Keeping a Spiritual Journal:
My Favorite Writing Prompts
by Sarah Rehfeldt
A few years ago I enrolled in a distance learning course called “Journal Writing in the Classroom.” It was intended for educators who wanted to use journals with their students. The reason I took the class—I have to be honest here—was because, after being a stay-at-home mom for many years, my teaching certificate was about to expire. In order to keep it current I had to earn five more credits—and in a jiffy.
Part of the coursework required me to keep my own journal and to try various journaling techniques. Originally, I was planning to quit journaling after I finished the course requirements, but then I became so hooked that I couldn’t stop. Journaling uncovered parts of me that I didn’t even know existed (or that I had completely forgotten about). As a result of taking that class, I decided that I really wanted to be an artist and a writer in life—not a teacher after all—and I disposed of my teaching certificate and gave up teaching for good.
Today, journaling is one of the best tools I have at my disposal for personal and spiritual growth. Some of my most creative insights come from my journal entries. For me, there are specific techniques that facilitate the self-reflective process of journeying inward through my “self” and emptying out into that larger “sea” or “pool” that is God. Many of the more meaningful, fruit bearing exercises are listed here.Although these exercises invite travel inward, they are not intended to be a substitute for therapy. If the exercises uncover painful areas that need healing, consider seeking out a trained therapist or a spiritual director for help.
1. Use your journal to record your dreams
The book of Job tells us that “God gives us songs in our sleep” (Job 35:10). Dreams speak a language all their own. They can be valuable tools into our deepest selves. Try to savor your dreams for a few moments after you wake up so that you can remember them before you transfer them into your journal. Record your dreams as soon as possible after you awaken. The longer you wait, the less likely you will remember all the details. Write down as much as you can remember. View your dreams as gifts. Pay attention to their little details; revive them if you can; play with them to see if you can discover what meanings they might hold.
2. Intersections: Roads taken and not taken
This exercise comes directly from my course instructor, Sonni Svejcar, who gave permission to share this writing prompt. Here it is in its condensed version:
There are two kinds of road in our lives: the road we have actually traveled, and the roads we did not take. We went to this school, entered that career, took this job, married that person… This exercise asks you to reenter those situations of the past and explore the possibilities of the roads not taken. Go back to the various intersections of your life and treat them as new starting points with the possibility for new, meaningful destinations.
As a writing exercise, identify some of these intersections in your life, and write about them.
3. Milestones vs. moments
“Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments.” My best friend sent me a birthday card with this saying on the front. I liked what it said. The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos—chronos being chronological or sequential time, and kairos referring to the time in between, the sacred moments in time, also known as “God’s time.” The saying on my birthday card prompted me to try two different journaling exercises. The first was to document the major milestones of my life in terms of “chronos,” or chronologically. The result looked a lot like a personal résumé. The second part of the activity requires thinking back on the spiritual milestones of my life—those that took place suspended in “kairos”—and to record them alongside the chronological ones. This was a much more difficult task to complete—and all the more illuminating.
4. Write an “I am” poem
This is another writing prompt from my instructor. While doing this exercise, avoid the obvious and the ordinary, such as “I am a 42-year-old woman with brown hair.” Think of things about yourself that are distinctive. Do not be afraid to be different.
I am (two special characteristics you have)
I wonder (something you are actually curious about)
I hear (an imaginary sound)
I see (an imaginary sight)
I want (an actual desire)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated).
I pretend (something you actually pretend to do)
I feel (a feeling about something imaginary)
I touch (an imaginary touch)
I worry (something that makes you concerned or bothers you)
I cry (something that makes you very sad)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated).
I understand (something you know is true)
I say (something you believe in)
I dream (something you actually dream about)
I try (something you really make an effort about)
I hope (something you actually hope for)
I am (the first line of the poem repeated).
5. Write about your childhood
I live in the city now. But before moving here, to the suburbs of Seattle, I lived in northern Idaho. Writing about my childhood gives me an extreme sense of inner peace. For some reason, there is a deep longing inside of me to be reconnected to the earth the way I was when I was a child. I loved how big the sky appeared from underneath the aspen trees, or how we used to catch frogs and minnows in the creek behind our house. We would hunt for low-grade garnets and find quartz crystals in the empty wheat fields where erosion had left sandy pockets in the soil. I still love to fill the pages of my journal with these things—descriptions of the earth my childhood was made from. It makes for great memories and very pleasant journaling.
6. Make lists
What do I do when I need time for myself?
Some little things I often forget to enjoy are…
What am I doing when I feel most alive?
I daydream most about…
Things I’m afraid of.
Some of my lists come from sermons at church. Last week we were asked, “What would you like to accomplish, as Jesus’ disciple, before you die?” Another week, our pastor asked us to “define God” and to think about whether our definition of God made us a more compassionate person or not. That one kept me writing for a good four days.
7. Character sketches
Write about yourself. What are your personality traits? What are your unique and special gifts. What would you like to change about yourself?
What are the characteristics of someone you know and admire?
What are the attributes of someone you don’t care for much? (Be specific—no one else is ever going to look at your journal, so you can write whatever you like about that person).
When I did this exercise, I also did a character sketch for each of my parents. As a final task, I compared all of these lists to the one I had originally made about myself. Boy, was that ever an eye-opener!
8. Write down your worries
I live under the assumption that anything I enter into my journal is as good as prayer. Writing down my worries is the same as handing them over to God.
9. Use the journal as a source of healing
My son was born with a serious heart defect and several developmental disabilities. It has taken me many years to work through the emotional trauma of raising a child with special needs. I cannot tell you how many times my journal has served as a respository for my anger and grief. Yet it has also been a source of healing for me: In the pages of my journal, my pain shares the same space as every quiet miracle that gets recorded whenever another developmental milestone is reached. I can look back at the pages and see where progress has been made. Pain turned to joy—one notebook holds it all.
10. Unsent letters
Write an honest, open, heartfelt letter to another person with the intent of never sending it. When I did this exercise, I wrote to an estranged friend with whom I had ended a close relationship years before. In my journal, I wrote out the letter as openly and spontaneously as I could. It brought relief. Now, I am not advocating that you do the same, but I actually did mail that letter, and my friend and I were able to reconcile our friendship.
11. Define your “muse.”
Maybe you feel a special calling to write. If so, try to write about the process of writing itself. Why do you write? What is it that makes you want to be a writer, or what is it that compels you to write? If you’re an artist, write about the act of creating art. Define your “muse.”
12. Try writing stream-of-consciousness
Try waking up very early in the morning. Write in your journal before you are fully awake. Without paying attention to grammar or syntax, write anything and everything that comes to mind, as quickly as you can, until you have filled up three to four pages in your journal. Wait a month or so; then revisit these pages to see what you wrote, to see what gifts the Spirit may have revealed to you through this writing exercise. Often there is supernatural wisdom or guidance to be discovered.
I use my journal every day for doodling as well as writing. I find that there is nearly always something intriguing or significant to discover in the patterns, lines, or shapes. Very often my doodles will illuminate my life in some spiritual way. About once a month, I spend a little extra time on my “doodle of the day.” Instead of saving just a corner of the page for my doodle, I’ll treat it to a full sheet of paper. Whenever I do this exercise, I allow myself to draw as freely as possible whatever comes to mind, without feeling like I have to draw something specific. Afterward, I analyze my doodle. What does my doodle represent to me, symbolically, at this point and time in my spiritual journey? Then I write about that in what I call the “State of my Soul Address.” One of the benefits of doing this exercise is that I can take a walk back through my spiritual journey anytime I like and note any growth, progress, or change that has occurred. These “addresses” are easy to locate in the journal because of the oversized doodles.
14. Giving Thanks: keeping a gratitude journal
At the end of each day, before going to bed, I take out my journal and jot down my “gratitudes of the day.” I list what I am thankful for this day. In what ways was I spiritually moved or blessed? How did God keep his promises? These I list in a spiritual “top ten list.”
The year after graduate school I had a Fulbright grant to Germany. Much of the time while I was there I kept a travel diary. I wrote a lot about what it feels like to be a foreigner in a foreign country without a home. Writing about our experiences in life where we have felt “homeless” or “in exile” while living in a strange land or country can prove to be a very fruitful journal writing activity.
16. Turning writing prompts into poetry.
Maybe your poetic voice emerges as a result of keeping a spiritual journal. How then, do you turn these writing prompts into poetry? Begin by rereading your journals and underlining words, phrases, and passages that move you. Pay attention to words that seem to cluster around a particular theme or that call out to be expanded in some way. Invite the Holy Spirit into your writing, and then begin to write.
A note about keeping your journal “spiritual”
There are many good journaling resources available. However, not all the writing prompts you find will facilitate self-reflection or the process of spiritual self-emptying. It is important to choose wisely when selecting a topic to write about in your journal. Just remember that the best topics for spiritual growth are the ones that will cause you to dig deeper into your soul, to travel inward into your deepest, most inner self—these are the ones that will help you open up so you can listen better for God.
Sonni Svejcar, M.S., my instructor at The Heritage Institute for “Journal Writing in the Classroom,” gave permission for me to use materials from her course for this article. Her course offering can be found online at: www.hol.edu.
Creativity and Divine Surprise: Finding the Place of Your Resurrection by Karla M. Kincannon (Upper Room Books, 2005).
Dreams: A Way to Listen to God by Morton Kelsey (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist, 1978).
Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life through Writing and Storytelling by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox (Jeremy P Tarcher / Penguin, 1973).
Rev. Jim Clarke and Rev. Paula McCutcheon, my pastors at Fairwood Community United Methodist Church in Renton, WA.
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Copyright ©2009 by Sarah Rehfeldt
Sarah Rehfeldt is an artist, writer, and photographer living in Washington State. She has a M.A. in German Literature from The Ohio State University. You can view her photography web pages.