Text: “Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. (Proverbs 3:3)
We often have racing thoughts, which basically go nowhere. Especially if we are upset or in emotional turmoil. How do we sort them out? How do we get a sense of perspective? It can help if we write them down. This puts our thoughts on a page.
In previous generations it was common to have a diary. Has anyone done that for a time? Or now? Today most people post on Facebook or use social media. But that is hardly a private space. I would like to focus today on the therapeutic and spiritual value of having a journal.
Keeping a journal is natural and straightforward. You write your experiences, thoughts, and feelings down on the page. This can take many forms such as a paper diary or on your computer in a word document. You can be creative using photos or drawings or art. Think of mediaeval manuscripts which incorporated words with art and often playful cartoonlike images. See the novel by the local author Robin Cadwallader with her Book of Colours.
The writing of a journal, can be a private experience and not to be shared with others unless by your choice. So consider security, perhaps with a locked file or password USB.
How applied in psychology:
When I was working as a psychologist, I would often see people in the various stages of their grief process. This might be after the death of a loved one, the loss of a child, or a painful separation. Once I saw a person after the death of a pet. I would often encourage my patient to begin a journal with a focus on the loss.
For example, I will use Amanda as a composite example. Her husband Roger died of a heart attack after they were together for 40 years. It was a complex relationship. He had a problem with alcohol and was often unfaithful. He was prominent in a political party, and sometimes his antics were the stuff of gossip. However, she was blessed to have three wonderful children, now adults with their own children. I encouraged her to write the story of their relationship beginning with how they met and to incorporate photos of their time together. It took Amanda about three months to do this. She said that it helped her to sleep better, “When I had racing thoughts I could get up and put them on the page. Then I can get back to sleep.” She said, “It was helpful to honour the good that we had, and to sort out the rubbish. I could see some of the ways I contributed to problems in our marriage. It was not all Roger!” It was helpful for her to move from more black-and-white thinking about her relationship to a more nuanced appreciation of her adult life.
I am painfully aware that when I ask a grieving person to do this, it is a very hard task and emotionally demanding. However, as many people can testify, it can be deeply therapeutic and assists in the emotional process of recovery, what Freud called grief work.
How relevant to Spirituality:
Over the centuries people are found great benefit in spiritual journalling. For example, you can read St Augustine’s Confessions (=400AD) which is a colourful account of his spiritual journey from his ‘sins of youth’ to be one of the most influential theologians in the history of the church. This has all the elements of Christian journalling in that Augustinian described his spiritual journey, with insights he gained and applied this to his relationship with God. It is also prayerful with much ‘talking to God’.
I have written a couple of biographies: John and Janet Wicking, and Bishop Owen Dowling. Hopefully this honours the story of their lives. I have also written my own story (not published!). This has helped me to see my journey in a larger context of my family history, the story of my parents and their relationship, my marriage and children, and my faith journey over the last 50 years. There are wonderful connections, and I can see how God has moved in my life, and how a times I have resisted God’s influence.
A spiritual journal can take many forms. One of the most influential was developed by Ira Progoff (1921–1998). This intense form of journaling (or process meditation) includes a dialogue section for the personification of things, a ‘depth dimension’ to access the unconscious and other places for recording remembrances and meditations. There are helpful suggestions on how to focus, for example:
- Period Log with a focus on the last month, helping to assess where you are in the growth process.
- Period Image is a present tense focus on thoughts and feelings.
- Life Steppingstones looks at significant events that were not properly processed.
- Life History Log looks at the whole history of the self, like an autobiography.
You can get a workbook to learn the method (Amazon $43). See how the Intensive Journal process can enhance contemplative practice.
Popular spiritual writer Richard Rohr said that it had a powerful impact in his life when he did a workshop. Workshops are run by the Eremos Institute · c/o Pitt Street Uniting Church · 264 Pitt Street · Sydney, NSW 2000 · Australia.
There are many different options once you decide to journal. You can easily find something that appeals. For example, what has been called verse mapping, read a chapter of the Bible and ponder a verse that strikes you. Use your journal to write down your responses to the verse.
Sometimes life is so busy that we live it, as it were skimming the surface, but not really experiencing it or reflecting on the meaning for us. Journalling is one way to slow down, take yourself seriously and deepening your relationship with God.
The Rev Dr Bruce Stevens is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist and supply minister at GUC.