View from the mountaintop II – Spiritual journal

My last post was about the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly in Tennessee, where I went recently to lead a workshop on keeping a spiritual journal. In that post I talked about Monteagle and the people there. Today I’ll talk about the workshop itself.

There’s a line in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous about a man wanting to be rocketed to the fourth dimension:

“We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 25)

It’s a alluring notion, that fourth dimension, although to be honest, I’m not really sure what the author meant when he used that term, any more than I’m sure what heaven is. I have a few notions, but they’re all highly personal and certainly aren’t based on any evidence.

Still, it’s the sort of experience I suspect many people hope for when they begin keeping a spiritual journal – an epiphanic visionary moment of communion with the divine that will transform them now and forever.

Well, it’s possible, I suppose, but such a revelation is just as likely to come upon you while peeling potatoes for supper or sitting on the bus on the way to work or scrubbing the loo. My own experience of Epiphany, or Grace, is less about lightning bolts and more about lamp flickers along the dark road.I don’t believe epiphany is an event you can chase down and swallow in large gulps, however, I do think you can train yourself to be ready in case Grace does descend. Would be a pity to miss it, don’t you think?

Keeping a spiritual journal, then, is a practice – like prayer or yoga or scales on the piano. Keep doing it and you get better at it. Keep doing it and it becomes more natural, intuitive, less of an effort.

In the workshop at Monteagle, a dozen or so men and women of various ages and religious convictions sat together in the dining room of the Edgeworth Inn. Dede Clements, the proprietor, had arranged dark wooden tables in a horseshoe pattern. The walls were blue and hung with paintings of local artists. An overhead fan made a nice breeze, and Dede had set out sweet tea for us.

We settled in and began to talk about what we hoped for from the workshop. A closer relationship with God. To know oneself better. To pay attention more. To develop better decision making skills. To find peace. To heal a broken heart. To make sense of life. To gain perspective. To become more creative.

Excellent! All that and more are the gifts waiting for those who keep, with constancy and patience, a spiritual journal.

A spiritual journal is more than a physical thing. It is a metaphysical space, part of a temenos, if you will. A temenos being a term the ancient Greeks used for sacred places such as groves, caves, or mountaintops; or spaces within a city allotted to the deity, containing the altar, temple (if any); and other sacral or natural features, such as the sacred olive. In short, sacred, protected space.

I think of my journal as a sort of sacred room, but also a doorway. It is a place far greater inside than out. My grandmother (who was a rather fey person) told me that if the fairy-folk take you, they are likely the lead you to a tree, or to a small hole in the ground. When you put your foot on that tree root, or on the threshold leading to the underground a strange and wonderful thing happens. Either you become tiny, or the magical land becomes large, but either way, you are transported, in an appropriate size, to a different world, where wonders abound. (I can’t remember whether she told me this before or after I had the dream wherein this happened to me, but either way, it rang precisely true.)

That’s the way I feel when I open the pages of my journal, and begin to write.

By focusing, and intentionally turning to this plain piece of paper I am placing myself in kairos, God’s time, rather than my own. The word kairos comes to us from the Greek word for time. Contrasting with chronos, meaning ordinary or chronological time, kairos means holy or God-given time, time laden with meaning and choice.

A spiritual journal is a tool, like any other. And like all tools, some are better suited to our temperaments, talents and inclinations than other. For some people, keeping a spiritual journal is torture, an obligation and a chore, which means, in short, that it won’t work. But for some of us, those who are drawn to the written word, to reflection, and for whom writing is a kind of resting, it’s the perfect tool.

Spiritual journaling is a way to go below the surface of our everyday lives, and it is a long proven spiritual practice.

It is a way to develop attentiveness and depth. A spiritual journal is about constancy and commitment, as is all spiritual practices, and it is a practice for developing both traits.

It is a form of praise and prayer.

Our true goal is a deeper relationship with God, who longs to meet us. This is what Helen Cepero says in her book, JOURNALING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE:

Our true goal is a deeper relationship with the God who longs to meet us at the heart of all that we were and are and hope to be. Attention to our own reality—our dreams and our wounds, our desires and our hopes, our friends and our enemies, our past, our present and our future—is not for its own sake, but to tune our hearts to hear God’s transforming Word for us. Our journal writing begins with our willingness to let God accompany us from the very beginning as we dip our journal sifters into the running streams of our own lives.

You may also find Thomas Merton’s prayer – my personal favorite – resonates with you before writing:


I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton,

Or, Helen Cepero suggests you use the prayer in Psalm 139 as your daily prayer:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

In a busy world, it’s hard to find time to pray and meditate, read and inwardly digest. But if you’re like me, you feel a nagging urge to do so. All of us suffer from over-stimulation these days — cell phones, text messaging, twittering
(God help me), social networking, television… our environments are hardly the calm still sanctuaries necessary for prayer and devotion.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence. – T.S. Eliot “Ash Wednesday”

But for me, writing focuses me, and is a terrific aid to concentration. It helps me drop down, down, down, to the quiet core of myself, which is where I believe the Holy lives. I find the self I long to be there, waiting for me. I find my soul there. I find the Sacred there. In the Gospel of Thomas, the 77th saying of Christ is, “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Whether you are Christian, Jew, Muslim or Wiccan, Hindu or Jane or Baha’i, the concept of the divine is the same – become still, listen, observe, engage…

And so, for the two afternoons of the workshop, that is what we do. We learn to come to the page and bring our hopes, and our pains. We begin to explore what we really believe, and not simply what we’ve always said we believe. We start learning to listen as much as we speak. We remember things we didn’t know we’d forgotten. We explore our weaknesses and our strengths. We talk to God, to our souls, to whatever we hold sacred.

As always, I am amazed at people’s openness, and at the similarity of their hopes and of their hurts. Broken hearts and worries about loved ones, unhealed wounds and festering shames… things that have been ignored and suppressed for too long are brought out into the light and tamed, or dissolved.

My best beloved took a photo of the group at the end of the session. I’m not going to publish it here because people are entitled to their privacy, but I wish I’d taken a photo at the start of the session as well. People simply look different when they’ve engaged in this sort of work for a while — lighter, more relaxed, a little surprised by what they’ve discovered, hopeful, and as though they are among trusted friends, which they are.

Perhaps that is one of the greatest gifts keeping a spiritual journal can provide — the sure knowledge that you are accompanied, in the pain as well as the joy. The other, I think, is awareness, noticing all the things you’ve missed because you weren’t paying attention.

I’ll leave you with this, and suggest that if you are so inclined you might like to try this exercise. The poet and doctor William Carlos Williams used to carry a notepad around with him in which he listed “Things I noticed today that I’ve missed until today.” Try that. Surely that sort of attention to detail must have come in handy when he wrote, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

To notice such a thing, and to recognize its beauty, is one of the benefits of spiritual journal-keeping.

What have you noticed today?

Copyright 2009 Lauren B. Davis For permissions:

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