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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Reflection/Discernment: Journaling

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There are a range of practices that can be considered under this heading. Here we consider Journaling and autobiography as forms of reflection. In the next lesson we consider several forms of group discernment. Folowing that we take a look and an approach to discernment offered by St. Ignatius Loyola. Finally, we consider the use of spiritual direction as a resource for discernment and spiritual growth.
 
 
 
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Autobiography and self-awareness

Psychologist Daniel McAdams has written extensively on the emergence of a sense of self, which is one's identity, as the result of a developmental process. He sees this sense of self rooted in the emergence of a personal narrative. This narrative or personal myth he describes as an act of imagination that int egrates of our remembered past, perceived present, and anticipated future. He describes this narrative as a personal myth because it is not only a means of discovering some truth about ourselves, rather it is the means through which we make ourselves. In putting together our life narrative we define who we are. This is a process that takes the better part of a lifetime and different stages in the lifecycle offer us opportunities to refine and develop the story.

 

We can relate this to the earlier discussion of the true and false “self”. In a sense, the false self is a personal narrative that is without integrity; lacking both meaning and a sense of value. McAdams argues that to find integrity in life (true self) is to look back on one's personal narrative/myth and determine that, for all its faults, it is good. A significant element in finding value in our life story is the presence of an orientation toward others and concern for those who come after us. He describes the grace of old age as experiencing the integrity of one’s life story. To reach old age and reject the gift of one’s life story as unworthy is despair.

 

When we first turned to the topic of self-awareness we discussed the importance of remembering where one came from; remembering one’s personal history. This becomes obvious as we turn to the role of the personal narrative in giving substance to one’s identity. Where we came from is part of our story and is integral with the person who we are today. Yesterdays challenges, successes, loves, joys, failures, losses and dreams brought us to the point in the road at which we find ourselves today. To re- member our past is to integrate it into our today. It brings healing where we have forgotten or repressed a past experience, resulting in dis-integration. It brings insight when we can explore life experiences to discover patterns previously overlooked which bring greater integrity to our life story. Remembering the past, even those painful elements that have left us wounded is a means of healing the wounds.

 

Father Joseph Allen (Allen, The Inner Way…, 26-27) states that part of the process of spiritual growth is the development of greater self-discernment. This includes being able to perceive and acknowledge negative motivations and perceptions. A multitude of devices and masks are used by us in hiding these phenomena; denial, avoidance, blaming others, compensation, projection and so on. In every case the goal is to avoid seeing any evil intent in his or her actions. Spiritual growth requires that we bring these traits to light and deal with them. Viewing these traits close up, it is easy to miss them. However, when we examine our life story we have a broader perspective and can discern patterns of denial, projection and avoidance that would have been missed otherwise.

 

In addition to the psychological and spiritual benefits of examining our life story, autobiography as a spiritual discipline is a well established Christian tradition, as was noted earlier. We can go back to Augustine for an early and luminous example of this tradition and come forward through St. Teresa of Avila, John Henry Cardinal Newman, St. Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Venerable Pope John the XXIII, Pope John Paul II and on to dozens of books by contemporary authors trying to make sense of their lives.

Leaving aside theology and psychology, the concern at this point is how do I go about examining my life story? It is easy to get overwhelmed and bogged down if we attempt to do too much too soon.

 

A good way to begin, as suggested by McAdams, is to develop the table of contents for our autobiography. Our life story can be organized in terms of chapters. One chapter can be distinguished from another in terms is significant shifts in our identity. Many people would see marriage as a new chapter from that of single adulthood. Retirement is a transition point for many from a chapter focused on a work shaped identity to whatever follows.

 

Thomas Merton sees major transition points in his life when he went from public school

into Cambridge, then later when he left Cambridge for America. Obviously, entering the monastery was a major transition point. Tony Hendra’s autobiography, which I have referred to several times in these pages, identifies major turning points as the time that he first met Fr. Joe and later when he attended a comedy performance at Cambridge that opened him to the power of comedy and satire.

 

Once the chapter divisions are in place, try identifying the major characters in your story. Take some time to describe these people in terms of a brief character portrait. What are these people like? Describe their personality. How did they come into your life? What impact did these people have on your life?

 

The next step is to flesh out each chapter with the major developments associated with that phase of your life. This can be done by identifying key events associated with the chapter and describing them. A key events can be a peak experience, a low experience, or a turning point. Memories that stay with you over the years are likely to have been important to you. So it is good to write down your earliest memory. Report important childhood, adolescent and adult memories. Since this is being done as a spiritual exercise be sure to include memories of events that have been important to your spiritual development. This does not need to be a listing of memories from First Communion, Confirmation and your wedding. Rather, think of those events that have significantly shaped your ability to be a loving person of service.

 

For example, a favorite childhood memory of mine is accompanying my father to the local orphanage on Friday evenings to show movies to the kids and distribute ice cream. Key adolescent memories relate to my “loss of faith” in college and the struggles to realize a more mature faith in Christ. For example, a nadir experience was when I was in my mid-twenties and in Peace Corps. I was on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I was suffering from culture shock and feeling abandoned by God. One day I stopped at a local café for lunch and got a pleasant conversation going with a man about ten years my senior who was on his way to an even more remote island to teach school for a year. It happened that my new friend was a Jesuit who was experiencing his own crisis of faith. We talked for the next 13 hours non-stop ministering to each other’s spiritual needs by simply listening to one another. It helped me to realize that I wasn’t abandoned by God, as God had touched my life and helped heal my pain through the “accident” of my conversation that day.

 

The next activity moves us away from the past and looks to the future. What dreams to you have for the future? What are your goals? How do you get there from here? Are there any significant tensions or problems in your life that need to be resolved? How will they be resolved?

 

Consider the plot line of your life story. What is the next logical development in that story, based on the plot line continuing on in a similar direction. Can you see the hand of God at work in your life, now that you are taking a broad view? How has your life contributed to the benefit of future generations? What would you still like to contribute?

Having done the above, consider what the overall theme of your life seems to be and try writing it down in fifty words or less. Consider the major lessons that you have learned from life so far?

Journaling

Many of the great saints and spiritual writers kept journals. The Confessions of Saint Augustine, while an autobiography, appears to draw upon journals kept by the saint. The same is true of Henry Cardinal Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, published early in the last century. The journal of St. Therese of Lisieux, Journey of a Soul, was an important spiritual writing of the 19th century. Thomas Merton, the popular Cistercian spiritual writer of the last century, kept journals and published them. His journals are among his best writing. This is also apparent in the works of Henri Nouwen.

 

A journal is similar to a diary in that it is maintained on a daily basis, if possible. It differs from a diary in that it is not just the recording of events but it is reflection on those events. A spiritual journal looks at the spiritual implications of the events of the day. It is also a way to record and consider the inner movement of the person. If the person is angry or frustrated with God or anyone else, this can be freely expressed and considered by the person, as no one else will read it. If there are doubts, they can be openly explored. If one is struck by the beauty of a particular experience or the almost palpable feeling of the Presence of God, the feelings of joy and excitement can be captured. Even the most secular of activities can be reported, as long as they are considered in light of the spirit.

 

The earlier discussion on paying attention is relevant to journal writing. Journaling is a form of paying attention. In a sense it is similar to the breathing exercise, in that we pay attention to what is going on within us. The difference is that we are not focusing on the movement of our breath but on the movement of our inner concerns, expectations, and attitudes. A journal is focused on the present, what is going on in our lives now. We open ourselves to life and experience

it as fully as we are able. We pay attention to what is going on within us. Does a particular experience make us tense? Do we seek out certain experiences and avoid others. Do we react with disgust to a particular experience? Does a particular experience make us feel at peace? If we pay attention, we notice these reactions. The journal is a good place to record these reactions and any other fruit of our paying attention. Then once they are written down we can try to understand our reactions, to see how they may be related, to follow them back to their source.

 

Journaling is a tool for discernment. It allows us to consider a current experience or struggle from many perspectives. It allows us to question the assumptions that underlay the experience and our perception of it. The fruit of journaling and the other discernment oriented disciplines is the ability to examine our own lives with the contemplative awareness and compassion we would apply to any other focus of our attention. Contemplative awareness allows us to see things as they are, including ourselves.

Our journal entries do not have to be great works of art or literary genius. They simply need to record what is going on in our lives and our reaction to it. Thomas Merton is wonderful in the simplicity of his journal entries. The following is from The Sign of Jonas, one of his journals that was published in the 1950’s. The entry is from April 15, 1949. It is Holy Saturday. He is a deacon at the time and is describing the evening prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and his anticipation of singing the Exultet at the Easter Vigil that evening.

 

April 15 Holy Saturday

The Night Office of this day is bewildering. The confusion of sorrow and joy is so complex that you never know where you are. Some of the responsories might have been composed by James Joyce. All the associations of terms and symbols are thrown into confusion. One responsory starts out with Jerusalem...and you are all set to be glad. But you are told to mourn. Then in the end, speculatively, you find that you are saved. This the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed.

 

But there is no confusion about the Exultet! I often wondered if I would ever sing the Exultet . Well I am supposed to sing it today. I am going to sing the whole of theology. It is marvelous. The Exultet is real liturgy—except perhaps it is too speculative. But really, the deacon who sings that and does the things the rubrics say, is teaching all theology. And the people who hear it are learning all theology, and the Holy Ghost, Who operates what is signified, throws light in darkness upon the whole meaning of Christianity, on the Mass, on Good Friday and Easter—the center of everything. (Thomas Merton, The

Sign of Jonas, 177).

 

Notice that Merton is reflecting on his experience of saying the office that day and finding the prayers and responses to be very confusing. He is frustrated with the experience and records that frustration, as well as his understanding of why the Liturgy of the Hours that evening is so confusing. He then considers his expectation of what will happen that evening when he performs his assigned liturgical duties at the Easter Vigil. He is overjoyed with being given the duty of singing the Exultet and it comes across in his praise of the great song-prayer and its central role in the Easter Vigil celebration. These are not studied considerations of great theological doctrines. They are simply Merton reflecting on the experiences of the day and reacting to them. That is all that is needed.

 

A spiritual journal may contain more than just reflections on the events of the day in the light of faith. Journals often contain poetry or sketches by the author. They may contain autobiography or even more structured reflections on doctrine. These additional elements are at the discretion of the author but are unnecessary. What is essential are reflections on the events of the day in the light of faith.

 

A good way to begin keeping a journal is to purchase a journal book from a stationary store. These are fairly substantial books with blank pages. Leger books or even composition books can be used for this purpose, as long as there is plenty of room for writing. The value in the more substantial books is that their covers will allow them to travel with little damage and the good binding will keep pages from falling out and getting lost.

 

If you are more of a computer-person, any good word processing program will serve the purpose. The only requirement is that the program allows you to password protect your journal file. Part of the value in keeping a journal is the ability to reread it a year or two later, as a way to refresh your memory later in your spiritual journey. This means that the journal still needs to exist two, five, ten or twenty years into the future. Thus, as with any important computer file, it is important to maintain a current backup copy of your journal.

As you stare at the blank page or computer screen, begin by entering the date. Then simply describe what happened today and your reaction to it. For example, if you did the breathing exercise or the walking aware exercise, describe what happened when you did the exercise. What did you experience? How did you feel? Did it raise any associations in your mind? Did you have any difficulty with wandering mind? The entry may not be great literature but it is a beginning and it reflects your experience.

 

 

 

Resource Material

John H. Griffin. The Hermitage Journals. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, Inc, 1981

Tony Hendra, Father Joe, >>>>>>>>>>

Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer. New York: Image Books-Doubleday, 1996. 46-53.

_____________ . The Sign of Jonas. New York: Image Books-Doubleday, 1953.

Macrina Wiederkehr, Behold Your Life: A pilgrimage through your Memories. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2000.

 


Journaling: A Spirit Journey
Anne Broyles

Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God (Spiritual Formation Study Guides)
Richard Peace

A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery
Sheila Bender

Telling Your Own Stories: For Family and Classroom Storytelling, Public Speaking, and Personal Journaling (American Storytelling)
Donald D. Davis

Click here to visit Along the Way, a site of reflections, homilies and stories by the author of this website.

(c)2005. Richard Shewman. All rights reserved. The contents of this website are the intellectual property of the author and may not be reproduced, aside from fair personal use for the purpose of individual study, without the written permission of the author.
 
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