Before the weekend, I’d never fully understood or embraced the practice of journaling. I’d heard the phrase bandied around, but I didn’t really know what it was or how it was any different to diary writing.
The kinds of writing I’ve done over the years are diary writing (somewhat sporadically), journalistic writing and creative writing. I’ve never kept a spiritual journal per se, although certainly my diaries have been littered with prayers over the years.
So the weekend saw those of us on the retreat delve deeper into this mystical art. It drew people who loved words and writing; people drawn to things spiritual, and mostly wizened old women with interesting stories to tell.
I have a better idea now what journaling is about, although I have to admit I haven’t entirely fathomed it. But hopefully I can share some insights here.
‘The only rule with journaling is to write the date’ we were told on the first evening as the 16 of gathered together in a circle for the introductory session. And there is no such thing as a ‘spiritual’ journal, as if ‘spiritual’ journals are separate from the rest of life. Our journals are about where and how we find God in our lives.
Apparently spiritual journaling has its roots in the monastic tradition – monks would write down three things at the end of each day for they were grateful to God for. So that evening we were asked to write down things we were grateful for in our lives before the day ended. I was still feeling on edge about all kinds of things after a stressful week at work so it was really good to begin the weekend in this way, in an attitude of thanks.
This was one of many journaling activities we were guided through during the weekend. In between short talks and times for silence, we would take ourselves off – to another part of the house, or to the beautiful garden – and work our way through the activities, before coming back into a circle and sharing (if we wanted to) our thoughts. I really valued having that time and space.
One activity involved writing a ‘review’ of our spiritual life to date, and another was to write a list of 100 things – things we loved, things that helped nurture us, people that loved us. I thought about the things that nurtured me in my life, such as the outdoors or time with friends – I managed to come up with 100 which surprised me. Another activity was letter writing – we were asked to write a letter to ourselves, from God maybe, or a friend or family member.
We could be as creative as we wanted to be with this. As we came back as a group it was interesting to see what these simple writing exercises opened up for people. The women were really open about their spiritual journeys and their lives in general, helped maybe by the openness of the course leaders themselves. We all listened, not passing comment or judgement in any way. Some people didn’t take to some of the exercises, and this was fine too.
I found the spiritual review really helpful to see how my spiritual life had developed so far – the ups and downs, the times of doubt, of happiness, of perseverance. The ‘Johari window’ exercise was helpful too, where we had to divide a page into a quadrant – and in one box write ‘where I am’, in another ‘where I want to be’, and in the other two ‘what will get in my way’ and what will help me’ (in getting to where I want to be). We were asked to fill in the boxes. I rarely stop and think where I want to be 10 months or 10 years from now, so this was really helpful.
We were encouraged to read back over our journal entries, to think about how the words spoke to us; to notice anything that jumped out at us.
‘When we open ourselves up to the spiritual in our journaling, transformation happens,’ one of the course leaders told us. I guess this is what makes journaling a bit different from everyday diary writing. ‘Journals can be places of joy that we go to,’ she said.
Many of us on the course agreed that there is something powerful at work in journaling – in getting thoughts knotted up in our heads down onto paper, and while doing this also inviting the spirit to guide us through our writing. There was something freeing about it, something very healing.