"If we would return to God, and find ourselves in Him, we must reverse Adam's journey, we must go back by the way he came." -- Thomas Merton*
In the Spring, I applied to a school for people interested in becoming spiritual directors. Recently, I met with two of the principals of the school, to learn a little more about the program and its requirements. Among other things, they asked me to keep a journal and to write a spiritual autobiography. Both of these activities are already a big part of my life: I started keeping a daily journal five years ago, and the book I've been working on for the last couple of years is essentially a spiritual autobiography. So I started to wonder a little more about why these introspective activities are so important for the spirit.
Journaling gives me the opportunity to be quiet and reflect on my concerns, questions, or just review the day's events. But more importantly, journaling also makes it easier for me to see God's presence in my life. I've noticed that the busier I get, going and doing, and the less time I take to stop and center myself in my life, the less aware I become of God. Whereas the more time I take to journal, the more aware I become of God. (Finding the right balance is a little tricky sometimes!) I've noted this fact in previous postings, but now I began to wonder why. What is it about journaling that allows me to more easily notice God's presence?
Journaling has been called a form of prayer, or meditation. Why? What exactly is prayer?
Prayer is telling God (either aloud or silently) what is on our mind or on our heart. It is thanking God, asking for help, or simply expressing wonderment. But...and hears the kicker... God already knows our innermost being, already knows what is on our mind and hearts before we even know it ourselves. God already knows what we need before we even ask. So what does prayer do, if it doesn't tell God what we need God to know?
Perhaps, prayer tells us what we need to know, about ourselves. Perhaps prayer opens our heart to our own life. That is certainly what journaling does for me. I become more aware of what's going on inside me, inside my mind and my heart. And with that newfound clarity, with that open heart, I am able to notice when events in the world around me address those specific thoughts and feelings. These connections between my innermost thoughts and the external events in my life are, I believe, how God reveals his will to me, and guides me. But I would miss this entirely if I did not first tune into my life through journaling, or some other form of contemplative prayer.
Writing a spiritual autobiography is a little different, but it too is a revelation. So much so that I sometime wonder if I'm writing my book more for my own benefit than for the benefit of other people. For I always learn something new whenever I try to understand my past.
Like journaling, writing a spiritual autobiography requires you to examine your innermost thoughts and feelings. Behind the basic events in your life... the who, what, when, where, and how, there is the why: your reasons, your understanding of things, your intentions, motivations, etc. Analyzing the "why" is not always easy. I've discovered that there are sometimes many reasonable explanations for why I did something or thought something, but only one is the truth. Sometimes I have to dig behind a lot of reasonable reasons (a.k.a. excuses) to find that truth. And maybe the reason why that is is because the truth requires admitting that I made a mistake, that I was wrong or did something wrong. It means revealing parts of myself that I don't particularly like, that I'd rather keep hidden.
Can I be truly honest? I think so.
Thomas Merton wrote, "The mother of all lies is the lie we persist in telling ourselves about ourselves." (ibid, pg 46) He saw in the story of Adam and Eve a perfect illustration for our common human identity crisis: we don't listen to God either because we are far from God, or because we don't want to listen to God; either way, we do what we know we aren't supposed to do, and then we make up excuses for our actions -- "he/she made me do it." Essentially we hide and try best to cover up our mistake, our truth. We can't even look at our own nakedness, let alone reveal it to others. The more outer "clothing" we pile on to cover our truth and make ourselves look great, to other people and ourselves -- success, power, beauty, material goods, admirable work, adventures, etc. -- the further we get from our true selves and from the person God created us to be.
The only way to get back to that person is to peel away those layers of false self. And the only way to do that is to take an honest look at ourselves. Journaling is one way to start. Examining where you are today, each day, honestly, privately to yourself, will begin to open your heart to God's presence. And you will find in that presence, as I have, a patient and steadfast love that will allow you to continue peeling away the layers of false self, until you can even be honest before the whole world.
That is a pearl beyond price. Knowing who you really are and that God is with you and for you, loving you beyond all human reckoning, is a story definitely worth telling.
May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you
* from "Merton's Place of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self," by James Finley, pg. 37