by Jennie Cesario
Some days I can’t write a word. I fumble over familiar fears – failure, mediocrity, exposure. Other days, sentences wrestle to the surface, tired of being tamped down, impatient with my old insecurities. Words quicken and come, long overdue, eager for light and breath.
For too many years I didn’t write at all, except to God. Stacks of prayer journals testify that the page is my preferred place of communication, even with Him. To the Lord I wrote supplications that slipped into poetry, confessions that turned lyrical, thanksgiving that became memoir. In the “real” world my voice was small, reluctant. But on the page the loops and lines of my cursive prayers were large and expressive. I dotted my i’s in intercession and crossed my t’s in praise.
My story begins in a familiar way, I suppose: the shy child more at home among books than people. I was about nine when I realized I could be a writer myself. A beloved aunt gifted me with a hardcover diary. Self-expression, I learned, was a kind of high. And self-expression in safety was just what my shy self needed. The diary’s hidden key, tucked in a back corner of my sock drawer, made me feel powerful, the protectress of a secret treasure.
I didn’t commune with God in that diary. In those days, I don’t think I would have known how. At night, before sleep, I recited rote prayers that had more to do with superstition than faith. My mumbled, repetitive offerings were clusters of garlic to keep the vampires away. I lived in a community in which, for some inexplicable reason, more children than seemed statistically reasonable had been struck by cars and killed. I wanted to live. It was simple as that. My diary was, among other things, a place to explore the darkness of my fears.
Later, in my teens, I encountered Jesus in a personal way, and my prayer life transformed to heartfelt communion with my Savior. But my writing life suffered. Self-satisfied in my newfound faith, I foolishly believed I’d discovered all the answers. What was left to write about? That phase passed, but then I found myself in another: How could I express vulnerability in faith communities that seemed to insist on victorious certainty in every circumstance? I had come to love Jesus, but sometimes I missed – and needed – the young girl who wrote pages of cathartic poetry probing her doubts and fears.
In my adult years, I wrote comfortably about politics and faith in my early professional life, but the thought of sharing my personal self in print was so daunting it stilled my pen. The shy child became a reticent woman, fearful of judgment and rejection. Like a stutterer before an audience, I choked on my words before they could make it to the page. My writing voice was stunted and cramped, lettered in invisible ink.
It was God who gently uncurled fingers. I can’t recall how old I was when I took up prayer journaling, but I know it has been among the things that has kept and saved me. Like my childhood diary, my pages of prayer have been places of secret vulnerability, places where, like the psalmists and prophets of old, I can ask my “why’s” and my “how’s” and express my wonder. Places where I can admit my anguish and anxiety and still encounter the tender mercies of the Savior.
And it has been in the pages of my prayer journals that I’ve cultivated a small fraction of that mercy in myself. In filling one notebook with an effort to forgive someone, and another notebook with lengthy intercessions, my own words have taught me empathy for others and compassion for their stories. I’ve learned, little by little, over the years, that for the Christian, writing, like anything else, isn’t merely about self-expression. It’s about love. And love isn’t something to be kept secret. It’s something to be shared.
I read somewhere that there’s a certain fierceness that comes with growing older, an “I no longer care what anyone thinks” kind of boldness combined with a dogged determination to outpace the ticking of the clock. Perhaps some of that contributed to the courage I found to begin writing online in my mid-forties. But mostly, I think, it was the accumulation of years of prayer journals.
“For me writing has always felt like praying,” minister John Ames writes in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and I feel that way too. Writing has been prayer for me, and prayer has been writing. And I’ve discovered this: God doesn’t waste our wilderness years. Not a line or a loop of them, not a letter or a jot. My writing voice – and the bravery to use it — was shaped in reams of journals and pages of prayer.
Jennie Cesario lives and writes in Long Island, New York, where she shares a home with her husband and their college-age twins. She enjoys exploring connections in life and literature and illumining both in the light of faith. Her work has lately appeared in Fathom Magazine, Redbud Post, and Ginosko Literary Journal. Follow her writing at dappledthoughts.com