You go to Mass one day, and something in the Gospel makes you sit up and take notice.
Maybe it makes you want to grow in a spirit of thankfulness or to examine a relationship. By the end of the liturgy, though, you can’t remember the readings, let alone your insight. You know something special happened, but you can’t recall what it was.
Have you ever had an experience like this? I certainly have. How many times have I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, reflected on a Scripture passage, or been inspired by a homily or spiritual writer—only to forget it all during the day!
If you have this tendency, and even if you don’t, it can be helpful to keep a prayer journal. Perhaps you started one in the past, but it fizzled out for lack of time or because you weren’t sure what to write. That happened to me, too. But I’ve kept at it for twenty years and can see the fruit it has borne in my life.
You and the Lord. A prayer journal is a spiritual diary, a private communication between you and the Lord. It’s a place where you can pour out your thoughts to him.
What do you write? Anything that touches or moves you spiritually: God’s word and your response; ordinary happenings at work or at home; your joys and triumphs, pain and frustration, in events both small and great. A journal helps you keep track of what happens as you sit with the Lord and ponder what he is saying to you through Scripture and your experiences.
If you need encouragement to start (or restart) your journal, think of King David, a man after God’s own heart. Many psalms are attributed to him and were part of a collection of prayers used by the Jews as they came to worship at the Temple.
Actually, the whole Book of Psalms reads like an all-encompassing prayer journal. Some psalms are outpourings of tender love for God. Some are eloquent songs of praise. Others express delight in nature, frustration over defeats, or profound grief and repentance for sin. Healing, suffering, comfort—the psalms are a rich source of inspiration!
Start Here. Begin your prayer journal by making a few choices. First, decide what you will use: a notebook, a computer, a ring binder, a blank diary, or maybe a special prayer journal. Choose when you will pray (preferably, the same time each day) and where (a place that is quiet and free of distractions).
When you pray, quiet your thoughts. If it’s helpful, light a candle or listen to Christian music. Out loud or in the stillness of your heart, invite Jesus to be with you.
There’s no formula for what to do or when. You might read Scripture—next Sunday’s Gospel, perhaps, or a psalm. Or just talk to the Lord about whatever is on your mind. I often pray out loud; it tends to keep me focused.
So does writing down a short text and trying to memorize it. For example, in Luke 11:1-13, where Jesus teaches us how to pray, I was struck by the words ask, seek, and knock. I memorized a few verses, and all that week, I earnestly asked, sought, and knocked for Jesus’ presence. If you don’t feel especially inspired, simply look at a crucifix, and ask the Holy Spirit for light.
Whatever else you do, be sure to listen in holy silence. Sometimes, it will seem that nothing happens. Other times, you may sense the awesome presence of Jesus.
By Their Fruits. Keeping a prayer journal can help you to be faithful to the discipline of daily prayer and to get more out of it. If you date each entry, you can see where you are making progress and where change is needed. Keep track of your prayer requests, and you will discover that God has answered prayers from a month or even years ago. You will find yourself returning to entries that have touched you. For me, many of these focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd who supplies all I need. In loneliness, he is my friend; when I am tempted, he is my salvation; in weak moments, he is my strength.
As you journal, you will find creative ways to respond to the Lord. When I come across inspiring quotes, I put them into my journal. Sometimes I create drawings or charts or link several texts from all that I meditated on. I may jot down a key word or phrase from my journal—something to carry and reread during the day to imprint God’s word on my heart.
If you ask people why they keep prayer journals, you’ll get a variety of answers. “It helps me clarify my thoughts and be more honest with God.” “When I see how God has answered my prayers, it builds my trust.” “It keeps me focused on what matters.”
In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila likens each person to a castle with seven mansions. What moves me is that Jesus, the Lord and King in the central mansion, invites me to journey to this center every day! He invites you, too. So try it. Write a letter to Jesus. Pour out your heart. Sit quietly. And then . . . listen!
Essentially, all the reasons boil down to this: a prayer journal is a tool for deepening your relationship with the Lord.
The “I” in this article is a husband-and-wife team. Don Swenson is a professor of sociology at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada. Angela is a retired registered nurse and midwife.