Journaling as a Spiritual Practice by Helen Cepero
Helen Cepero, seminary professor and director of spiritual formation at North Park Theological Seminary, has written this book as part of InterVarsity Press’ Formatio Books. Formatio is a division of IVP dedicated to the promotion of the ancient traditions of the church to aid in spiritual formation (Spiritual formation is a channel through which contemplative practices are entering the church). For those acquainted with this language, you will recognize that IVP is introducing and repackaging the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions drawn not from Scripture but from the ideas of people. This type of “spiritual formation” has become immensely popular since Richard Foster wrote The Celebration of Discipline about three decades ago. Since then, and more so recently, the Christian community has been flooded with the call to return to ancient practices and traditions. Journaling as a Spiritual Practice is one such call, this time to the discipline of journaling. What should be observed from the outset is that Cepero does not draw her understanding on journaling from the Scriptures, for nowhere in the Bible is such a practice taught. Whatever she has to offer comes from post-biblical tradition and/or the imagination of more recent times.
Having said this we must ask whether journaling is wrong. The short answer is no. Many of the great saints of God throughout the years have written diaries and journals to aid them in their walk with God. Admittedly, there are other methods that believers practice to expedite their spiritual development which do not come directly from a chapter and verse. Certainly the Lord allows latitude within biblical parameters to find and use methods to help us worship Him and understand His ways. Writing down our thoughts, insights, struggles, and understanding and application of Scripture can have great benefits. Still, it must be remembered that there is no mandate in Scripture to journal, nor is everyone predisposed to do so. For those interested in journaling, this book offers much in the way of helpful advice, practical suggestions and encouragement.
That’s the good news. The devil, as they say is in the details. Journaling attempts, as many books of this genre do, to use Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths…” (p. 92) as biblical support. But, of course, Jeremiah was calling the people back to the ancient paths of God as taught in the Word. Cepero is calling her readers back to the ancient paths of Roman Catholic and Eastern monastic and mystical practices which were not even on Jeremiah’s radar. Her book is filled with methods and references to and quotes from those who developed and are followers of this system: Henri Nouwen (p. 21), Nouwen’s L’Arche community in France (p. 21), Quakers (p. 78), Stations of the Cross (pp. 117-118), spiritual directors (pp. 123, 151), Thomas Merton (p. 148), Ignatius of Loyola (p. 72) and his examen prayer (p. 81), etc. As I said, Cepero is not taking her reader back to Scripture but back to Roman and Eastern Orthodoxy.
In addition, we find many troubling statements and practices throughout: Yoga (pp. 16, 62), “God comes to the place where we are and says our name” (p. 31), “God our beloved, born of a woman’s body” (p. 61), “the body does not lie” (p. 63), “our sexuality can lead us into an intimacy that speaks of God’s own presence” (p. 65), use of symbols to aid journaling (p. 74), naming our wounds can help heal them as we grieve over them (pp. 125, 131). “I am good because God created me” (p. 127), “If we name God as our lover” (p. 127), “May the presence of the Holy Spirit fill your sleep and speak in your dreams” (p. 133), “The voice of God tends to be gentle and soft” (p. 149). Each of these and others deserve analysis and challenge by the discerning Christian.
But the most concerning teaching in Cepero’s book is reserved for what she calls “dialogue journaling” (pp. 104-112). Here, the reader is taught to wait for God to speak and reveal His Word and Self to us through some sort of inner voice or thought. For example, the reader is told to write in their journal the word “God” and then wait for a response (p. 104). On one occasion God responded to her, and she wrote in her journal, “Helen, welcome back, I’ve missed you” (p. 105). Cepero explains, “All journaling, but perhaps especially dialogue journaling, is dependent on the good use of imagination” (p. 108). Why these imaginary words from God are seen as superior to the infallible Word of God is truly a mystery to me. But herein lies the great danger of the book. When we turn from the revelation of God to inferior traditions of the past and the imaginary, and possible cultic, communications of the present we turn from the rock solid Word of truth to the quicksand of human ideas. For this reason Journaling as a Spiritual Practice is truly a dangerous work.
NOTE: It should be noted that a pre-publication version of this book was used in the review. The page numbers may be somewhat different in the final publication.