We live in a world of perpetual distraction. Our focus is constantly being pulled in a multitude of directions. Many today simply have no experience of life away from franticness. To them, the call to 'be still and know that I am God' (Psalm 46:10), or to 'come away with me by yourself to a quiet place' (Mark 6:31), seems all but impossible. We have no experiences of it to give it content. Similarly, the language of the spiritual life seems foreign to many. What is this deep inner movement of the Spirit? How do I know that I hear God? How can I be sure I am living in connection with God?
Part of the problem is that we never seem to give any sustained focus on our spiritual lives. We treat our spiritual selves like we treat every other experience in life; they are lived moment by moment, and once the moment is passed, our focus has moved on to other things. Rarely do we ever return to our moments of spiritual livelihood and look deeply into them. What occurred that brought us a feeling of closeness to God? When did we feel away from God? What did God teach us/show us/say to us during our day?
Keeping a journal helps us maintain a sense of divine focus because it forces to linger on our holy moments. We look upon our day, paying attention to the marks of the Spirit upon our lives. This is not much different from the ancient practice of ending the day with a prayer of examen. We attempt, with the help of God's grace, to notice those places in our daily life where we were attentive to the Spirit's call and presence, as well as those times where we may have passed it by.
A simple way to set up your journal is to structure it around St. Ignatius' understanding of our spiritual consolations and desolations. A Consolation is a moment in which we are aware of God's holy presence in our midst. Ignatius writes " I call it consolation when the soul is aroused by an interior movement which causes it to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and consequently can love no created thing in this world for its own sake, but only in the Creator of all things. . . .Finally, I call consolation any increase of faith, hope, and charity and any interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things, and to the salvation of one's soul, inspiring it with peace and quiet in Christ Jesus our Lord." A consolation is a place a mystery, a place of transfiguration, where the ordinary of life seems to shine with the glory of God.
Consolations may occur in many different ways. It may occur through a conversation with a friend, where our spirit seems to internally recognize God's speaking through the voice of another; it may be a feeling that is felt as one walks in nature, or sits alone in silent contemplation; it may occur through a time of worship, or Bible study. Importantly, a consolation is not something to be understood or dissected, only experienced. Journalling about our consolations is not done so that we may examine these moments so as to reproduce them; rather the recognition of our spiritual consolations helps us return to such moments, thankful for God's grace upon our lives, allowing them to inform how live out our faith in the future.
A desolation, obviously, is the opposite of a consolation. They are the moments in which we feel that we are being draw away from the Spirit of God. Again, it can occur in many different ways; it may be seen in a time where we act in sin or rejection of God, or it can be a 'feeling' that something is 'not right' about a situation. Ignatius defines a desolation as 'darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, loss of love." Desolations drives us away from a life of prayer and an internal restedness in the Spirit of God.
It can be uncomfortable to reflect upon these things - particularly on our desolations. We can easily feel overwhelmed as these reflections point us to habits of activity that we would rather not shed light upon. Yet we must understand that the point of reflecting on desolations is not to feel guilt or shame, but to drive us more strongly to the grace-filled forgiveness of our Saviour. We feel the sting of desolation only so that it may point us to God's loving hand upon our lives.
Journalling in this manner trains us to be be open to God's spirit in new ways. In scripture, Paul mentions that we must 'train ourselves to godliness' in the same way as an athlete trains themselves for competition. (1st Timothy 4:7-8) In journalling about consolations and desolations we learn how to be present in the sacredness of each moment, peering behind the shallow veil of exterior life, in order to be attentive to the voice and presence of God. The acknowledgement of God's consolations teaches us how we may enter into future moments in anticipation of the Spirit at work. Conversely, in recognizing the places in our lives where we begin to move away from God's presence, we are more able to hold more tightly to our Lord in those times, and thus remain steadfast in our faith. We 'train ourselves' to recognize our inner temptations and vices thus giving us the opportunity to avoid such snares.
NOTE: Quotes of St. Ignatius are taken from "The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius" as quoted in Devotional Classics: Selected readings for Individuals and Groups; Richard J Foster and James Bryan Smith, editors.