J is for Journaling

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(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)

I have stacks and stacks of old journals at home. The earliest one goes back to when I was eight years old. I was never one of those people who writes every day, unless something really special was happening – a trip overseas I wanted to remember in detail, a new medication the doctor asked me to monitor my response to over the first few weeks. Most of the time, I wrote when I needed to write, no more, no less. There were times when it was a fire in the bones, when I could agree with the quote from Charlotte Brontë on the cover of my journal above: “I’m just going to write; I cannot help it.”

A blank page and a pen are still some of my best tools for staying sane. As a new chaplain, I found myself overwhelmed by the tragedies I witnessed in the hospital. I carried them with me, and as they began piling up, the weight nearly crushed me. Writing was my release. I wrote my prayers for the patients and families I cared about, then closed the book, trusting God to read it. It was the only way I could let go of them without feeling that I was abandoning them. It’s not overstating things to say that journaling saved me from burnout.

And knowing the power of writing, I’ve often encouraged others to try it. I’ve led seminars on therapeutic journaling for nurses and for cancer patients. I’ve helped people nearing the end of their lives compose memory books for their families. I’ve seen the value in having someone write a letter that the intended recipient may never even read – a letter to a parent long since dead, a letter to cancer, a letter to God, a letter to an unborn child. At times when emotions are overwhelming or completely bottled up, a writing practice in the style of Natalie Goldberg – a timed exercise during which your hand cannot stop moving and you cannot go back and edit your thoughts – can be helpful. Some of my favorite prompts are, “What I really want to tell you is . . .” or “The hardest part has been . . .” or “Right now I feel . . .” It’s amazing what comes out on paper sometimes when we don’t hold back and don’t self-edit. And having it on paper, outside of us, is sometimes exactly what we need.

There’s something primal about the act of writing. Humans have been doing it for millennia. And in times of crisis, it’s something many people still feel the need to do, even if it’s the last thing they can do. When the plane is going down, or the air is running out, or the water supply is dangerously low, many people have used their last moments to write. My friend Dan Goodman once preached a sermon about these written last words, comparing them to St. Paul’s last letters, when the apostle knew he would soon die. Dr. Goodman said that maybe we write because we want to find God. “Every sentence in its own way is a search for God. Every period at the end of a sentence is another admission of failure, another frustration. So what do we do? We start another sentence. Always searching, always seeking. But God,” he said, “ever the ironist, always seems to reside in the next sentence.”

“We human beings are a narrative species,” Dr. Goodman went on to say. “I think we write because we have to write. We exist – really exist – only as we tell our stories.” A few months after delivering that sermon, Dr. Goodman died, very suddenly, at the age of 40. I treasure the written words he left behind for me – comments on papers I wrote for his classes, a note scribbled on the stationery from a hotel in Egypt where a large group of students and a few professors stayed during our trip to the Holy Land. I’ve read some of them so many times I have them memorized. They are tangible proof that he lived and was part of my life. Hundreds or even thousands of other people have notes from him as well. He lived fully and shared his stories with family, friends, students, and others. They are part of his legacy.

I think Dr. Goodman was right; we write because we have to. It’s a way of leaving our mark, of continuing to speak even when we are gone, of saying the things we can’t express any other way, of communicating with those who can’t or won’t hear us, of letting what is inside us come out, even what we didn’t know was there. So I keep filling up more journals, and encouraging the people I meet to write their own stories, too. We keep seeking and searching, hoping to find that sentence where God lives. And somehow I have a feeling that it’s only in looking back, in reading the whole thing, that we’ll see God really was on every page all along.

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6 thoughts on “J is for Journaling

  1. Sarah

    I recently started writing my prayers. It feels more real than words just spoken in my head. Thank you for sharing your writing.

  2. Kim

    I recently discovered your blog through a friend of mine. I’m also a full-time hospital and hospice chaplain (it’s a one person department, so it’s just me!). I wholeheartedly agree with you about the therapeutic value of writing – both for me, and for the patients. Often a patient will have me read what he or she has written. I think of it as their words, longings, feelings, and prayers that for whatever reasons they can’t say out loud. It is an honor to give them a voice. Thank you for this blog! Your reflections are thoughtful and beautiful. And thank you for the work you do.

    1. Thanks so much, Kim! I’m very glad you found the blog. It’s always great to get feedback from fellow chaplains, and nice to hear that you too believe writing is a wonderful tool in this holy work we do. Blessings to you!

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