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A Spiritual Formation Journal is for all who desire a more attentive and intentional spiritual life. For centuries journal writing has been used to bring the inner life into focus for examination and celebration. By means of reflection upon events, circumstances, and relationships, journal writing encourages an inner dialogue that promotes growth. This practice provides the pause necessary to see what is easily overlooked. In a journal, mysteries of the heart unfold.
My own journal writing began with my third-grade diary. The carefully guarded binder, complete with lock and key, was my introduction into a habit sustained now by many years and hundreds of spiral notebooks. My journals chronicle my story; they make me realize first of all that I have a story to share, if only with myself. But most of all, they are touchstones, altars where I meet God within me.
Journal writing has been called "spiritual autobiography." Michael Blumenthal describes the raw material from which we each mold and shape our story: "Deep down in some long-encumbered self, it is the story you have been writing all of your life." With our desire to explore aspects of our lives reflectively, creatively, and prayerfully, our journal writing becomes a record of our inner quest for meaning, and our search for God. Dan Wakefield, in The Story of Your Life, refers to this simultaneous process as a "pilgrimage to look for the source of one's faith and see one's experience in relation to that search,...writing about our search is 'a way to do theology.'" In Our Many Selves, ElizabethO'Connor explores the notion that we are only able to grow in our relationship with God to the extent that we are willing to know ourselves. "Though by and large the Church has not known how integral the search for self is to the search for God, her saints have always preached that the two are inextricably bound together." John Calvin writes, "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes, and gives birth to the other." As a youth I heard the Methodist evangelist Tommy Tyson say, "There are parts of me that haven't even heard of Jesus yet!" Reconciling "our parts" to God seems to be a lifelong undertaking.
Where we begin our journey of faith in one sense is where we remain with our multifaceted self, and with an unfathomable God.
And so our journal will contain a blend of discovery. It is a safe place to do exploration, shed our misconceptions, reclaim our lost or forgotten parts, recover the fragments that living makes of us at times, and cultivate the gift of new life. In this way, journal writing becomes a viable prayer form, and our journal our own book of psalms. In the privacy of personal reflection, insights are received, confessions are offered, progress is noted. Journal writing fosters a careful attention to our soul's condition, and we are better for the tending.
In all of life there are seasons to observe. A journal nurtures respect for the passage of time, allowing us to sense our own inner rhythm or dance with life. As the cycles of nature enact their pageantry of birth and death, they can prompt realization of the soul's need to celebrate a beginning or mourn an ending. At such times a journal becomes a tool, a camera that frames our life, dividing it into manageable segments.
Inner questions often emerge in the process. A good question always has a prodding quality that is invaluable to our faith. And a good journal tracks these questions even if they remain unanswered for years. As author James Newby notes, "In matters of faith there will always be questions. Learning to love the questions while living in faith is the creative tension where spiritual growth takes place." Reflective questions pave new highways within; they break up the concrete of old, restrictive thinking so God's Spirit can flow. "I have learned to write and describe to the Father in journal form my hardness of soul and spirit," says Gordon MacDonald. He continues, "Usually after three or more paragraphs of frank talk, I find the inner stone begins to break up."
God promises in Ezekiel, "I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God" (11:19b-20). Journals are a record or landmark in this redemption process. They keep us accountable on a daily basis, expectant and watchful for redemptive possibilities in each new day.
Most often this redemptive work is done in the context of a caring community; it does not happen solely in isolation. Whether it is a church or a small group, we all need safe places to be heard and known as we are...and as we hope to be.
Often when we cannot see God at work in our own life, we are strengthened by evidence of his Presence in others who candidly share their joys and struggles. Where one is weak, another is strong for a friend's sake. In this fellowship with other, very human beings, we find a place of commonality in our desire to grow in our faith. Together, with time and patience, we slowly develop the skill of recognizing the good hand of God. The psalmist declares, "I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps. 27:13, NKJV). Encouragement always comes when we catch glimpses of God at work on our behalf. And that is often...