Saturday, July 17, 2010

Journaling and the Search for God

Journaling and the Search for God
Fr. Dale Matson
The late Anglican Priest and author Morton Kelsey was a strong proponent of keeping a personal journal as a means of spiritual development. His book Adventure Inward: Christian Growth through Personal Journal Writing (1980) lays out several reasons for keeping a journal. They include personal historical continuity, enjoyment, creativity and the release of our imagination, help with decision making, therapy and the following idea. “If it is inner growth and self-knowledge which is one’s goal…this process is nearly impossible without journal keeping.” Additionally, he notes, “However, if I pursue the path of a relationship with God, then sooner or later I will use a journal for each of these other reasons as well.” In an interview I conducted with him at his home in Northern California in 1995, he reiterated that the journal was one of the most important means toward spiritual growth.
I began keeping a journal in 1994 and have reflections recorded daily for the past sixteen years. It is part of a commitment to a disciplined daily life. Each day begins at 4am with a devotional for each day of the year followed by the journal entries, then correspondence and finally physical exercise. It is a practice I take with me when I travel. I keep a small travel journal with pages that are later transferred to the annual spiral notebook journals. It is primarily a daily record keeping of the events of the previous day but includes dreams when I can remember them, tasks to be completed, ruminations and worries and concluding prayers that address the main worries. I have also employed what Fr. Kelsey would call active imagination where I dialogue with inner figures and outer figures. I have also written a considerable number of “portraits in prose” for many of the significant people in my life.
So what has happened over the last sixteen years? The journal is much like a camera that has taken photographs that I can review. I began in middle age with quite a confrontational and competitive style. There was territory to be conquered and defended, all for the sake of the ego. There were people who God continually used to challenge me to be more gracious toward including my sons. There was a hardened self righteousness about me. I was turned down in 2001 for the Diaconate by the Commission on Ministry. Perhaps it was a metastasized ego at the time. My primary emotions were fear and anger, well disguised of course. Some of the change is probably due to tincture of time. However, God has been growing the fruits of the Spirit in me also. There is less anxiety, fear, anger and resentment. There is more compassion, patience and contentment.
The journal is one of the most significant things that God has used to help me to find the Jesus part of me and to accept those parts of myself that are weak and unattractive. Those parts must be accepted because they cannot be hidden. They are our thorn in the flesh. There has been major healing for me along the way and in a mystical way; those around me have been helped to some extent also. Sometimes I consider stopping the journaling and destroying them but God is not finished and uses this process to help me. It is like the low dose aspirin I take daily. Unlike Mother Teresa, the church does not own my journals and thankfully they will be destroyed when I die. Unlike her, many of my comments could not bear the light of day.
I would hope that those that read this would consider a journal for themselves. It is time well spent and a good investment in a more whole and holy life. Amen.


Georgia said...

Fr. Dale,

One of the best lists of the benefits of journaling that I have read is in chapter 15, p.283 of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi's recent book on reparative therapy for same-sex attraction, Shame and Attachment Loss. The book also gives the reader detailed transcripts of typical therapy sessions and explains the techniques and how they work.

Here are some of the reasons Dr. Nicolosi lists for journaling:
- challenge and examine illusions and distortions that lead to self-defeating behaviors.
- gain overal perspective of ongoing trajectory of progress.
- helps clients attend to feelings, body sensations and thoughts
- fosters cognitive integration of those subjective experiences.
- teaches the client to take him or herself seriously.
- slow down and focus on deep feelings (that can be agonizing and it is tempting to avoid)
- transforms vaguely felt subjective impressions and half-formed insights into tangible form.
- reinforce committment to personal growth
- encourage careful self-reflection on the critical scenario preceding homosexual enactment (or using addictive substances, gambling, watching porn, eating, etc.)

Dr. Nicolosi encourages journaling 1. Immediately after a therapy session. 2. During or after a shaming or upsetting event. 3. After an homosexual enactment (or episode of acting out with any addiction/compulsion).

He has clients use both unstructured and 5 step (based on Albert Ellis RET work) structured formats for their journaling.
Here are the 5 steps:
1. The Event - A Report - describe just the facts in detail.
2. Your Reaction - Internal response, pay attention to and name the emotions, describe the bodily sensations and their extent and intensity. Was it an over-reaction?
3. Assumptions. What assumptions, subjective interpretive judgments and expections did you make.
4. Assessment - Evaluate assumptions in terms of reality and the way life really is. Were there unrealistic irrational expections. Apply rational thinking to challenge them. Look for illusions and distortions.
5. Summary - Summarize the previous steps and state what you have learned...especially about yourself.

The book is helpful and applicable for many kinds of recovery - childhood and adult trauma, family dysfunction, addiction and even just to understand the process of therapy and how it works.

I also have found Dr. Raymond Lloyd Richmond's (a Catholic clinical psychologist, also in California) self-help writing exercises to be good resources similar to journaling. His website and articles are also excellent.

Please keep and on the blogs. Your voice is valuable and true to The Word.

In His grace and mercy,

Georgia said...

Please forgive my earlier post and don't feel you need to post my near essay. I was mostly thinking out loud and wanted to review and summarize what Dr. Nicolosi had said about journaling.

I should have just said your post above really spoke to me (it did) and that journaling has been a blessing in my own Christian walk. I have a place to return and remember. In fact, making a list of all God's 'interventions' and 'consolations' in the 'desolations' of my life has been very comforting to use as a 'string of pearls' like the Jews recited or listed in the Psalms (ie, 105 and 106) or Hebrews 11.

Don't feel you need to publish this either.
Thanks for your writing and comments. I loved the Scripture you quoted at SFIF today.


Dale Matson said...

Thanks for your responses. The Priesthood continues to grow Christ in me. My Journaling lately is less about petition and more about intercession.