Lent Notes: reflecting on your day
In the musical Les Miserables, the song of the poor is “At the end of the day, you’re another day older”. As Christians, we don’t want merely to be another day older: we need to be another day wiser. The two exercises below are ways of looking back over the past day so that God can show us what He wants us to learn from what we have lived through. Donald Whitney in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life says this of journalling: “[it] can be a mirror in the hands of the Holy Spirit in which He reveals His perspective in our attitudes, thoughts, words and actions.” (page 198, SDCL). This quote could equally apply to the exercise below.
“Rummaging for God”
The Psalmist of Psalm 119 asks “How can a young man [or older woman!] keep his way pure?”, and answers “By living according to your word” . The exercise here is a means by which we can encounter God, the “Living Word”, and see how He has been moving and working in our day. One writer described this as exercise as “going through a drawer of stuff, [ ] looking for something that you are sure must be in there somewhere”- in this case, God’s presence. It takes 5-15 minutes, depending on how elaborate you make it.
The simplest version is to recall that you are in the presence of our loving God, to be still, to say “Thank you” for the good bits of the day, “Sorry” for the parts of the day that you’re not so proud of, and “Please” for what you face tomorrow. If you’re in bed saying this prayer, you may well fall asleep at the “thank you” stage, but how better to fall asleep than with a grateful heart!
For the fuller version given below, I am grateful to Sian Murray Williams of Bristol Baptist College for starting me off:
1 Find a quiet place and become still, perhaps by listening to your breathing or the sounds around you.
2 Ask God to be with you as you look back over the events of the day, to show Himself to you. Ask Him to shine His light on the most significant moments.
3 Look back over the day as a neutral observer, using questions like this to help you remember: was it a “good day” or a “bad day”? was it normal or unusual in any way? Did you meet anyone new, or see anything new?
4 With the good things, spend time thanking God and recalling the feelings you had in these positive experiences. Things to give thanks for can be the “one-offs” of this particular day: the food you ate, the smile you saw on someone’s face, kind words they spoke to you. They can also be the qualities and talents God has placed in you that you exercised today: your patience or sense of humour, your skill with people, with numbers.
5 With the negative experiences, ask for His comfort where you have been hurt by others; or for His forgiveness over matters where He shows you that you turned away from Him. You are allowing God to speak, challenge, encourage and teach you so that you become more aware of the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
NB Where there are things that God wants you to acknowledge and deal with, the Holy Spirit will bring these to mind without you dredging your conscience. If you can’t think of anything, just move on to the next step.
6 Commit the next day to God, and ask for the gift of the awareness of His presence; His help for anything you anticipate being difficult; for wisdom to know the right path, and for His strength to enable you to take it.
7 Conclude with the Lord’s prayer.
I searched for “Ignatian examen” (the traditional title of this exercise) and found two helpful websites:
Ignatianspirituality.com (their home page is a smorgasbord of articles and video clips) and norprov.org. Note: modern users of this prayer talk of “examen of consciousness” as the more accurate translation of Ignatius’ intent.
As you will find if you search for “journalling” on the internet, this exercise is valued by people from all sorts of backgrounds for its measurable benefits to health and wellbeing, even for sufferers of major trauma. It is more than a mere record of events of the day (though that is a good basis) – it is a space for you to start to interpret them. For a Christian, journalling has Biblical precedent in the Psalms. (Spiritual Disciplines for Christian Living, page 196)
Your journal can be a record of the works and ways of God; your reaction to daily events and personal relationships; insights into scripture [I write notes on sermons in mine]; “spontaneous devotional thoughts or theological musings”; “for charting your progress in the other Spiritual Disciplines and for holding yourself accountable to your goals” (SDCL page195). Donald Whitney uses the example of Jim Eliot: when he transferred his intentions onto paper, “what was once mere fluid desire [to recapture lost disciplines] began to produce power”. (SDCL page 207)
Writing down your experiences helps you remember. What you have written, you can review after a period: “I see myself and events more objectively. I can analyse my thoughts and actions apart from the feelings I had at the time. From that perspective it’s easier to observe whether I’ve made spiritual process or have backslidden in a particular area.”(SDCL page 197)
Keeping a journal
From my experience, I would offer these hints:
Choose a plain book of lined paper that you can take with you anywhere. It could be more ‘designer’, if its appearance makes you want to write in it, but don’t choose something you’re going to be precious about.
Keep a pencil or pen with it.
Start each entry with the word “Yesterday…” It is somehow easier to see order in the events of the previous day.
Conclude each entry with this question: “What have I learnt?” This is the tricky part, the part that it is tempting to skip – but if you do that, you will merely have a catalogue of events. If you attempt to interpret, you might stand a better chance of responding in a godly way when a similar situation comes around.
I also list things to be thankful for around this day, and write prayer requests at the back of my journal with the date they were made and the date they were answered.
My aim is to write something every day, but the journal is for my benefit: if I don’t get down to it for a day or two, I don’t let it bother me.
Other suggestions are to use a more structured journal, one that gives you mini-reflections to start you off eg
praying the names of God. This approach can be useful if you need help to get going. As an alternative to a notebook, you can use loose-leaf sheets. And, instead of handwriting, you can word-process your entries.
However you choose to do it, your journal is the place for you to record what you like. Ultimately, it is a dialogue between you and God, with a request for Him to make sense of what is going on. It is a space where you can say exactly what you think – no matter how bigoted, selfish, unloving it may sound, and no matter how badly spelt or ungrammatical it looks. Therefore, if you want to be able to be really relaxed about this no-holds-barred communiqué, you need to make sure that you keep it tucked away.
Marking it “PRIVATE” probably won’t help. Entitling it “A diary of God’s Dealings and Providences with a Most Unworthy Sinner” clearly didn’t work for Thomas Houston, a Presbyterian pastor from 1800’s Belfast: Donald Whitney got hold of it and put extracts in his book. But his aim in keeping a journal may well become yours:
“[furnishing a Christian] with matter for prayer and self-examination, and to be a monument to God’s faithfulness”
(SDCL page 210)
Further thoughts: Do an internet search for “Christian journaling”. If you have tried to keep a journal, but given up, www.kyria.com has an article entitled “Are you a journaling dropout?” with suggestions such as using Biblical and commentators’ quotes or prayer requests as prompts; www.trinitytutors.com has one (labelled as being for Christian youth-but it’s good for any age) which expands these ideas, and includes a list of God’s attributes as starting points