When I was in college, I started filling journals faster than the campus bookstore could replace them. Confronted with all sorts of new things, I impulsively processed through writing. I would start studying but be interrupted by the need to scribble down a thought that the reading had stirred up. I tried to make lists of topics to come back to, but they kept getting longer instead of crossed out. I soon found that I was using my daily prayer time as a moment to catch up.
I began to feel guilty for this shift. Was this even prayer? Ah, a good question to jot down for my next journaling-session. When the themes I was wrestling with were about faith or theology, it “counted.” But a lot of times I was thinking about myself or about culture. Was that allowed? I once counted the amount of times I used the word “I” in an entry. How could something so narcissistic be about God? Another question on my journaling to-do list.
For a while, I wrapped up my journal entries with a short plea to God to help with whatever I had written about. A little stamp that certified the entry as “prayer.” But as life moved on, my journal entries lost all pretense of a prayer format. Traditional religious language was no longer jiving with my spirituality, so I quit using it. In the real-world, working a full-time job, my thoughts were focused on more tangible realities than abstract “ologies.” I didn’t have time for hour-long journaling sessions anymore. If I had the time at all, I word-vomited out whatever was on my mind, maybe more for expulsion than closure. There was no time for a prayer stamp that felt fake and little desire for wrestling through why it did.
At some point in this phase, I was sitting on an airplane about to take off, and I pulled out my journal for an hour-long, silent retreat in the clouds. The older woman next to me smiled and said, “I remember when I was your age. The questions felt so big.” Now that I feel more settled in who I am and have added marriage and children to the mix, I understand what she meant.
I don’t need to fill notebook pages anymore. But I still need a way to pause from the grind of daily life. The Jesuit prayer of the Examen became my drive-thru version of journaling reflections. It is structured in a way to allow people to examine their day, look for themes of light and darkness, and set intentions for moving forward. This daily activity helped me let go of to-do lists of unprocessed material I was never going to get to anyway, and instead foster attentiveness. And over time, I’ve morphed the prayer into what works for me. I’ve dropped the language of “grace” and “sins” and I look for moments of high emotion, some that felt good and some that didn’t. Instead of ending my reflection in a dialogue-with-God format, I find more abstract closure. Sometimes, I simply set an intention for the next day or chose a mantra that helps me stick to it. Often, I rest with an image or a phrase that offers me peace for the themes that arose.
But most importantly, I don’t spend this precious 5 minutes of my day self-sabotaging the practice. I no longer wonder if this is prayer or need a stamp of religious approval to know it’s good for my spiritual self. And here’s why:
Being Self-focused is Spiritual
I now know that thinking about myself for the sake of growth isn’t narcissism. It is spirituality. Many theologians, in fact, think becoming our truest self is at the heart of the spiritual journey.
I could say a rosary for the healing of my marriage. Or I could reflect on what in myself leads me to act unkindly and make an active commitment to be better tomorrow. One of those prayers is more traditionally petitionary and the other doesn’t look that different from therapy. But if at the end of either, I’m a better person and so is the world I interact with, isn’t that a sacred process?
There’s no Cookie-Cutter for Holiness
I’m not saying that the rosary is bad or that conversational prayer with God is less productive. They’ve all served me at different times in my spiritual journey. But if my goal is to become my truest self, that also has to mean honoring the routes I need to get there.
As an introverted processor, Ennegram-4-creative-type, intellectual and psychodynamic minded, lover of written word and the slow-pace of yoga, and holder of an abstract, barely-Christian theology, most of my prayerful activities right now are not traditionally Christian. I meditate in a style that’s half-Catholic and half-psychology. I center myself with Buddhist quotes and poems. And I practice Americanized yoga from Youtube videos, that are just as much my weekly exercise as my prayer time. But mostly, I sit in coffee shops, typing madly on a laptop, until I’ve wrestled out some small nugget of truth. And I’m okay with these eclectic practices that lack definition. Because at the end of the day, I can at least define myself as closer to a better, truer me. And that’s holy.
Resources: If you’re looking for a new way to pray, here is an Examen that uses broad language, here is the daily reflection I’ve developed, and I would recommend Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, by Reba Riley, for a funny memoir of an eclectic, sacred journey towards peace.