Introductory Note:

One of the habits that can help us engage in prayer and in devotional reading more deeply is journaling. For some of us, thoughts develop best when we write them out on paper. Richard Foster writes, “Above all, a prayer journal has a way of focusing, clarifying, keeping us honest. Self-centered prayers become manifestly so when committed to paper—even to us. Insights that are hazy figures on our horizon sometimes become crystal clear when written down.” Foster’s description here may inspire you to adopt this spiritual practice as part of your larger personal plan for loving God and growing in grace.

Renovaré Team

Few things can nudge us toward God more than the keep­ing of a prayer jour­nal. What is a prayer jour­nal?” Well, if prayer is the ongo­ing inter­ac­tion we have with God, and a jour­nal is a record of those expe­ri­ences and thoughts we deem valu­able, then a prayer jour­nal” pre­serves those inter­ac­tions, events, and reflec­tions from our exter­nal and inter­nal worlds which track our per­son­al his­to­ry with God. It is an Ebenez­er of sorts — a way of declar­ing hith­er­to has the Lord helped us.”

His­to­ry is replete with the prayer jour­nals of dis­ci­ples of Jesus Christ. From Augustine’s Con­fes­sions to Lady Julian’s Show­ings to Pascal’s Pen­sées to Woolman’s Jour­nal to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Mark­ings to Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark, we are priv­i­leged to share in some of the finest of Chris­t­ian devo­tion. These jour­nals, of course, mere­ly rep­re­sent and illus­trate the myr­i­ads upon myr­i­ads of unpub­lished prayer jour­nals of fol­low­ers of the Way through­out the cen­turies. It is a long and hon­ored tradition.

Ques­tion: What do you do with a prayer jour­nal? Answer: Almost any­thing you want. There is no right way or wrong way to go about a prayer jour­nal. You are a unique indi­vid­ual before God with spe­cial gifts that only God can reveal and spe­cial needs that only God can sat­is­fy. Togeth­er, you and God will find the prayer and jour­nal pil­grim­age that is best for you.

Hav­ing said this, it still might be use­ful to you if I made a few gen­er­al com­ments. I encour­age you, first of all, to com­ment freely on the events of your day. This dif­fers from nota­tions in a diary by its focus on why and where­fore rather than who or what. The exter­nal events are spring­boards for under­stand­ing God’s deep­er work­ings in the heart. Per­haps a par­tic­u­lar encounter stirs up feel­ings of anger and defen­sive­ness in you, or maybe pride and hope. Why? What is God teach­ing you through this expe­ri­ence? Remem­ber, his is a scruti­ny of love.

As you write, you will dis­cov­er times when find­ing just the right word or phrase becomes impor­tant. You might begin with a prayer such as, Jesus, teach me your love.” But as the process of prayer leads you deep­er into the real­i­ty you are seek­ing, you will notice the prayer chang­ing ever so slight­ly — and pro­found­ly; Lord, let me enter your love,” or maybe Jesus, let me receive your embrace.”

So when seek­ing to expe­ri­ence prayer, I think it is wise to allow plen­ty of free space for cross­ing things out, chang­ing direc­tion, adding com­men­tary, draw­ing arrows or oth­er scrib­bles, and so forth. The same holds true if you are writ­ing poet­ry — even more so. Time spent dis­cov­er­ing the right word or phrase that gives voice to your heart cry is time nev­er wast­ed. You may even want to set aside a page for a par­tic­u­lar prayer or poem and date each time you return to it, mak­ing revi­sions, notes, or addi­tion­al thoughts.

On the oth­er hand, it is impor­tant not to get too tan­gled up in words. Some­times it is best to let thoughts tum­ble forth unedit­ed and uncen­sored. You may want to write by means of free asso­ci­a­tion or stream of con­scious­ness. (Some­times I like to doo­dle!) Through­out, be open to Divine sur­pris­es — new ways of see­ing, think­ing, hear­ing, feeling.

At times, when I am pray­ing for anoth­er per­son, I will place their name at the top of the page and then prayer­ful­ly begin to sketch out a pic­ture. Per­haps a tree with roots going down deep and strong branch­es reach­ing sky­ward. Per­haps a rose open­ing up to the sun­light. Per­haps a wall of pro­tec­tion sur­round­ing the per­son. What­ev­er. And my lit­tle pic­ture becomes my prayer on behalf of another.

Above all, a prayer jour­nal has a way of focus­ing, clar­i­fy­ing, keep­ing us hon­est. Self-cen­tered prayers become man­i­fest­ly so when com­mit­ted to paper — even to us. Insights that are hazy fig­ures on our hori­zon some­times become crys­tal clear when writ­ten down. Vac­il­lat­ing inde­ci­sion some­times turns into march­ing orders.

So, I com­mend you to God as you begin a prayer jour­nal. Who knows. Per­haps, just per­haps, through the process of prayer jour­nal writ­ing you will, like Moses, catch a glimpse of the back of God. But even if you see noth­ing and hear noth­ing, you can still rest assured that you too are hid­den in the cleft of the rock. 

Richard J. Fos­ter (From Com­ing Home, Harper­San­Fran­cis­co, 1994.)

Pho­to by Lawrence Ari­tao on Unsplash

Text First Published May 1994 · Last Featured on August 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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