Keeping a brief record of our daily journey with Jesus is essential for our spiritual formation. The idea of keeping a regular journal may seem like a burden. But if done correctly, it doesn’t need to take up a lot of time or energy—and the rewards are immense. By means of a journal, we pay attention to our daily thoughts, words, and deeds. Journaling frees us from the constant back and forth of shifting moods. It helps to extend our memory beyond the present moment. And, by reviewing our journal at regular intervals, we are able to tell ourselves the truth about the story that God is making of our lives. (If you want a little more detail about why journaling is central to our spiritual formation, go here.)
The following is a brief outline of how to begin keeping a journal for spiritual formation.
Use either a sturdy, portable paper journal or a simple digital tool like Evernote that will be easily accessible to you even while traveling. There are many considerations in choosing between the traditional pen and paper media and the digital tools that we can explore in depth at a later time. But when starting out, simply choose a method that appeals to you and begin. It isn’t difficult to switch should the need or desire arise.
Aim for making your journal entries as late in the day as possible. The real power of the journal is to help us to see. We want to look back over our day and uncover the times and places of God’s interaction with us, to better hear his voice in the ordinary course of our day, and to see with gratitude and awe the signs of his passing. It’s difficult to do this after a night of sleep. And while the idea of keeping a journal throughout the day is certainly possible, such an involved practice is best reserved for special occasions such as the private retreat. Writing our journals in the evening before we sleep allows us to replay the events of the day in our mind and note those things which the Holy Spirit brings to mind.
Begin with prayer and then replay the day’s events in your mind. If you currently have the habit of an evening prayer time, it is best to write your journal entry after a prayerful examination of your day. The traditional prayer of Examen is ideal for this. If you don’t currently have an evening prayer practice, there is no urgent need to add one now. As with all spiritual disciplines, we must avoid the temptation of demanding too much change too quickly. There will be time later to develop this aspect of your daily rule. For now, simply ask the Lord to give you insight into your day. Don’t try to write anything down yet, just replay the events of the day, looking for signs of God’s presence with you.
Keep each journal entry as simple as possible. It’s tempting for some to turn the spiritual formation journal into a writing exercise. There is certainly nothing wrong with using the events of our lives as an opportunity for beautiful writing, but it’s wise to keep the two tasks separate. The keeping of a spiritual formation journal is too important to be hindered by writer’s block or lack of a creative mood. For each entry, record the date, the day, and the time of writing. Summarize the day in a brief sentence and then, using a bulleted list, record anything noteworthy from this or a similar trigger list:
- What moments can I savor with gratitude?
- What did I hear from the Holy Scriptures today?
- What opportunities did I have to love God and others?
- How did I do in keeping the spiritual disciplines to which I am committed?
- What thoughts or events affected my heart (for better or worse)?
- Is there anything that I left undone that I should do tomorrow?
Transfer any action items to your list of commitments or tasks. The act of keeping a spiritual formation journal is first of all an act of perception and truth-telling. Many of the insights we gain are just that: insights. But in the course of seeking the truth about ourselves and the ordinary events of our day, when we sense God moving us to action, we dare not disobey. Place the item on a list of actions to which you are committed—this will help you more easily gain the peace you need for sleep. For me, this often takes the form of putting a task into my list of automated reminders on my phone. Having an always-available master action list is very helpful for this.
Release the day in all its beauty and suffering to God. To slightly misquote Jesus, today has had enough trouble of its own and tomorrow is not yet arrived. Ask forgiveness for those thoughts, words, and deeds where you have failed or fallen short. Give glory to God for those moments where his grace touched you in the midst of your day. Trust God to empower you to keep your commitments in the day that is to come. And then release the past day into God’s hands and allow the peace of God to embrace you as you sleep.