Bishop Lee discusses how journaling can enable us to reflect on our past and guide our future.
When the actress Helen McCrory was interviewed on BBC’s Desert Island Discs she looked herself up on the Internet before appearing. Her life was lived at such high speed she confessed to serious difficulties remembering where she had been and what she had been doing over the decades.
If the actress had kept a journal, Ms McCrory would not only have been able to recall events more clearly but most likely reacquaint herself with the feelings and experiences associated with them. For someone who admitted she never took time to reflect, the programme gave her a very good opportunity to do so and proved fascinating listening.
Journalling has been important for me for many years. The first one in my keeping goes back to September 1989. It is a small, unprepossessing and cheap notebook. Looking back at the entries, they usually consisted of thoughts on a passage of Scripture I had read that day, prayers for people and situations, reflections on what is going on in my life and relationships, and my feelings around all these.
There are significant gaps between entries and my journalling has never been a daily exercise. That said, over the years the journals themselves have become more substantial than a pocket notebook, with entries generally containing longer and far deeper reflections.
In a few years’ time, if I were to look up the journal for 2020 between 17 January and 31 March I would find another significant gap. This marks the period immediately following my bike accident through to just after the beginning of the pandemic Lockdown. In this case, the blank pages are a signal that I was in a pretty barren place.
What galvanised me on that last day of March was recognising this reality and the fact that, unless I processed the journey I had been travelling, it would be difficult to move forward. But there was a more positive driver, too. My colleagues in the Education Team had asked me to write a letter to the Head Teachers and staff of our Church Schools across the diocese.
Those special places in my home which had become treasured places for reflection and prayer were not accessible (see my earlier piece on Sacred Space) so my desk had to make do. Opening my current journal at the next blank page I began.
The entry started with a straightforward timeline and summary of key events since 17 January and was purely descriptive. Then I tried to put myself in the shoes of our Head Teachers and their staff. It was an emotional connection which began to enliven and energise me, beginning a strange reintegration into myself and into the lives of others. The writing helped me not only to own my feeling of being in a personal wilderness but to re-find myself and feel a fresh sense of God’s strength and hope.
By the grace of God, the opportunity and challenge of writing to our Church Schools provided an unexpected impetus to step from arid territory into more fruitful terrain despite the grave threat of Covid-19 and the long shadows it had cast - and continues to cast - over us.
What I have come to realise is that journalling is a spiritual resource. It certainly does contain notes of events, situations and various aspects of what is going on in my life, my thinking, and my emotions. However, its gift is enabling me to look in a kind of mirror, and see myself more clearly. Am I seeing repeating trends which are unhealthy, and if I do, am I recognising the actions I need to take, or the conversations I need to have? Is all well with my soul, or am I troubled, and if the latter, where and from whom, can I find support and strength?
For a follower of Jesus, the reflections and processing that a journal enables are accompanied by listening for the whisper of God’s Spirit; the seeking of divine insight and encouragement and recognising where God has been at work. Yet journalling itself is a spiritual exercise for people of all faiths or none. As we look into the mirror a journal can hold up, each of us will implicitly be asked whether we are truly being and becoming more of the person we seek to be. May I suggest you try it out.