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  • Revd Kirsten Birkett

A Diary for Spiritual Purposes

A new book on the St Antholin's lectures series.

I was actually researching happiness when I came across an academic paper about Puritan diaries. It is not, perhaps, a connection that many people would make. Puritans still suffer from the very misguided reputation of being kill-joys. Those who have studied their writings, however, generally come to see that on the contrary, Puritans were creators of joy. They loved it. They practised it. And through their spiritual disciplines, they practised getting better at it.


In J. I. Packer’s words:

Puritan piety can fairly be characterised as a reformed monasticism. Those who sought the desert and the cloister for a thousand years and more before the Puritans arrived did so because they wanted to be thorough-going for God (at least, this was the purpose of the best of them, and probably of most of them), and to that end they were willing to accept rigorously disciplined routines on a lifelong basis. The Puritans, whose minds were in some ways medieval just as they were in other ways modern, also accepted rigorously disciplined routines on a permanent basis, and for the same reason; but, like the Reformers, they believed that God calls his saint to serve him in the family, the church, and the world, rather than in any form of closed celibate society…they would have been horrified to think of their own path of devotion and duty as having any links with such perversions, but in fact their aim was to ‘walk through the wilderness of this world’ (Bunyan’s phrase) with as rhythmical a routine for daily life as any monastic rule had ever required, and it is illuminating to observe the parallelism.


It may seem odd to compare the fiercely Protestant Puritans to monastics, but Packer’s comparison is, as he says, illuminating. The Puritans dedicated themselves to a disciplined life in the interests of devoting themselves to godliness. They considered that life was about growing closer to God, and more conformed to his son’s likeness. They made every effort to have godliness of life, not just in deed or preaching, but in frame of mind and emotions, as well.


In doing so they recognised important truths. Frame of mind and emotions matter; they are what drive us as created human beings. To become a godly person, one must examine the heart and seek to transform it in God’s power. Amongst other things, one must seek godly joy; a genuine rejoicing in the spiritual truths that Scripture teaches, so that those truths are not just held intellectually but transform our inner beings.


One of the disciplines that many Puritans undertook in the interests of furthering this transformation was diary-writing. The instructional book written by John Beadle, which I survey, is a comprehensive model of what the ideal diary should contain, written after a generation of Puritans had had time to perfect the idea. It is something to which to aspire, but I am much more moved by the actual diary of Richard Rogers, the sixteenth-century Anglican Puritan minister who wrote from his heart amidst the difficulties of family sorrow, the stresses of ministry, and tumultuous political times. Rogers sought joy, because that is commanded of us, and he applied himself to achieving it – not through superficial emotional manipulation, but through deep understanding, and constant remembering, of spiritual truths.


As well as the Latimer publication, I have recently written a popular-level book on Christian journaling (Imperfect Reflections, being published by Christian Focus), seeking to examine how modern Christians might do the same sort of thing. The Puritan example of diary-writing was my impetus. It is something that anyone who can write, can do; it need never be seen, need never by judged by anyone else, but is potentially a very powerful means of meditating upon scripture and our obedient (or less obedient!) responses to it.


In Spiritual practices of the Puritans: the importance of diary-keeping, we see a rational for keeping a diary (not a spiritual diary, so much as a diary for spiritual purposes), and a key example of what precisely such a diary looked like. May we be as devoted to godliness as the Puritans who wrote them.


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Kirsten Birkett is a minister and writer based at St John's Houghton with St Peter's Kingmoor in Carlisle. She is a former Latimer Research Fellow and current Theological Consultant for Church Society. She is the author of many articles and books some of them you can find here.


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