- Expressing your deeper thoughts and feelings through writing can result in significant health benefits.
- Scriptio divina considers writing sacred because it helps us engage with what's deepest and most immediate.
- Unlike other “expressive writing” practices, scriptio divina uses slow, paced integrative writing.
Three decades ago, research by James Pennebaker and colleagues (1986) revealed that expressing one’s deeper thoughts and feelings through writing can result in significant physical and psychological health benefits. Since then, “writing to heal”—also known as expressive writing, emotional writing, written disclosure, and writing therapy—has become a sought-after source of research and a tool in clinical practice from disciplines including psychology, psychiatry, medicine, social work, and religious/spiritual studies.
Of course, this is not surprising. The desire to record the most challenging or intimate details of one’s life is as old as handwriting itself. From Augustine’s Confessions to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s own autobiography Confessions, Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, and poets such as John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton’s confessional poetry, it seems to be almost an innate part of the human condition to reveal intensely personal, often painful perceptions and feelings as an expressive, curative release.
As a writer and a trauma researcher, I’m fascinated by the connection between writing (an act), healing (a process), and health (a state). For an upcoming book, I explored 10 approaches to healing writing that have emerged in recent decades, one of which—embodied disclosure therapy (EDT)—I developed, specifically for moral trauma (i.e., moral injury and moral distress). It was a fascinating project that comprised extant therapies, evidenced-based models, and novel approaches, most of which could be done by oneself and a few that recommend oversight by a therapist.
One of the novel approaches—scriptio divina—is, perhaps ironically, anything but new. It was influenced by the contemplative practice, lectio divina, which was established in the 6th century and formalized during the 12th century. For anyone who is a fan of mindfulness, meditation, and contemplation, particularly that which is heart-focused, you might want to consider trying scriptio divina.
Introducing scriptio divina
Scriptio divina is an extension of Lectio divina (meaning “divine [or sacred] reading”), a technique designed to help readers become immersed in a text. Similarly, scriptio divina considers the act of writing sacred because it allows a person to engage slowly with what is deepest inside them and what is most immediate for them. The concept was first introduced by Stephanie Paulsell, Ph.D., a theologian at Harvard Divinity School; I have adapted it more formally into a writing program (see below).
Writing, especially in the wake of trauma or during challenging times, can be psychospiritually arduous, in part because the experience can toss us out of our “window of tolerance,” and because trauma often causes our identity to fracture. Accordingly, scriptio divina approaches writing not only for content, but also for the writing process itself, particularly that it is slow, to examine present moment responses to writing, integrative, in terms of facilitating mind-body-spirit interdependence, and revelatory. As with lectio divina, through scriptio divina, the work of identity construction (or reconstruction) is deepened by the way in which words and imagery strengthen and make coherent the inner life.
The purpose of scriptio divina is to engage writing as an inherently meaningful practice that “toils the earth of the heart” (a reference to Ecclesiastes) as a source of inspiration and healing. The goal, more specifically, is to immerse oneself in the act of writing and allow the words and curative insights to be revealed through discipline, presence, contemplation, and surrender. While its roots are in the Christian monastic tradition, you do not need to be aligned in any tradition to practice scriptio divina.
When preparing to engage in scriptio divina, it is important to remember a few things:
- Writing ought to be seen as a gift to be received, not a job to perform or a problem to be dissected and solved.
- To receive that gift, you must be fully present to the process and write slowly, rhythmically, and with intention.
- Life has already “written on your heart”; therefore, it is helpful to consider those “scribblings.” In other words, take a few moments to ponder the fragments of experience you are holding, particularly those that bring you pain or make you feel disjointed or disconnected, as well as any fears that may be preventing you from putting pen to paper and healing.
- You should allow the act of writing to evolve from individual words on a page into a type of meditation, and then finally, into a devotion or prayer.
- When the writing concludes, it is good to keep in mind a phrase you wrote that is particularly meaningful and curative, and then repeat it throughout the day. In this way, your sacred writing becomes a type of sacred living.
How to practice scriptio divina
The process of scriptio divina includes five steps:
- Prepare. Make sure you are sitting comfortably away from noise and distraction. Begin to breathe slowly and deeply. Become quiet and still. Collect and calm all thoughts. Open your heart to hearing gifts of words.
- Write. Slowly and thoughtfully begin to write. Notice what arises within as you string words together, particularly feelings, thoughts, and sensations. Write freely until something grabs your heart; that can be a word, phrase, memory, or idea. Again, notice what arises within. Pause, and be present to that stirring, allowing new gifts of words to fill your “heart’s ears.”
- Reflect. Slowly and intentionally write about what these new gifts are saying to you, offering you, asking you, and requiring of you. Again, notice what arises within. Pause, and begin to form a single sentence that starts to capture a response to these questions.
- Respond. Slowly and humbly write a response to these questions. Write in detail—directly, explicitly, colorfully, symbolically, metaphorically, and ardently. Include feelings and insights. Offer these to yourself as another gift—something to plant in your heart in that moment and nurture going forward. Then, offer them back to life as your gift to it.
- Rest. Sit quietly with listening presence to what is going on inside—again, feelings, sensations, and thoughtful voices that are carrying curative messages. Name those messages and allow yourself to rest peacefully in them.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274–281. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.95.3.274