get started
Boxmoor Convent 26th January 1979
We drove up a steep, icy hill into the grounds of the convent. The car stuck in the snow and we had to push. We were warmly greeted at the door by West Indian nun, Sister Mary Kathleen, who ushered us into a sparsely furnished sitting room. We stood awkward and silent, painfully aware of not violating their silence. Anne introduced us all, and then Sister told Anne to take me to the Priest’s room, whilst she took the other three to the guest rooms. My worst fears were confirmed! I was to be stuck alone at the top of the house, “up the laundry steps”. When Anne asked me if I minded, I was tempted to say that I did, but I meekly shook my head, picked up my case and followed her.
So began an early prayer journal and so too began an adventure into prayer that I had looked for and longed for, and in which journaling plays a major part.
I visited Boxmoor Convent with three students and a tutor when I was studying for a year at St John’s, Nottingham. Before my visit, I had journaled on and off . . . and after my visit I continued to journal on and off . . . I’m a slow learner! Now, 30 years later, it’s a more regular part of my walk with God.
Getting started (more effectively than I did)
The first and most important thing to know is that there’s no right or wrong way to journal, choose a way that works for you:
+ Notebook and pen: I started with a cheap telephone pad and biro, moved to a loose-leaf file, and now use a posh journal with a Parker pen.
+ Computer: typed;
or using voice activated software.
Keeping going . . .
. . . is difficult! It takes discipline. If you try to write too much, you’ll probably give up, so making time to write a little each day is a good way to start, and suddenly you will find journaling has become a habit.
What’s a journal for?
+ Exploring the wild(er)ness within: God lights the way into the dark interior of our lives and, as we explore and journey together, we deepen our intimate relationship with him.
+ Setting up markers: Prayer is a journey without a map – but as we travel, we set up markers in our journal that help us remember, “This is the way I have gone with God”.
+ Recognising landmarks: Keeping a spiritual journal helps us to practice recognising the ways of God. We see repeated the way he speaks, the things he does. We become familiar with his voice. A written record makes this tangible, more easily recognisable.
What can I put in my journal?
There are no rules, except perhaps that of being as honest as possible.
But these questions could help:
* What has happened in my life in the last 24 hours that seems significant?
* What am I grateful for? What has disturbed me or made me uncomfortable?
* Where have I seen God, or where has he been absent?
* hat has provoked strong feelings in me during this time?
* Are there things that have struck me as frustrating, funny, unusual, relevant, boring or interesting?
In answer to those questions, your journal might contain anything:
+ from prose, to poetry, to prayers;
+ from drawings, to photos, to mind maps;
+ from newspaper articles, to letters, to Bible verses;
+ from quotations, to stories, to dreams;
+ from memories, to fears, to joys
+ or maybe just silence – simply write the date and nothing more.
Exercise 1: Why not stop at this point and practice?
Try writing down what has happened in the last 24 hours. Include events, feelings, thoughts, people. Don’t think too hard, just write . . .
I wonder how honest you have been able to be? When we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, we are more likely to grow, to become more Christ-like and to deepen our relationship with him.
But honesty is revealing. How can we be sure our journal will not be read?
Private! Keep out!
+ You could buy a box that locks.
+ Password your computer file.
+ You can make an agreement with your family or friends that they will never read your journal, and if you die they will throw it away unread.
+ Stick a note on your journal saying the above!
Fear is an enemy of journaling: fear of publicity, fear of doing it wrong or even fear that you’re too old to start.
Whatever you do, don’t let fear stop you from journaling.
Why not put down your thoughts/fears/hopes about journaling. Try using something different to the prose of the last exercise, for example:
+ use colours and doodle or draw;
+ put your words into a poem, a letter or a prayer;
+ cut bits out of a newspaper and stick them in;
+ choose some coloured strands of wool that represent these things and weave them together.
Don’t forget to look back
In reality my journal contains a lot of waffle – me putting on paper my confused, meandering, repetitive thoughts. My cries, joys and longings are poured into the ears of a patient, listening God. Almost always when I write, I know I have been heard.
When my kingdom has been disturbed and my rights disregarded, anger goes into my journal, often written in large letters, or messy drawings.
And then time after time my journal includes God’s voice. Not always a voice heard or necessarily noticed at the time, but each month I try to re-read what I’ve written, and as I do I see God’s delicate finger-print, or his dirty great footprint setting right what’s wrong in me and pointing out the next bit of path to follow.
When my visit to Boxmoor Convent ended, I wrote in my journal:
“Sister Mary Kathleen’s parting words to me were ‘Carry on growing’, and I knew how much there was behind those words. My whole being yearns towards growing in God. I realise how little I know of the path of prayer and how much I still have to learn.”
And nearly 31 years later, I would still write the same words! Not that I have stood still, I have roamed far with God, setting up markers as we’ve travelled together, but there remain mountains ahead that God and I will climb. I’m still aware of how little I know of the path of prayer and how much I have yet to learn.
Journaling has been a useful item in my travel kit. Is God inviting you to pack your journal and take it with you, as you and he travel together?