01 October 2009

Keeping a personal journal or scrapbook

“Write in a book what you have seen ...” (Revelation 1: 11)


Patrick Comerford

Thursdays, 2-3 p.m., Brown Room

Thursday 1 October 2009:

1, Keeping a personal journal and/or scrapbook

Opening Prayer:

Collect for the guidance of the Holy Spirit:

who from of old taught the hearts of your faithful people
by sending them the light of your Holy Spirit:
Grant us the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort;
though the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 330)

Part 1: Introduction to the course:

Last year, before we started our module on Spirituality for Ministry, we briefly discussed exploring our own understandings of what spirituality is. Now on Thursday afternoons, we have an hour to start the week that is devoted to considering and deepening our own spirituality as we prepare to go out in mission and ministry.

Since last year’s module, or since your experiences of your summer placements, has your understanding of the term spirituality changed or grown?

How has that change been helped or facilitated by your summer placements?

Did you have the opportunity to reflect on your spiritual growth and development during the summer months?

What is the relationship between spirituality and prayer as you understand it now, now that you have moved into your final year here?

What are your expectations of this module this year?

[Handout of schema, with schedule, and course outline. Discuss.]

Part 2: Keeping a spiritual journal or scrapbook:

Now write what you have seen, what is and what is to take place. – Revelation 1: 19 (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2009)


I am the sort of a man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing. – Saint Augustine, Epistle 143: 2-3.

Journaling can be a powerful tool for spiritual formation and spiritual growth. As a wise man once said: “A life worth living, is a life worth recording.”

What purpose is served by keeping a journal? Well, there are nearly as many reasons for keeping a journal as there are people who do it.

Anne Frank kept her diary while she was locked away in hiding in Amsterdam. To this day and for many more generations to come, she shares a world, a life, at an era where human dignity and freedom for some was a crime. Her diary keeps it fresh in our collective memory. It is a timeless record of emotions, actions and reactions.

Explorers charted their days, their travels, the glorious and the gory episodes as they made their way into unknown territories.

Today, journal keeping is growing in popularity, the why and what discussed openly on on-line forums, groups and amongst cyber friends offering one another insightful and encouraging thoughts and discussions.

Journal keepers empower themselves. One person who journals has written: “I write in my journals to help to ‘set the day straight.’ By writing things down, it helps me to sort through the day. It also helps to let the angry go and remember the good times … On a more pragmatic note, my journals also serve to jog my memory and inspire me when I am writing a memoir, novel, or screenplay.”

Journaling and prayer

Journaling is a form of prayer. In it, you express your thoughts in writing instead of orally or silently. It is not like a diary – you don't use a prayer journal to record daily details – but more like a travel record of your spiritual journey.

Journaling can take many forms. It can be written as letters to the Trinity, Jesus, your soul, or a saint. It can be poetry. It could be a point form list of thoughts, or a meditation on a subject.

What is journaling?

A journal is not a diary in the normal sense.

Of course a journal is a diary of sorts. But, while a diary records the events of a day or week, a journal focuses on the feelings and emotions of the period in question.

A journal is a helpful way of keeping up with our spiritual journey. A spiritual journal is different from a regular journal. It is a written record of personal reactions to spiritual matters.

Over the years, a personal spiritual journal can be helpful in discovering God’s active work in your life.

You could keep your journal with your Bible to record import new insights, prayers from the Bible that have been helpful to you, and meaningful passages from spiritual books you are reading.

The importance of a spiritual journal is that it gathers strength in helping the person who journals with daily spiritual life, especially if you write often in the journal. A journal of spiritual materials grows more powerful as it is used.

Your journal will be unique. Instead of being an approach to writing that emphasises your life and how you relate to the world around you, you are documenting your inner relationship with God. This includes writing down what you believe “God” is or what God means for us.

But there is no single way to use a journal to deepen your prayer life. There is no right or wrong way. No-one will read it but yourself.

Before you start

First of all, buy a journal that has a feel of importance about it. Go to a decent bookshop and buy a journal that is properly bound. This type of journal has a feel of permanence to it, and it will last.

Beginning a journal

You may find it helpful to include entries by date. This allows a quick retrieval of materials that have previously been entered.

What should I include in my journal?

Do you already write down your thoughts, your innermost feelings, the joys and the pains embedded deep in your heart? Does it help for you to “verbalise” in words your plans and your promises? What about those forgotten events?

There are no rules about keeping a journal. You will find guidelines, suggestions, ideas, inspirations, and examples from other people. Making someone else's experience the rule for your own journal changes it from spiritual development into an exercise in rule-following.

Virtually anything can go into a journal – it is the receptacle for your thoughts, hopes and dreams, fears, struggles, doubts and questions, happy memories ...

You may wish to register your anger over a particular experience or dialogue with yourself about how good it felt when someone affirmed a gift of yours. Your journal is the place where you can be fully honest with your feelings, with yourself.

Don’t restrict yourself in what you write in your journal. It is a raw and powerful way of communicating with yourself and with God in you.

A helpful way to begin a day entry is to write a brief sentence to record and briefly describe events which are taking place in your life that day. Describe anything which comes to your mind. State the facts in recent experiences as briefly as possible and make them a matter of prayer concern.

You may write into your journal Bible verses, sermon notes, or phrases that have a special meaning for you.

You might like to explore your feelings as you study the Bible.

Experiences that have been meaningful to you should be added.

New awareness of God’s revealing himself to you should be included.

You might transcribe and include quotes from books that are meaningful to you.

Of course you can include any thoughts that come to your mind.

You should note any images that touch your life. Examples might include a bird on the window ledge, a fox or a squirrel on the grass outside, or rain patterns on the pane of glass. In this building, it may be the sound of the heating gurgling through the pipes in your room, or, after 11 p.m., the sounds made by other residents, and how you feel about that.

Make a special note of feelings you have. Write how you feel about events, persons, ideas, and relationships.

What books are you reading? Keep a list of books you read. Write phrases from these books in your journal. Or you might write your reflections on a movie you’ve seen, the spiritual significance of music you’ve been listening to.

Note “anything that rings a bell in your life” in your journal.
Every month, summarise the month. What were the key events that happened in the past month?

Sometimes you may look back on what you have written and squirm, thinking, “How could I have written that?” But don't cross out earlier writings– you wrote what you wrote because it expressed what you felt at a particular time. Respect your earlier feelings and thoughts. If you resort to “correcting” your journal as you look back on it, you will sanitise and minimise any learnings and insights you might otherwise gain from your journal.

How should I begin?

Some write with daily devotion; others write only sporadically as the need to express lights upon them. Some record a mundane account of events; others highlight one or two events and launch into an essay of emotion about the event.

Write fast, write everything, include everything.

Write from your feelings, accept whatever comes to mind, and note it in your journal.

As you begin, ask yourself: “What is the most important thing going on in my life right now?”

You might like to begin with an image: “This period of my life has been like a narrow bridge.”

Try to write all “the feelings” you have in one day.

In addition, you will find it helpful to keep photographs, news clippings, and notes of world events, of church events, perhaps even of sporting events and family events, that are important to you. For example, I keep tickets – tickets to the opera, to the cinema, to archaeological sites, to museums, boarding passes for flights. And when I come across them years later, it’s like remembering a smell that can never be recorded, a touch that can never be felt again, a voice that may never be heard again, and making it real once again for one special moment.

What devices should I use?

Feelings, descriptions, reflections (re-looking at the past), images, thoughts, and “whatever comes to mind” are among the things that should be included in your journal.

You might keep lists of events, past happenings, or important events that have happened in your own life. I always keep a record of flights, of church services of been to and taken part in.

Dialogue with yourself. Carry on an imaginary conversation with yourself. Talk to yourself and listen to yourself. This can be helpful.

In summary, your spiritual journal is the key to developing your spiritual life. Work hard with it and your life will be greatly enriched.


If you are not already journaling, then I would suggest that you will need to allow yourself the gift of at least half an hour each day for the first week. After the first week, you may find that this is too often for you and that you prefer writing in your journal every second or third day.

It is quite likely that you might find there is little to say on one day and heaps to write or talk about on another day.

Half an hour is a only an approximate guide and you will find your own pattern that suits you. But be sure not to short-change yourself and give up early on. Apply yourself earnestly in dialoguing with God and with yourself about your day.


Your room may be the best place – there is a good scriptural reason for doing it there, I suppose. But wherever it is, it needs to be a place free of interruptions and disruptive noises.


Begin by marking this time as a time of prayer, a time for you and God. You may find lighting a candle helps mark this as a prayer space and time. Some of you might like to place the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, an icon or sacred image on the desk before you. Or you might sing a reflective song to yourself, or have some sacred or classical music on in the background.

Then take some time to think back over your day. Reflect on the things you did well as well as acknowledging the weak spots in the day. Ask yourself, where did I let myself down today? What could have been the more preferable path to have taken? How might I improve on my actions tomorrow in light of this learning?

Allow yourself to take credit for what you did well in your day, giving yourself a pat on the back. Describe your feelings to God, what it is like to feel the things you experience. And feel free to express the anxieties, anger or fears as much as the happy and joyous moments and dreams during the day.

What now?
Wrap up your time of journaling by looking back over your journal entry for the day. Let yourself appreciate the presence of God in your day – in the good and the not-so-good moments.

Finish by reminding yourself once again of the one thing you will attempt to do differently tomorrow and affirming yourself in what you did well during this day.

Your journal and your prayer life:

How about taking your journal to the chapel or some other place you feel comfortable about praying in? Spend a few minutes bringing yourself into the presence of God before writing about it.

Spend a few minutes each night writing about how well you were a mirror of the love of Jesus throughout the day, and how you could do better.

Write your own prayers to God, to God as the Trinity, to members of the Trinity, to Jesus …

Finding a focus:

If you are a beginner at this, or you are new to journaling, it may be a good idea for you to focus on something specific while journaling. You might use the Lectionary readings of the day, or other Bible verses you may be studying. When you are more familiar and comfortable with prayer journaling, this may not be necessary.

Reflect on the verses you have chosen, reading them over and over until you feel that you get a message from them. Again, this message could take many forms. Then simply write that message down in your journal (any notebook can be used for this purpose).

There are pre-planned journals with readings for reflection and questions for you to answer included, and you may find these helpful. You can usually find these in the religious books section of bookshops.

But do not be afraid to try experimenting with many different ways of journaling your experiences and thoughts until you find one that is comfortable. Don’t be surprised if a different way works better in a few months. Don’t be afraid to change when change is appropriate, and don’t be afraid to keep experimenting.

As you gradually fill your journal, or your second or third journal, be sure to keep them. In a few years or months, you can flip back and see how you have grown in your spiritual life.

Blogging, journaling and spiritual formation

How does blogging compare with journaling? Blogging has connections to journaling. But, while the journal is a private affair, a blog is public. A blog moves the journal past the merely personal and inward pursuit and invites others into the journey, becoming a communal process. Theological reflection is necessarily a communal process, and so blogging can be a bridge between journaling and the process of reflective theology.

Paul Fromont, in a reflective project for the Journal of Contemplative Spirituality on blogging as spiritual formation, found that blogging can be a spiritual practice, a creative component of a personal (or communal) rule or rhythm. He wrote: “It creatively recovers and re-mixes several traditional ‘practices’ such as: study, journaling and self-examination, discernment (recognising and responding to God); community; lectio divina; spiritual friendship, pilgrimage; the sharing of resources; service, encouragement, guidance and prayer. Blogging too requires intentionality and discipline.”

Mike Riddell, in Beyond Ground Zero, writes about “cybermonks” in what he calls an exercise in poetic imagination. But while blogging may be a form of journaling, is it equivalent to or a natural modernisation of the spiritual discipline of journal writing?

In the spiritual discipline of journal writing, the intention is to have a dialogue with God and oneself. There is no third party eavesdropping in. In journaling, one can be as open as humanly possible and be reception to the working of the Holy Spirit. Blogging on the other hand is public. Even when you make your blog private, you cannot be sure that your privacy will be respected. Is it possible for me to conduct an intimate conversation with God when I know strangers will be reading what I have written? What may be even worse is the temptation to “play to the audience,” a temptation that I am certainly aware of as a blogger and one of the reasons for not having a counter on my blog pages. Playing to the audience, to the public, to the readers you imagine you have, can be a harmful sort of spiritual formation, growth and development.

Scrapbooks as journaling

A journal could include, or be primarily made up of drawings, photographs, pieces from nature (e.g. unusual leaves, stones, etc ... ) that have true worth in your soul.

It could include quotations from poetry that you find inspiring.

It may include cuttings from newspaper, a prayer or reflection clipped from a service sheet, a quote from a sermon, a book review, a book cover that reminds you of a book you’ve read, a ticket from the cinema for a movie that was moving, a bus or train or plane ticket that reminds you of a place of special pilgrimage, a prayer card or a postcard.

Some concluding notes

Your journal may become a treasure over time as you document your spiritual explorations and discoveries. You might add special poems, inspiring pictures, or even letters written from dear friends. You can add whatever you wish.

Allow yourself to write whatever bubbles to your mind’s surface. Don’t censor yourself. Most of all, enjoy yourself. Hopefully, you will come to know and love the person writing your journal ... and in that you will be rewarded more than you might imagine.

What if I’m not comfortable with journaling?

Some of you will ask: What if I’m not comfortable with journaling? Some people find journaling works for them, but others will not get as much out of it. Either way, you are being asked to begin with this exercise so that you become familiar with it. You may decide to move onto or back to different prayer styles. But you might then find you can use your journal to talk to God and to yourself about how you experience each type of prayer, noting highs and lows, joys and struggles.

You will find that the journal becomes a significant gauge of your progress in this journey, and you may well appreciate not stopping with the conclusion of this unit.

Dealing with some difficulties

Occasionally some things will play on our mind and we can find ourselves berating ourselves over a perceived mistake in our day. If such an occasion persists, more journaling will hopefully assist you in reconciling your struggle. If not, you may wish to approach someone you trust in order to discern this further. Some people find a Spiritual Director very helpful in this regard. We may explore the role of a Spiritual Director later in this unit.


Finally, any journal is a powerful tool for the self and as such is confidential. Make sure you mark your journal well so that people know emphatically that it is private. So now, all you have to do now is choose an appropriate and appealing blank book to be your journal.

Next week:

Next week, I hope we can have our first seminar or workshop, in which someone introduces someone in the arts, an artist, an architect, a composer, a book, a poet, or movie. We could discuss Vivaldi, Rembrandt, American Dream, Christopher Wren … the spiritual values presented in the Simpsons or the albums of U2. I hope we can have one or two presentations from each of you over the course of this module.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes used for a seminar on the Year III B.Th. module, Spirituality for Today, on Thursday 1 October 2009.

1 comment:

Anukatri said...

Wow! Now I will try a light version of this during my Katekumeeni studies (process of joining the Greek Orthodox church). Thank you so much for all the practical hints!