I have carried my journals, in a large Rubbermaid container, for 30 years, through more than 20 moves across city, county, and state lines. They are all different sizes and shapes. Unlike some people who journal, they weren’t organized by season with clear consecutive dates making each entry.
My process is something like this. I always have a journal with me, but I usually grab whichever one fits my mood, my mode of transportation, and the size of my pocket. My journals contain stories of the events of my days, as well as quotes from sermons I’ve heard, snatches of conversations, poetry, lists, ideas, books I want to read, lyrics. You get the idea. I wrote all these things in whichever journal was handy, by hurriedly opening it to any page, and writing in whatever direction seemed best.
Like so many things we get in the habit of doing, what started as a good way to capture the events of my life turned into a beast of burden that was too precious to pitch and too overwhelming to organize.
I took about half of my journals on my spiritual retreat in February. On my first meeting with my spiritual director there, I told her about them, the anxiety they caused, and my absolutely stuckness on what to do with them now. I told her that part of my plan for my six-day retreat was to start working through them and transcribing those portions that I wanted to keep into something more manageable.
What I wanted to keep.
30+ years of it.
That’s when she suggested I consider this passage from Luke:
10 “…Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, 11 and a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten herself up completely. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her to him and said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” 13 Then he placed his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”
–Luke 13:10-13 (New English Translation)
After telling this story from Luke, she asked me: “Is it possible that you could just … let them all go? Do you think you might be like the woman in this story from Luke…weighed down by all the things you’ve been carrying? What would happen if you just…let them go?”
I was horrified. ‘Of course I can’t just let them go,’ I thought. ‘If I could do that, I would have done that by now!’
But that night as I sat by the fireplace in this quiet place, I reflected on the image of the woman bent-over for eighteen years, and gradually I began to see the wisdom of her suggestion.
In the end, here’s what happened: I realized that 18 years ago for me coincided with 2001: the year I was an intern, and my father died, unexpectedly, and the twin towers came down. I thought about key events that have taken place in the last 18 years, and I realized there were many things I really could, and wanted to, let go.
Emboldened by this epiphany, I decided to take a look into one of the smallish journals with the idea that maybe it would be filled with terrible things and I’d be able to easily let it go, preferably in a rite involving a firepit and matches. But when I began to read it, what I found surprised me: these words I had been carrying fell into two basic categories: things I had recorded that seemed just, silly, that didn’t need the drama of flames, but were easily torn up and discarded, and words and stories that warmed my very soul because they reminded me either of an event that was holy or happy or because in reading it I realized just how far I had come since it happened.
In the end, I found a process I’m now using to work through my journals and I am slowly transforming them from stacks of heavy pages that weighed me down to something like a quilt in which the pages are the patches of fabric, the words are the threads, and the end result, I hope, will be a sort of art that brings beauty to those who read it, and has the ability to keep me warm.
This Lent, I invite you into a similar process. Maybe the thing you’ve been dragging around isn’t journals, but I’m going to guess that everyone has something they find it difficult to either get rid of or work with. Imagine how much lighter you might feel if you were able to find a new way to look at whatever has been weighing you down, and find a new way to deal with it—a way that turns it from a burden to a blessing.
Imagine if we each found a way to unburden ourselves from things we’ve accumulated that no longer serve us well, and repurpose them into something that makes us feel lighter, freer, and more open to whatever beckons to us now and in the days to come.