Editor's note:

As a part­ner to soli­tude and silence, prayer jour­nal­ing can­not be beat. Yet, it is a help­ful tool not only in those times of retreat, but as an every­day prac­tice. This week, we will look at rea­sons to keep a prayer jour­nal, selec­tions from a few famous” prayer jour­nals, and var­i­ous tips on get­ting started.

We get start­ed today with Richard Fos­ter’s whys and hows of prayer journaling.

—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 back­side 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.)

Originally published May 1994

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