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Journaling and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday August 22 2023

Journaling and prayer

When I was in elementary school and middle school, I had a diary — one diary for all those years. I wrote in it only a few times a year, and mostly I noted details about events that had happened. In 11th grade, my English literature teacher wanted us to keep a journal, and I still have it. The pages are filled with very bad poetry I wrote, thoughts about books we had to read for class, and a few entries about emotions I was feeling. 

In journaling, Calhoun writes, I desire “to be alert to my life through writing and reflecting on God’s presence in, around, and through me.” [1] I could argue that in a very rudimentary fashion, the diary fulfilled the first few words of Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s statement of desire for journaling, as did the high school journal to a slightly greater extent. My childhood diary and high school journal indeed helped me “be alert to my life” in small, but still helpful, ways.

I was in my early thirties before I engaged in journaling again, and this time my journaling really did fulfill Calhoun’s statement of desire. I had two preschool kids, and I was struggling as a stay-at-home mom. “I am hurting” and “Help me, God” were the themes of my journals in those years. Later, after my kids started school, I continued to write about how I felt — a wider variety of thoughts and feelings — and I wrote brief prayers that corresponded to those feelings. Sometimes I even noticed things I could thank God for.

Calhoun notes that some Christians journal regularly, and others journal at times of stress or transition. She describes the wide variety of things that people might put in their journals in addition to their own thoughts and prayers: clippings, drawings, collages, articles, poems, and quotations. She also discusses the practice that many Christians engage in: listing prayer requests and answers to prayer. She lays out seven fruits of journaling (I am quoting her in these bullet points):

  • Keeping company with Jesus through reflective journaling
  • Listening to God and praying your life
  • Slowing down and reflecting on where God shows up in ordinary routines
  • Remembering God’s faithfulness throughout your journey
  • Leaving a legacy for others
  • Awareness of God’s way of turning all things for the good of those who love [Jesus] (Romans 8:28)
  • Awareness of phases and stages of your personal pilgrimage

Her list made me think of some interesting overlaps between journaling and other spiritual practices that can help us see the connections between prayer and journaling.

Journaling and pilgrimage. The last bullet point on Calhoun’s list of fruit refers to our personal pilgrimage. Usually, a personal pilgrimage involves physically going somewhere, perhaps to a place that was meaningful at some point in our lives. We can return to significant places in our memory by writing down specific things that happened and how we felt. If we write about the ways God helped us at a certain point in our lives, then the natural response is to turn to God in thankfulness prayers, or perhaps to ask the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and strengthen us in the same way as in that memory.

Journaling and mindfulness meditation. In addition to focusing on memories, journaling can help us rest in this moment. We can write about our current thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness — trying to live in this precise moment — is a wonderful fuel for thankfulness prayers as well as intercessory prayers about the things on our minds.

Journaling and slowing. Some people view slowing as a spiritual practice on its own. [2] Slowing can be done by walking more slowly, consciously trying not to multi-task, or slowing down any task we habitually do. Journaling can help with slowing, especially if we are writing by hand in a journal (rather than typing a journal on a computer, which can be useful in other ways). For me, slowing is a companion practice with Sabbath keeping. Slowing ourselves, with the goal of walking more consciously with Jesus, gives us wonderful space for prayer, and journaling can help us do that.

Journaling and unplugging. Increasingly, Christians are adopting the spiritual practice of unplugging. Calhoun gives this definition: “Unplugging calls us to leave the virtual world of technology (computers, email, cellphones, iPads, iPods, etc.) in order to become present to God and others.” If you’re like me, and you need a purpose in order to unplug, journaling might be that purpose. Both slowing and unplugging open up space in our complex lives, and trying to slow and unplug for the purpose of journaling can help us notice God’s presence and turn to Jesus in prayer.   

Since I have a fairly narrow definition of prayer — turning to God directly to speak, listen, or rest in God’s peace — I don’t think that journaling simply for the sake of being alert to God’s presence in my life is, in itself, prayer. But it’s a wonderful thing to do, and may very well help us pray more easily and more deeply.

Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, when we journal help us write words that enable us to see your presence with us and turn to you. 

(Next week: Spiritual practices and “life-giving non-cerebral prayer.” This is the 15th post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices, the first post of the series is here. That post also has a list of all the posts in the series thus far. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Previous posts that mention journaling and reflecting

[1] The quotation about journaling and the bullet point list come from the section on journaling in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, pages 65-67. (Adele Alhberg Calhoun, InterVarsity Press, 2015 edition.)
[2] Calhoun discusses slowing on pages 88-91.
[3] Calhoun’s section on unplugging is on pages 95-97.

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