Imperfect Reflections: The Art of Christian JournalingWritten by Kirsten Birkett Reviewed By Ruth Schroeter
Kirsten Birkett’s Imperfect Reflections was my first read of 2023 and I am so thankful that this little book found its way into my hands in that precious space between the weary end of one year, and the busy start of the next.
As someone who, after filling many notebooks with angst, weaned herself off journaling because it seemed rather self-absorbed, this book has invited me to enjoy again the weight of a pen and the texture of paper and, as I offload my thoughts onto the page, to find in the process opportunities for remembering, for gratitude and for praise.
Birkett was inspired to take her journaling more seriously by an academic paper written on the Puritan practice of diary keeping, which argued that it was not a “sign of morbid introspection or evidence of Puritan self-flagellation. On the contrary, it is a spiritual practice” (p. 10).
In the book’s introduction, Birkett speaks candidly of the spiritual benefits of this practice:
I write, mostly, because I feel bad about something, and by the end of writing I generally feel better. I have also used writing in my journal for specific spiritual ends—because I’m struggling to forgive someone; or I’m smarting from a well-deserved rebuke—and I want to examine what happened and help myself come to a godly response. (p. 10)
Each of the book’s chapters starts with the date and then a description of the author’s location (always a Sydney café, except when all the cafes are shut, and the Moore College library gets a mention!). This gives readers the sense that we are perusing someone’s diary, but with their permission.
Birkett writes in way that is warm, personal and honest, providing us with a glimpse into her daily life, before then helping us to think about how we might turn our own journaling into praise, thanksgiving, and opportunities to remind ourselves in a tangible way of the glorious truths by which we can face the world in which we live. By writing in this way, Birkett models what she is encouraging us to do.
The first chapter, simply entitled “Write,” reminds us of the lost art of handwriting. Birkett is a careful researcher, and this chapter describes the proven benefits of writing over typing. There is, it appears, not only a connection between handwriting and academic achievement among children, but also, interestingly, a correlation with emotional well-being and social skills. She explains: “There is something about handwriting that seems to have a stronger connection to our personalities and ourselves than typing does. Research continues to show that handwriting is connected to self in an intimate way that typing simply does not achieve” (p. 16).
If we want to download a lot of information quickly, then the laptop is the way, but, Birkett challenges, “I find that the very slowness of handwriting is part of what attracts me to it. When I put down my thoughts by hand, I process my emotions, and come to conclusions, in a far more profound way than when I do the same sort of writing by laptop” (p. 17).
Of course, it matters why and how you journal, and in the following chapters, Birkett provides a clear and biblical framework that ensures this practice is spiritual, disciplined and God-focused. At the end of each chapter, Birkett also suggests how we might put its content into practice. For example, in “Write Prayer,” we are encouraged to write our own psalm—following the familiar pattern by which the psalmist would present a problem or a struggle, before recalling God’s character and remembering his plans, and so re-evaluating life in the light of God’s presence. She encourages: “Writing your own psalm is a great way to pray. It means your prayers are not just bringing to God the real issues on your own heart, but also that you are doing so according to His agenda” (p. 50).
The final chapter is entitled “The Covid Diaries.” This is a wonderful ending to this short book, so much so that I have re-read it several times. Birkett shows again and again how much she needs to keep writing things down as the hard stuff of life comes her way, how writing cements memories, how it connects with the soul, how it reminds us of the hope we have, and how it keeps turning us back to God. As I return to journaling myself, I find it fits naturally into my quiet times and helps me to concentrate, deepens my thinking and lifts my gaze from my naval to my God.
Journaling really is an art, as Birkett’s subtitle describes it. It is not a matter of reproducing a formula. But like any art, it also takes practice. But it is thoroughly worth it. And so, whether you find it all too easy to endlessly pour out your heart on a page and need discipline, or whether you find it hard to pause and reflect and need to slow down, this short book will provide the reasons why we should and help us to see how we can.
St Andrew’s Cathedral
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
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