Recently I was asked to offer a guided reflection on Advent for a Reconciliation service at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Des Moines. They requested help with the practice of journaling, and I knew immediately what the topic should be. "Yearning for Incarnation" (meaning our own).
The Value of Journaling as a Spiritual Practice
“Write a true, careless, slovenly, impulsive, honest diary every day of your life.”
~ Brenda Ueland
I do this.
A couple of weeks ago, out of curiosity, I dug out an old journal of mine.
It was a journal from 1999 (nearly twenty years ago) At the time I wrote it, I was in immense pain, filling page after page with my anger, my rage, and my sadness.
Then, I stopped and asked myself, “What do you want?”
I wrote, “to pray, write, study, teach, be a spiritual director, help my children.”--
This is my Current Job Description!
The raw, burning emotion of my experience didn’t serve me. The flame of my anger created too much smoke. Only after I cleared away the smoke by getting the emotion on the page, could I then get to the deeper layer that offered so much hope.
I needed to know what I wanted.
We can feel great inner resistance to the act of writing our feelings. It can be paralyzing, something I still feel at times.
A friend of mine who was feeling this resistance because she is going through a very painful time in her life, bought a journal and wrote on the front: Ugly Words. When she showed it to me, I remember thinking it was a way for her to give herself permission to speak her truth; to say her feelings, and give voice to her experience. Something about those words also seemed to shout: KEEP OUT!!
Our greatest resistance to keeping a journal may be the fear that someone might read it. Find a safe place to keep your journal. Keep it in your car. Tuck it behind some items on an unused shelf. Stash it in the bottom of the laundry hamper, or in a locked file drawer at work.
If you truly can’t find a safe place, Write, write, write and shred, shred, shred; or write, write, write and burn, burn, burn!
Terry Tempest Williams, one of our best current writers on nature and environmentalism uses this trick: when you are writing your thoughts and come to things you don’t want anyone else to read, write over them. Repeat. Repeat until you’ve gotten out what you need to say, until even you can’t decipher what you’ve written. Then move on.
Our deepest impulse as human beings created in the image of God, is to create wholeness. ----to cooperate with the Spirit of God in creating our own wholeness. Journaling helps to bring that impulse into the realm of the concrete, the embodied.
So do other spiritual practices: prayer, fasting, giving, silence and solitude. In addition to being prayer, journaling supports the other spiritual practices.
Richard Rohr has said that “Faith largely became believing things to be true or false (intellectual assent)
. . .instead of giving people concrete practices so they could instead know how to open up (faith), hold on (hope), and allow an infilling from another source (love).”
A conscious way of being and bringing the fulfillment of the Incarnation into and through our lives requires a stronger container than thought. (mere intellectual assent.)
Our encounters with the Holy One require imagination, a sense of wonder, and a willingness to risk in order to become partners with God in the New Creation.
This experience of partnering with God in the New Creation of our very own life is “the pearl of great price” we find in Matthew’s gospel—that once we find it, there’s nothing we would trade it for. Another way to think of it is this: You ARE the work God is doing in the world.
It requires that we wait in Hope. And waiting in Hope requires an attitude of faith, which is what Advent is all about. Thomas Merton said that, in a sense, our lives are a perpetual advent. We find we are always waiting in Hope, even as we are working in cooperation with the Spirit of God in bringing about that New Creation.
Judy Cannato, in her book Radical Amazement speaks of what it means to share in the divine nature:
We do in fact embody some of the very capacities that Jesus tells us are fundamental to God’s nature. In moments of contemplative pause when we are acutely aware, we may recognize a resonance and understand the call. We, too, are capable of compassion. We, too, can accept the unacceptable and love the unlovable. We know how to serve, how to forgive, how to be just and merciful. We can be inclusive in hospitality, vulnerable before love, and empowered as we break free. To become divine is to simply but fully live out of the truth of who we are in the deepest part of our being. And so our refusal to claim our godly nature, rather than being an act of profound humility, is a rejection of the empowerment that came through the life of Jesus. And that rejection has been deadly, not only for humankind, but for all creation.
The two great paradoxes of our faith are the Nativity—the revealing of God Incarnate, and the Resurrection—the emerging of the Risen Christ from death and the tomb.
The Incarnation we most long for is our own.
The Resurrection we most long for is our own.
In our encounters with the Holy, the tendency is always to focus on the event; to hold onto the experience. (to fix our gaze on that manger; to fix our gaze on that empty tomb)
But what matters is what follows— the opening of our hearts, the energy that arises and infuses our lives, that brings forth questions, and the passing on of the related meanings we find there to others.
This is how the meaning of our faith came down to us.
And because it has, we take time to ponder what is in our hearts during Advent and Lent, in an attempt to live out the implications in our own lives.
We are meant to live these meanings bodily—individually and in community—until they are fulfilled in and through us.
Sin has been described as that patterned way of being in which we remain living at the surface. Spiritual practices, especially journaling, will enable us to go deeper.
**The way is through the human heart. The heart is a perceiving, purifying, integrating, energizing center.
If our hearts are blocked, crushed, fractured, pride-filled, shackled, or if we keep choosing to skim only the surface of life, our hearts cannot provide the energy needed to embody what we have received in Christ. The four weeks of the Advent season can provide opportunity for us to reflect in the silence of our hearts the Incarnation, and the ways we are called to live the experience bodily.