Listening on Paper

In Shanghai, China, there is a historic garden called Yu Yuan, with a fish-filled lake and a pretty bridge leading over the water to a teahouse. This bridge has nine zig-zag turnings, which may reflect the ancient belief that evil spirits cannot turn corners. But our guide suggested it was a means of slowing the traveller down, giving their body an opportunity to delight in the flashing gold of the koi carp below, and their spirit time to breathe in a moment of serenity. I really liked that thought, and I remembered it this week as I read some wise words of Walter Brueggemann about our needing to slow down and find space for alternative possibilities:
"Our problem today: the space for imagination to expand and take shape is inversely proportional to the speed at which we live. Driven hard and fast, we lack the time to allow alternate worlds and possibilities to form, careening past small turnings and exits, bound to follow the obvious straight paths of the present arrangement. Yet if we stop and wait, and close our eyes to the “buy now, take me now” images, we will begin to remember, new worlds will form and new exits will become apparent.” (Hopeful Imagination, 56-57, quoted in Allelon.)

I was thinking about this because today I was slated to present a paper, on Journalling and Reflective Learning, to some colleagues who are all pastoral supervisors. We used journalling as part of our CAIRA training course, but I wanted to do some more reading and thinking about how we could use it in professional development - both our own and that of our supervisees. I found Jennifer Moon, a teacher from Exeter University, the most helpful source on the theory and practice of journalling as a technique for reflective learning.

Her working definition of reflection is that is "a form of mental processing with a purpose and/or an anticipated outcome that is applied to relatively complex or unstructured ideas for which there is not an obvious solution." (Moon 1999) Uses of reflection are wide ranging: we reflect in order to consider our own learning, to critically review something, to engage in personal development, to make decisions or resolve uncertainty, and to empower or emancipate ourselves. Journalling - sometimes called thinking on paper - is a particularly helpful way of learning, because it slows us down and helps us take notice of our own responses, our context ,and the worldviews and convictions that guide our inner compass. It enables us to do some "cognitive housekeeping," a phrase new to me, but which refers to the sorting clarifying processes we use when clearing away self-deceptions, congenital shames and false guilts that sometimes cloud our thinking.

All this of course has implications for spiritual journalling, a process used for centuries by Christian believers as a means of cataloguing the journey of the soul. Frederick Buechner advocates it in Listening to your Life because, he says, "there is no change that that cannot be the opportunity for God to speak." The Scriptures demonstrate that God is discernibly present in the issues of our daily life. Romans 12:2 – “You will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” If we pay attention to what God may be saying through the sacrament of the everyday, we may be surprised at the immediacy of his care and concern. Could reading the newspaper be a time to notice what brings me joy and laughter, or what provokes a negative reaction? Could running the treadmill at the gym be an opportunity to sense what in my daily life is tiring me out and to seek out more of what is energising? Could the drive to work be a metaphor of my journey of faith, with its breakdowns, detours and school traffic? When I recently got, in the mail , two speeding tickets on consecutive days, I didnt curse the new speed trap on a wide downhill street between my house and my work; I realised God may be trying to tell me something. Slow Down!

Journalling is a means of slowing down - of paying attention to your life and to God's Word speaking in and through it. For a believer, it is as much listening on paper as it is thinking. A colleague who some years ago experienced the tragic death of his 16 year old son told us today that journalling was a significant part of the grief journey for him and his wife. He would write the events or emotions of the day on one side of the notebook, then, using his non-dominant hand, journal a response on the facing page. This was a laborious process but nevertheless a means to truly experience the loss, and to process its myriad dimensions in a grace-filled space. I think for me using a fountain pen could work the same way, as you just cannot write fast. Having learned so much more about the benefits of journalling I am determined to resurrect mine, which hasnt been touched for at least six months!

However, if I dont get to it this week, I won't flagellate myself. The life of prayer is discipline but not torture. And my Rabbi Jesus tells me the yoke of learning to follow him is easy:
"Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or illfitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly. Matthew 11: 28 - 30.(The Message)

To Chew Over: Have you used a journal to take notice of the rhythms of your soul? How has it helped you experience the truth of who you are, before God?

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways;
reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence praise.

Drop thy still dews of quietness
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.

John Greenleaf Whittier