Reading Old Journals as Sacred Pause

For today’s guest post, I’m pleased to introduce Sue Clemmer Steiner, who has served as a pastor in Ontario, Canada.Sue Clemmer Steiner Now retired and living in Kitchener-Waterloo, Sue continues to offer spiritual direction for church leaders, volunteers at a nearby federal women’s prison for a fiction reading group, and serves on the spiritual resources council of a local social service agency. Last fall she published a memoir, Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry. I plan to review her beautiful book in my next post, and in the meantime, here are some of Sue’s thoughts on sacred pause. 

For at least 30 years I’ve kept a journal—not every day, but often enough to consider journaling a spiritual practice, a sacred pause.

In December I lugged two big boxes of old journals out of the closet. I arranged those books of many shapes and colours on some shelves, admired their beauty, then began reading them during my morning quiet times.

I entered into this endeavour with much curiosity and some trepidation.  I wondered: could reading old journals be a sacred pause? Would they nourish me with streams of living water, or would my spirit shrivel up? Would returning to them comfort me or disturb me?

I’d considered reading my journals a year or two earlier, while writing my memoir, Flowing with the River.  But I was afraid I’d get bogged down in all that self-reflection and never finish my book! This winter, with the book published (and in its second printing), the time felt right.

Conestogo River near St. Jacobs, Ontario – walking along its banks plunges me into the river of life.
Photo © Samuel J. Steiner, 2013

I’m surprised at how compelling these recorded snippets of my inner journey are. Some days I can hardly pull myself away from them. My reading confirms that I was right to read them after completing my memoir, rather than during the writing process.

To my relief I’m finding that my memoir is true to the feelings and perceptions I recorded at crucial junctures on my life journey. My memoir is a distillation of what’s in the journals, tempered of course by the reflection on experience I’ve done in the meantime.

Reading the journals also confirms how actual bodies of water transport me to the river of the water of life.  Vacationing by a lake or walking by the Conestogo River near home, I imagine myself wading in, finding the current, flowing with God’s Spirit, and being upheld by the healing energy.

Conestogo River near St. Jacobs, Ontario---walking along its banks plunges me into the river of life. Photo © Samuel J. Steiner, 2013
Conestogo River near St. Jacobs, Ontario—walking along its banks plunges me into the river of life. Photo © Samuel J. Steiner, 2013

I composed this worship poem on retreat nine years ago. I quoted it along with Rev. 22:1-2 at the beginning of my memoir:

My desire
is to be in the stream of history
moving ever more fully towards God
…basking in God’s steady, sturdy love towards me
…moving with the current as it flows
…knowing where some deeper currents lie
and inviting others in.

May nothing distract me from flowing with this stream.

Journaling is one kind of sacred pause which helps many of us listen to our life with God.  Now I know that for me, reading old journals is also a sacred pause, taking me to another level, plunging me deeper into the stream of God’s love and grace.

I’m reminded of this favorite quote from Frederick Buechner’s book Now and Then (Harper Collins, 1983):

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: Does journaling help you listen to your life with God? What value have you discovered in re-reading old journals?


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9 thoughts on “Reading Old Journals as Sacred Pause

  1. Thank you April, and thank you Sue! I have been hung up about this for some time. I always felt I should go through all my journals before beginning my memoir, and it has kept me from doing either one! Going through old journals as a sacred pause is a great idea. I like what Sue said about filtering the experiences she recorded in her journals over time and then writing from that perspective.

    Greetings to you Sue from a former resident of the K/W area! You will probably recall me if you think of my daughter, Anita Schroeder Kipfer. Congrats on writing your memoir!

    1. Elfrieda, I’m glad my struggle with “shoulds” in reading old journals has been helpful to your process. The language of “sacred pause” puts a new perspective on journal reading. I look forward to your memoir. Sue

  2. It is interesting thàt Sue avoided going through the journals, although I can understand the worry about getting “stuck” there and wanting to write more from an overview. But I am always amazed at the little things I don’t remember at all, or which my memory has tweaked in the intervening years, so that I don’t remember things the way they actually were. Glad I wrote down what I did!

    1. I’m fascinated by the interplay of memoir, memory, journaling, and the way things “really” were. As I look back through my own journals, I see that I’ve sometimes recorded details that I haven’t remembered or remember differently, and sometimes there are gaps in my journals where I remember things so clearly. I haven’t re-read mine in any deliberate way, but I’m inspired by Sue’s experience.

      1. Yes, the interplay of memory, memoir, journal writing and “the way things really were” is indeed fascinating!

        My old journals give me my state of mind and spirit at certain times, and show me where I saw (or groped to find) God in the midst of whatever was happening. But I didn’t use my journal to keep a record of what actually happened! Fortunately, I have other writings where I recorded “what actually happened” at crucial times in my life. They, as well as newspaper accounts of certain events, were invaluable as I wrote my memoir.


  3. This post is very timely for me. I’ve been thinking about my college years, 1966-1970, which are very well documented both at Eastern Mennonite University, within a mile of my house, and in my own letters, scrapbooks, and journals from that period.

    Readers of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World often ask if I will be writing a second memoir, since that book ends when I am on my way to college at age eighteen. I haven’t decided the answer to that question, but I am reading Nina Amir’s Blog to Book and expecting to begin blogging about those years as soon as the river of memory starts to flow in creative directions.

    Sue’s choice of going with the embers of memory rather than going back to ignite the details through rereading really intrigues me. Thanks, April, for another Sacred Pause, and thanks, Sue, and other readers for these interesting comments. I’ve left some breadcrumbs on your blog also, Sue!

    1. I love Nina’s blog, and at the same time I’ve read others who caution against blogging a book. I imagine it depends how it’s done–just as some might re-read their journals as a source for memoir and others choose not to, some may blog their book and others not. I’m interested to see how this unfolds for you, Shirley.

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