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Spiritual Journaling

“One of the best gifts of a journal is that it gives you a place to show up.” Helen Cepero

Journaling as a spiritual practice has deep roots and many practitioners, some of whom struggle with purpose and focus. If you are one of the strugglers or want fresh ideas, Helen Cepero’s Journaling as Spiritual Practice will likely free you to let your journal be all about you “showing up” in God’s presence. Helen is convinced that the “primary wonder of our Christian faith is that God comes to the place where we are and says our name. All spiritual practice, including journaling, is meant to tune our awareness, just as you might tune a stringed instrument, so that we can hear the true note of God’s grace playing through the sometimes discordant chords around us and in us. And then it means choosing to let this graced note bless us and others.”

Helen suggests several ways to “tune your stringed instrument” in your journaling. They fall into three main categories: seeing the present, exploring your life, and silencing your inner critic.

Seeing the present.

Two journaling exercises engage your senses in becoming aware of the present. The first is a naming exercise that simply answers the questions: What do I see? and What do I not see? The idea is to take a leisurely, non-judgmental look at your surroundings and write about them in detail. The second is to choose an object that you saw during your leisurely look and tell its story. The two exercises together are what spiritual directors call taking a long, loving look at the real. Helen reminds us that “to see what is real means to pay attention to our lives, not settling for a generalized or abstract picture. The cliché says that the devil is in the details, but [it is] also where God’s presence is known and where we learn the answer to God’s question, ‘Where are you?’ (Gn. 3) Our creation as human beings provides a meeting place for humanity and God. Still, it is the details of that creation that take us through the doorway and lead us home.”

Exploring your life

In this set of journaling exercises, the focus is on your life. The first exercise is to look through a doorway in your life and take a long, loving look back at the real and write it. Maybe the doorway leads to a room in your childhood home or a school track meet or favorite meal. The second is to heighten your awareness of an experience in your present life, either one you design or one that comes your way. For example, Helen suggests writing after deliberately standing in the rain. You could imagine the experience of a warm fire at a campground or take the time to experience opening and reading email from family members who are far away. The idea is to be aware of your whole self. When we do this, Helen says that “we become part of, we are one with.” [Rather than] “longing for God’s forgiveness and wondering about which doctrine of the atonement might be correct; I link my hand with the hand of the crucified Christ and look into the face of love.”

Silencing the inner critic

Helen identifies two forms of the critic: the censoring critic that is relentless in telling you what you should say, and the discouraging critic that is relentless in pointing out the inadequacies of what you do say. Helen suggests two exercises for silencing the inner critic. The first is tactile: draw an absurd cartoon of your inner critic on a sheet of paper, write down your inner critic’s useless accusations, tear the whole thing into pieces and toss them in the trash bin. The second is to meditate on Psalm 23 and envision the table set before you by God. Helen reminds us, “It is at this table that you may open your journal and say what is true and real. It is here that the cup of your journal will overflow with words and phrases, pictures and drawings that will narrate and illustrate your own life.”

The goal of these exercises is always to hear the true note of God’s grace in your life, to find joy in the journey itself, and finally in Helen’s words, “to dialogue with yourself and with God…at the crossroads of your own present moment.”

You can buy Helen’s book, Journaling as a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God through Attentive Writing (Downers Grove, IL: IVP) at Christian Book Distributors. All quotations are from the book.

About the Author

Susan Disston

Dr. Susan Disston

Susan Disston, DMin, is the Director of Institutional Assessment and Hybrid Learning at Biblical Seminary and teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program.

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