Ever tried to paint a wall with a hammer or pound a nail with a paintbrush? Having the right tool makes the impossible possible. When I first got a ratchet set I marveled at my newfound ability to tighten and loosen all the bolts. It felt like cheating. There was no longer any bolt that could get the best of me and my superior toolset.
Keystone habits, as Charles Duhigg defines in his book "The Power of Habit", are tools like this - but for your life.
He noted that there are certain habits that have a cascading effect. They make it easier and more likely that other good habits would follow in their wake. Just as regular excercise reduces my dependence on caffeine and spurs me on to healthier eating, some choices we make, make other great choices easier, not harder.
But what if we could apply this principle to the one habit every disciple of Jesus (at least all the ones I know) wants more of in their life?
Yes, please. I will have more of that.
And so would you.
Yet, if you are anything like me you've decided (many times over) that you want to pray everyday, but unlike showering and brushing los dientes, the habit hasn't quite stuck. Sure, you win at prayer during Lent, but then again, who doesn't? I've been doing better spiritually in Lent, except for that one year, since Marky Mark was a part of the Funky Bunch.
In January of 2011 something happened though that made it more likely that I would sit down to pray and that I would actually pray while I was praying.
I bought a journal. And started writing in it during my personal prayer times.
More than any other 'tool' that journal, which is almost completely full now five years later, has helped me pray better and more often.
A spiritual journal has become a keystone habit for me and my prayer life.
Here are four reasons why:
1) A journal makes prayer more real.
Prayer is conversation with God, but I still can't actually hear or see who I am talking to. Can you? A journal makes the experience of praying more tangible. I can write things down that I would say to God and then compose ways in which I imagine God might respond. A real live conversation unfolds right in front of me.
2) A journal keeps me focused, engaged, and less distracted
Ever been distracted during prayer? No? That must only be a me problem. The act of putting pen to paper keeps me focused and engaged on the task at hand: talking and listening to God.
3) A journal brings to light new insights about God, myself, and His word
Here's how it goes down for me.
First, I slowly read a verse from the Bible, two or three times (either from the daily mass readings - See Fig 1 - or one of the psalms from the Liturgy of the Hours). Slow works best, because when I'm praying I'm not trying to set any records. A measured pace ensures that I don't miss the treasure God so desperately wants to give to me.
Second, I write out, word for word, the verse(s) or phrase(s) that jumps out at me. The first time through is simply to understand what I am reading, the second or third time through is to be attentive to the particular words or phrases that might jump off the page. When I get a verse that says "PICK ME", I write it down, double-spaced, in my journal. (See Fig. 2)
Third, I try to draw connections between God's word and my life. The space between the lines of scripture allows for the conversation to more easily go back and forth. The scripture is God's part of the conversation, what I fill in between the lines is mine. I circle words. I underline phrases. I write out synonyms above and below words to get the fullest picture possible of what God might be saying to me. At this point I pause to reflect and ask "where does this verse/idea/truth need to match up with my life?"
Fourth, I land on the main idea for the day and write out some sort of prayer or statement of faith that expresses what God and I have just discussed. (See Fig 2.1 God, as portion, is 'all I need.' God, as cup, is a container big enough to 'handle' all that I need. This was a powerful truth for me that morning.)
Lastly, it's worth noting that this process isn't something I just made up, but corresponds with the ancient prayer practice of lectio divina (divine reading). I start with lectio (read), move to meditatio (meditate), and finish with oratio (pray). And I aim, even if for just a few moments, before I get up from my chair, to simply rest in the truth given to me that day (contemplatio, or contemplation).
4) A journal gets me going when I don't feel like praying.
My routine for each new journal entry is first writing down the date and location of my prayer time. And once I've done I don't want to leave that entry blank, so something has to give. When I don't know what else to say or do I might write down something as simple (and yet, profound) as "Come, Holy Spirit", or "Jesus, I trust in you." That's usually enough to get the train going and before long, the conversation is underway.
Yes, a spiritual journal is a keystone habit for me and my prayer life. Maybe it would be for you too? It's certainly not magic and everyone will have a different experience, but I would encourage you, especially if you are at a dry time in your prayer life to give it a shot.
In fact, why not try it on for the next seven days and see what happens. The worst that could happen is that you are out $9 and you put in writing seven different bible verses. The best that could happen is that it helps you pray better and more often.
I think it's worth the risk.
Question: Do you use a journal in your prayer time? What impact has it had on your prayer life? What specific part of using a journal in your prayer time has benefited you the most? Let's keep the conversation going in the comments below or on your favorite social network.