A friend of mine in the Ignatian Associates has been telling me of late that she has been writing letters to God every day. Little did I know this idea was from Flannery O’Connor: “Dear God, In a way I got a good punishment for my lack of charity to Mr. Rothburg [a fellow workshop student] last year. He came back at me today like a tornado which while it didn’t hurt me too much yet ruined my show. All this is about charity. Dear Lord please make my mind vigilant about that. I say many many too many uncharitable things about people everyday. I say them because they make me look clever. Please help me to realize practically how cheap this is. I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule. Please help me to stop this selfishness because I love you, dear God.”
I have never been into journaling much, but through this website and my spiritual director I have learned that writing is therapeutic for me. So I thought, Why not?” It then occurred to me that this would be a neat activity to start during Lent.
The first thing I learned from this activity is that I have not handwritten anything in a very long time. I laughed to myself as I recalled the last time I had to write a real page of words. It was actually a requirement in deacon formation. Several times in formation, both my wife and I had to handwrite a letter to Cardinal George stating our intention for ordination. This was painful. Not the letter, not formation but having to handwrite a single page letter! It brought me back to a time even before typewriters and correction tape! Remember retyping or rewriting whole pages because we had too many corrections on them? Ugh. Now we simply backspace on a screen. Even “cutting and pasting” are becoming hidden keys. However, I have also found that having to handwrite these letters has an unexpected advantage – the notebook I am using is written in a very special code. Yes, that code is my handwriting after decades of typing. I laugh to myself knowing that whoever reads my gibberish will strain to see if the characters I use are English or ancient Greek.
So why journal this way?
Writing a letter to God each day is a simple format to journal. I also think the archive will be a fun read for my kids after I am gone and before they dedicate a library, or at least a “circular file” to my works. I told my wife that this would be a neat idea for her too. That idea went as far as my last retirement date discussion – in one ear and out the other. Maybe after she reads this she will pick up the idea.
Journaling is supposed to be a key activity in spirituality. I have always thought that if I wrote in spiritual matters it would be. Of course, this is wrong. Ignatius reminds us that there are no matters outside of one’s relationship with God – we are to look for “God in all things.” We might not see or be looking for him but, that doesn’t mean he is not there. Not seeing him is our limitation, not his. Journaling a letter to God each day starts with the right focus in that I am talking to God. It is the simplest of prayers.
It is early in Lent. So far, I have just been talking about my day. Yet, even in this simple activity, the act of writing my feelings down on paper is freeing to me. It is as if I have pulled my feelings out from my system. For a few moments, I am in control of whether I allow them back in or if I leave them on the paper. It has been a long time since I have taken that kind of control of my emotions. Imagine if all those emails and texts we have sent but afterwards regretted were to first go into a draft folder before sending. It would give our conscience time to catch up to our emotions and give us a chance to reflect on whether we really want to say and send this reaction. Sometimes, emotions still win and we send anyway. Hey, we’re human. Sometimes, discretion kicks in and we wait to fight another day. At least writing it down lets the emotion be expressed in a safe way. As importantly, we can later go back, review our journals and contemplate on our emotions that day. Spiritual growth requires reflection on the nature of our emotions. For me, I have learned to ask if the emotion is “of God or my ego?” Seeing when it is my ego is helpful in getting me to let the emotion go. Not always, but more often than yesterday.
One of my mentors tells me to “pray through my emotions.” I understood his comment but didn’t actually know how to do it. During particularly stressful times and when the thought occurs to me, I stop and take the time to ask Jesus to take the emotion away from me. Yes, I agree, why doesn’t a deacon default to prayer in this regard? I have thought about this and decided that for fifty-five years I was socialized without this learning. Now that I know it, I need to develop the habit. Knowledge is great for reflecting afterwards. Habitualization trains our reactions.
I have found the best way to pray through my emotions with the daily grind is to write. Still, scheduling this time to write has been a struggle for me. Some days, I start with writing the letter I didn’t get to yesterday. I am ok with this. It took a while for the Office to become a daily habit as well. Some days, Morning Prayer comes after sunset. Of course this is not ideal but, from what I can tell, I am not the only one who remains challenged balancing demands and priorities. Topics to write in future letters!
Write a letter to God. Tell Him your hurt, pain, joy and fears. Tell Him a joke. It doesn’t matter what you write, just begin the conversation. Dear God,…