By Sister Nancy Surma, OSF
I have been haunted by a box of journals that I store under my bed. I started journaling when I was 25, the summer before I took final vows. I wrote sporadically though the years, sometimes jotting thoughts down nearly every week and other times with gaps of many months between entries. I have no desire for any of what I wrote to be read once I die. And now that turning 70 is within striking distance, the thought of what meaning those journals hold and what could happen to them kept calling out to me.
I decided my annual retreat this year would be a good opportunity to start seriously re-reading the journals in chronological order to look at the flow of events in my life and to see how God’s grace led me through the years. There have been times when I’ve re-read selected entries. I usually go back to sections of my journaling as I leave a place of ministry or a living situation. I’ve found that to be helpful in putting a frame around a period of time. But I had never started from my earliest journal and gone through page after page. It seemed a bit overwhelming as I looked at the stack of books that had accumulated over the past 40 plus years. I decided if I never started, I’d never see a clearer pattern of where I came from and how I listened to or ignored God’s call.
I took the journals from my twenties and thirties along with me as I drove to the Poor Clare Monastery in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. I would spend six full days there, joining the nuns for Mass and various prayers with the rest of the time in quiet. The weather was perfect, and autumn was just starting to come into golden color in the wooded setting of the retreat house. I had plenty of time to sit and read, reflecting on the experiences that sometimes seemed distant, at other times seemed as if they just happened. There were struggles I remembered only too well and others I had forgotten. I wrote more than what I remembered, at times going into great detail about my thoughts and feelings. I brought along a meta-journal, a book in which I jotted down insights and observations distilled from the readings of the journals. I was selective about what I wrote in it, not trying to capture so much the major events and changes in my life, but rather looking for ways I might have grown in wisdom, age, and grace.
By the end of retreat, I made my way through the first set of books. Not surprisingly, I can say some struggles I wrote about over and over persist to this day, while other issues thankfully have been put to rest. My beginning steps in prayer that focused so much on analyzing and understanding have evolved into a different approach today, one that is happy just to sit with God. It was good to look back on the young professed Sister I was then, so idealistic as I approached final vows, so eager to do what God and the congregation asked. The struggles of the congregation in the 70’s and 80’s as it worked through the renewal called for by Vatican II emphasized my own ups and downs. How good it is to be through those years of turmoil, to be secure in my vocation and mellowed in my approach.
A book I dipped into during retreat is Humble Confidence: Spiritual and Pastoral Guidance from Karl Rahner by James Bacik. In the opening chapter, Bacik identifies characteristics of human existence that are found in Rahner’s writings. The last one affirmed what I have set out to do in a deliberate way in reading through my journals
We are the ones who in order to achieve genuine fulfillment, must return to ourselves. To avoid self-alienation and a scattered piecemeal existence, persons must be quiet and turn inward in a process of self-discovery. We must attempt to order and integrate the vast amount of experience flowing from our encounters with the world of persons and things… As finite spirits immersed in the world of matter, we have the power to step back and return to self in a process that makes human knowledge and all spiritual activities possible…
I don’t know that I fully grasp the meaning of that insight, but I do know that my current life feels more in focus having examined where I was in my twenties and thirties. I look forward to reading through my journals from the later decades in the future. Who knows what insights they will bring?