Three crows bickering on a rooftop against the sunrise, reads my journal entry from July 22, 2019. Lord, how obnoxious I am!
Aside from a list of prayer requests, that is the entirety of the entry for that day. Out of context, it makes no sense. But reading those two sentences now whisks me back to that sticky summer morning. The trio of argumentative crows on my neighbor’s roof are cawing and fighting, oblivious to the sky painted in lavender and gold behind them. Observing them, I see myself in their behavior, my complaints and natterings stark against the backdrop of God’s extravagant love. I jog home, unsettled, to write about the experience.
The practice of writing down my spiritual observations puts me in good company. Christians have been compelled to write about God and to God since the earliest days of the church. Although much of the church’s writing over the years has been to reflect God to the wider world, Christians have also long written to and about God privately.
Prayer journaling transcends denomination and background. Throughout history, both ordinary and prominent believers have approached private journaling to God as a matter of great spiritual import. Fiery Puritans Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards used their diaries to chronicle their sins and halting progress in holiness. John Wesley inherited his journaling practice from his devout mother, Susanna. C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed emerged from personal reflections he kept after the loss of his wife.
The motivations for this practice varied. Puritans often journaled as an attempt to grow in holiness. John Beadle, an English clergyman in the 1600s, believed that diary-keeping was a way Christians might practice for the account they must ultimately give to God of “all of our wayes, and all of his wayes toward us.” Trappist monk Thomas Merton believed that the act of writing without witness or audience permitted the honesty and transparency required to come before God.
Journaling remains popular today. In the secular world, it has flourished as a therapeutic tool and a path to wellness-based self-empowerment. In our digital age, many young professionals have found that paper planners and journals help them avoid getting “sucked into their devices.” And Christians still write, too. Bible journaling, which emphasizes process as much as product and invites believers to encounter Scripture through annotation, illustration, and embellishment, persists in popularity among believers. In 2020, many Christian book publishers saw journal sales rise significantly during the pandemic.
But such practices should not be confused with the process that compelled Jonathan Edwards to lament in his journal, “how soon do I decay! O how weak, how infirm, unable to do any thing of myself!” The rich and complex tradition of Christian private writing not only chronicles an individual’s relationship with God, but also challenges the writer to reflect on that chronicle and grow in holiness.
As a record of relationship, writing as a spiritual practice is more than a list of annotations or a purely self-reflective practice. Rather, it serves as a recollection of God’s presence in an individual life at a particular time in a particular place, and of the writer’s presence or absence in relation to God.
When Christians write about God’s unique presence in their lives, they are obeying God’s command to record what they have seen (Rev. 1:19) and engaging in an embodied act of remembrance that mirrors others in Scripture: the stack of stone on stone, the sip from a cup, the bite into bread. Throughout the Old Testament, God constantly commands his prophets to write down his words that they may remember them (Is. 30:8, Jer. 30:2, Hab. 2:2).
Writing about three crows on a roof, in other words, records my unique and personal encounter with God in a world where my constant consumption of information and entertainment would otherwise lead me to forget it or blind me to what it meant.
Importantly, that record then challenges me—and all who write—to transformation. Writing about three crows is not about me. It isn’t about the crows, either. It is about creating space, in my writing about crows, for God to change me.
The purpose of Christian private writing is not to empower or deify the self or its desires, a characteristic that places it in sharp contrast to secular wellness writing that claims to “expel negative energy” or “heal [the writer] from the inside out.” Rather, the Christian diarist writes to practice seeing differently, to rehearse meeting with God in the every day and, reflecting on that encounter, to grow holier in aspect and behavior.
Of course, the lighter practice of Bible journaling or wellness-based secular writing practices might seem more immediately gratifying and accessible to the everyday writer than a return to the more rigorous practice of writing as a spiritual discipline. But such writing can be both rewarding and attainable. Here are three entry points.
1. Reflective Writing on Scripture
Believers can begin their journey into reflective writing with a deeper dive into Bible journaling. The trick is to move beyond a simple focus on a particular passage of Scripture to questions that link the Scripture to lived experience: what does this Scripture ask of me? How does this Scripture challenge me? What must I consider when I examine my life through the lens of this verse?
Like Bible journaling, this exercise brings the writer to Scripture, while also asking the writer to engage Scripture as early diarists did by using it to rigorously examine daily life and growth in holiness.
2. Prayer Writing
Writing prayers can be an accessible entry point into writing as a spiritual practice. Almost all Christian diarists pray on paper, either by writing directly to God, penning petitions, or meditating at length on God’s character and works. Writers can pray in all these ways, or they can deliberately compose prayers to address a particular need, desire, or thought.
This practice particularly benefits those who prefer to pray “in their own words” but who, at times of high stress or anxiety, find it difficult to compose a prayer. Writing prayers not only provide words for future use, but also serves as a memorial of God’s presence and support. Looking back on answered prayers and God’s work in our lives months or years later can deepen our faith.
3. Christ-Focused Journaling
Daily unguided writing has its place in Christian spiritual practice. Distinct from secular writing that serves merely to unload negative emotion or affirm and empower the self, Christ-focused journaling brings the thoughts and events of the day before God as a way of inviting God into a dialogue about daily life—and a way of inviting God into daily life.
As it turns out, the diaries of even prominent Christians are at times surprisingly mundane, with discourses on daily errands and concerns interspersed with attempts at prayer and meditations on Scripture. Such framing is not coincidental: writing God into our normal world helps us, when we enter it, to center him there.
At its best, writing as a Christian practice takes us deeper than Bible journaling and, in contrast to secular practices, pulls us out of ourselves and back into the presence of the Lamb to reorient our perception of the world. And when that happens, as Thomas Merton writes, “the whole world and all the incidents of life tend to be sacraments—signs of God, signs of His love working in the world.”
Three crows on a rooftop, after all, are not an invitation to holiness. But writing out that encounter and bringing it to God can be.
Brandy Bagar-Fraley lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio. She received her Ph.D. in English from Ohio University and currently works for Franklin University.