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.
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 These journals, of course, merely represent and illustrate the myriads upon myriads of unpublished prayer journals of followers of the Way throughout the centuries.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.
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Richard J. Foster (From Coming Home, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.)