I have spent a good part of the weekend cleaning and organizing and decluttering around the home. For me, there is a very spiritual connection to that process. It is a sense of freedom, a way of letting go of the negativity and creating positive space in which to move forward. The clutter can be physical and emotional. Both stifle me; both weigh me down and keep me from being fully myself. This Independence Day is about giving myself the freedom to be completely okay with myself as I am. And cleaning and organizing the home allows me a real physical sense of making space for what needs to come, the better things that are ahead. Take a moment this Independence Day to think of what you need for your own independence. Make space for yourself and what you need to take care of yourself and to move forward in positive ways to the person you are meant to be.
Journal work has an extraordinary connection to prayer for me. I am a writer, and I function best through words. Journal pages can be a powerful way to express prayers. I often struggle with the concept of praying boldly and specifically and directly. Writing out the prayer can be a way of adding preciseness to the process.
Just start with yourself and your family and close friends as what is going on most intimately with you. Then you might want to branch out to larger issues. You can even begin to organize categories of prayers. If the prayer list starts to feel too overwhelming, you can focus your attention to particular prayers needs based on categories and even divide them by days of the week. For example, an extra focus on the needs of the world one day and for particular strangers you’ve encountered on another day of the week. You can pray for your Church or School or workplace on another day. Any kind of category system can work.
Another part of connecting journal writing with prayer is to record responses. Review your prayers in your prayer journal and note when prayers have been answered. Review those journal entries and remind others that you have prayed for them. And make a note and a prayer of gratitude when a prayer gets answered in a serious way!
Journal entries with your prayers can be a specific expression of your prayers and a record of the prayers. The pages can also be a powerful reminder that prayers are answered. Some answers come very quickly while we wait much longer for others in God’s perfect timing. A journal of prayers has also shown me with enough time that sometimes a no answer is the great blessing. The whole process of making notes about the way in which the prayers are answered becomes a type of gratitude list for me. I see the answered prayers over time, and the gratitude is overwhelming.
I was a teen when I took my first creative writing class. The first priority on day one was to discuss keeping a journal. The first homework assignment was to get that journal quickly. There weren’t many parameters on that boundary. It was to be a journal that felt good to us. We would be writing daily. Our teacher referred to journal writing as sacred time. I didn’t give that phrase much thought at first, but I came to understand the concept very quickly. Journal writing is sacred time and sacred space. It is a daily practice for me—an experience that is about as non-optional as brushing my teeth or eating. It connects intimately with my prayer life. Sometimes my writing is calm and peaceful. Sometimes there is something urgent I just need to get something out. There are times when I relish the quiet presence of the pen and paper; other times I need desperately to write through a situation. The journal writing as a prayerful, sacred experience for whatever I need.
Sometimes, writing, like prayer, is hard for people to begin. How do I start the prayer? What do I say? How do I start with this blank piece of paper? What do I write? The honest answer is that you can begin absolutely anywhere. But I know for many, begin anywhere is about the least helpful thing to hear. So let’s start with just creating a safe, sacred space. Where are you quiet and calm and comfortable? Is there a particular room where you live that is your refuge? Do you have a favorite desk or comfortable chair? Sometimes my home office desk is perfect; other times I’m on the sofa with a lap desk/table. For many people, the kitchen or dining room table is the perfect place. Make sure you’re changed into your most comfortable clothes and get yourself a cup of coffee or tea or a bottle of water. Your journal is a good friend with whom you can relax completely.
If a particular writing focus doesn’t come to mind, one approach is to begin by describing the space. What items are around you? Do you connect any particular memories with anything in the room? Are there any items that are particularly special to you? Maybe there is something that is not expensive but extra sentimental. Maybe there is a special hand-made gift of some kind. Maybe something was particularly hard-earned or took great effort to obtain. Maybe an item comes from somewhere very special or exotic. Perhaps there is an extra funny story about how something came to be with you. Give your journal pages a detailed tour of the room!
Journal writing is my attempt to bring everything in focus and perspective for me. It is my way of telling my story on my own terms. I’m an intense introvert depending on that daily reflective time. My journal time is prayerful. Often, our older cat Sassy will join me in my journal time, those sacred moments in the early morning hours. She is an Episcocat, and it’s her way of keeping a Daily Office routine. It is a rhythm we both cherish. I awake early for that critical early quiet time to begin my day. I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit at my desk in the study room. Sassy crawls up in my lap once I’m seated. We begin morning prayers together. I know she senses the sacred time. She settles down and is perfectly still. The rhythm of her purr begins; all else is quiet and still from my feline prayer partner.
After some moments of prayer, the journal time begins for me. The pages are space for my own voice. The ink flows as my story unfolds on my own terms. The pages are honest, and the process is healing. My eldest Episcocat, Sassy, often stays in my lap as a quiet presence. She doesn’t care much for formal services. I have quiet taking her to the Blessing of the Animals service each year because she gets so scared with all of the other animals around. She is more of a solitary cat with a reflective kind of spirituality. She loves a warm lap and the mesmerizing flow of a pen moving across the page softly, quietly. She is my Episcocat keeping her own rhythm of the Daily Office.
Many of my students and colleagues ask deep questions about my journal writing—how I got started, what I write about, how often I go back and read the old entries, and the ever famous question about whether I intend to publish them. Their questions always lead back to the idea of how they could get started. They wonder what they would write about. They face anxiety over the idea of a blank page or a blank book. The beauty of journal writing is that it is whatever you want it to become for you. It is unbelievable freedom that need not be anxiety provoking at all! The blank page or the blank book is a most sacred and safe place you could imagine. There is no judgment. It is a space for authenticity and honesty. For me, it is prayer.
There are infinite ways one can go about starting the process. It begins with picking a book or paper that feels good to you. What size feels good? Do you want full-size pages? Do you want a smaller book? Do you want lines or not? And if you like lines, do you like them wide or narrow? Some people don’t want a book at all. You can just pick loose pages! The idea is to find whatever feels comfortable to you. And pick a pen or pencil that feels comfortable. Whatever you select, especially if you are just going to use loose pages, I urge you to commit to not throwing away anything you write. Those words are a precious, authentic part of you that deserve a life and a space and a voice.
Deciding where to begin is overwhelming for many people, but the key is to begin with whatever feels comfortable for you. One idea is to start with a type of spiritual biography. What has your spiritual path been to this point in your life. What major paths have brought you to where you are right now? After that, you might want to begin daily reflections of your activities. Many people incorporate a gratitude and prayer aspect. What were the highlights of your day? What are you most grateful for that day? It doesn’t have to mean your day went well at all. But can you turn those trying events into something for which to be thankful? Can you write out your prayers for the day? What do you need God to help handle? And believe me—God can handle whatever you write. If you are angry about something, then by all means, just get it out on the paper. If you are scared about something, just get it out on the paper. If you are celebrating something, then make sure to incorporate those blessings!
Another idea is to start with a devotional book. Read the little devotion each day, and respond with whatever comes to mind. What kinds of connections can you make to your life? The Monastics have a rich, deep history of doing this with Scripture. Read a small section of Scripture. You can go with the Daily Office or wherever you want to focus. Spend some time reading that passage or meditation. Sit quietly for a few moments reflecting. Then begin to record your response in your journal. This is your safe and sacred space. There is no judgment. What kinds of connections come to mind? What phrase or idea resonates with you for some reason. You don’t have to be able to explain why—just write that you feel a powerful connection. Does it bring up questions? Does it give you assurance of God’s love? This is your space to just let go into your thoughts.
Once you get into the journaling, always remember that it will take on a life, a process, of its own. That is the beautiful part of journaling. There is no wrong or right way to develop an entry and a process! It is just your sacred, prayerful space. Happy journaling!
23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
This reading from the second chapter of Mark addresses the issue of Sabbath. The Pharisees were determined to follow the rules of Sabbath in the strictest sense. And they were forever determined to trap Christ in their trick questions and rigid rules. This reading addresses what is acceptable on Sabbath. They see some of the Disciples plucking grain on Sabbath, a violation to the Pharasees of keeping the Sabbath Holy. I’m sure the Pharasees thought they had Christ for certain this time in no position of being able to argue. But Christ, in wisdom, reminds everyone of the example of David and his companions being hungry on Sabbath. They ate the bread of Presence reserved only for priests. Then Christ brings out the whole spirit of Sabbath– that the Sabbath is made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.
I too keep the Sabbath in my own way of refreshing myself. For me that often means lots of quiet journal time. I understand that would not be the case for everyone. I think the whole point is that keeping Sabbath is to find an activity that refreshes and restores you—something that gives you rest. For me, that Sabbath activity includes precious, sacred journal time.
I have rediscovered what I like to call journal writing for obsessive compulsive individuals. I have always been a self proclaimed journal addict, so the only next logical step was Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal Workshop book. It’s a 432 page book of intensive journal writing processes. the tabs and sections of logs and feedback in a very individualized approach. The Intensive Journal methods work for me as I can write out the connections of my memories and experiences that have brought me to who I am. Writing is my way to journal safely into myself, and work through the matrix of my experiences.
One of the sections addressed in the Intensive Journal Workbook is spiritual positioning. The process involves exploring one’s spiritual life experiences. Those encounters connect closely with the meditation section. This Intensive Journal Workshop process takes one through the spiritual and meditation experiences in each major stepping stone or phase of life. With those interconnected relationships, one is off and going in just one of many sections in the process. Dr. Progoff, the psychologist who developed this intensive system of journal writing, knew how to deal with obsessive compulsive journal writers like me.
Perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in the world about me is that I am a journal addict. I have kept journals since I was fourteen. I took creative writing in high school. Our first assignment was to find a journal. The only requirement was that it had to be a bound book—no loose pages in a binder that could be torn out and thrown away easily. We were urged to think about a size that would feel good in our hands and whether we wanted lines or blank pages, and if we wanted lines how narrow or wide those lines should be. I knew right away I had to have lines. And my fourteen-year-old self picked a pink journal with teddy bears. I would guess it was about 5×8 inches. I cherished the few minutes of class time we wrote each day, and I wrote so much more on my own at home.
My handwriting is extremely slow. I have learning disabilities that interfere with handwriting speed. My writing is extremely precise, but the writing coordination just doesn’t come naturally. I spent a tremendous amount of extra time finishing the journal writing at home. The fascinating aspect is that it didn’t seem like work at all. When I could get beyond the frustration of my learning disabilities in the safe, sacred space of my journal, I could actually relax completely into the writing.
My journals are now an intricate part of my spiritual life and the source of my sanity. My journal pages and a black gel pen are as critical to me as my morning coffee and prayer time. Many days I would say that journal time is my prayer time. That prayer and Scripture and journal connection go back to monastic traditions. I get the link even today.
Luke 2: 15-21 *
I am always drawn to that sense of new beginnings. As a teacher, I have a new beginning of each semester. Each new week, I find myself at the start of great hope for the coming days. These new beginnings are just a tiny fraction of a glimpse of all that the birth of a child brings—much less the birth of Christ.
My human mind needs senses of new beginnings and starting over once in a while. I do think all of the New Year’s resolutions and such can serve a powerful purpose of evaluation and reflection and hope. But I don’t ever want to forget that the birth of Christ means everything good and all that we need has already been with us and within us and will never leave. Each moment is a chance for reflection and a new beginning, but all that we need has been there always. I sometimes—often times—just need to be reminded.
The New Year is always a chance for me to regroup in a sense. I know the deepest sense of renewal and starting over doesn’t come when the clock strikes midnight and we awake to a new year. But I do believe the chance for reflection and hope in the coming year is extraordinarily powerful for me. How much more overwhelming it must have been to anticipate and experience the coming of Christ. Merry Christmas season and Happy New Year!
* 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
1 John 4:7-16 *
This blessed Christmas morning reminds me of the search for that purest love in Christ. That sense of perspective is so easy for me to lose in the chaos of the malls and gift lists and menu arrangements for family dinners. I always find myself scrambling at the end of the Advent season because I felt no time to prepare ahead at the end of a frenzied semester. But then, on this Christmas morning, I find myself calmed with a cup of coffee and my precious cat Sassy purring in my lap.
It might sound silly, but I wish human love could be a little more like that of cats. They don’t care about physical appearance or weight or race or wealth. All they know is how they are treated by their humans. It’s not the diamond collars or being served in a crystal dish that makes them purr. It’s a warm lap and your presence after being gone for a long day. It’s the simple boxes to jump in and out of and perhaps a little catnit treat or mouse toy once in a while that gets a joyful reaction. What better shape we humans would be in if we didn’t care about the diamond collars and the crystal dishes and didn’t care about the weight or race or appearance of others but just focused on curling up in a warm, welcoming lap.
Christ came into the world in the most humble way so that we might love God and others in the deepest perfection. I pray I don’t lose focus of what really matters. Merry Christmas.
* 7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.