Mary Lou Redding is the editor of The Upper Room daily devotional guide, author of Companions in Christ: The Way of Blessedness to be released in Fall 2003, and a lifelong journaler.
Most of us who work at Upper Room Ministries know of and are inspired by Mary Lou’s commitment to the practice. This discipline is nothing new for her; in fact her library of personal journals dates back 27 years. And her diaries, sadly lost while she was away at college, date back even further.
Mary Lou has much to teach us about the practice of journaling, but she may have even more to teach us about the other side of journaling. And that would be reflecting back over months or years of journal entries and asking, "Where in this do I see God in my life and God’s call for my future?"
It is common knowledge that no one is to call Mary Lou on New Year’s Day. That is her day of reflection; her day for reviewing her year’s harvest of experiences all faithfully recorded in her journal. For Mary Lou, reflecting deeply and completely requires quiet and solitude. Even during her years as a young mother, she sequestered herself for a few days at the close of each year, reviewing, listening and discerning.
And what is it that she discovers in the pages of her journals and in her solitude? Patterns, great revelations, and God’s grace and mystery.
Patterns: One year when Mary Lou read through her entries, she noticed how she was dealing with anger — specifically the kinds of situations that triggered her anger and how she dealt with them. She could see that she was not making the progress she had hoped to make and so was able to refocus her energy in a constructive way.
Another time she noticed she had been writing extensively about feeling weary. This helped her examine how she was over-scheduling her life and guided her to make changes. It brought into her consciousness the things the Spirit had been trying to get her to notice.
Great revelations: The greatest revelation for Mary Lou is that life is not what it seems. Crises that are painfully recorded in her journal can be seen in retrospect as an arena of God’s activity in her life.
God’s grace and mystery: She sees expressions of God’s grace that she didn’t notice at the time things were happening. "Reflection moves us from experience to meaning, so when I look back on something I experienced, I see meaning I missed because I was too busy experiencing. My journal is my reflection on God’s activity."
Mystery: Some unanswered questions are always going to remain unanswered questions. Journaling the mystery assures her that mystery will always be there and allows — even encourages her — to be at peace with mystery.
These discoveries lead us to yet another component to Mary Lou’s journaling. That is writing a year-end summary of her spiritual life based on her review of her journal entries. Blank pages at the end of each journal are always reserved for this, for it is in this — the other side of journaling, the reflection side — that the spiritual practice of journaling most clearly reveals God in our lives.