Lent is a Time to Keep a Journal of Your Spiritual Travels

Lent is a Time to Keep a Journal of Your Spiritual Travels

republished, with permission, from The Times, Credo Column, 25 February 2012

by Graham Kings, Bishop of Sherborne

At the beginning of Lent, why not explore putting yourself onto paper before God? Beginning a spiritual journal is breathtakingly brave, but worth the plunge. You can be completely yourself. It is different from a diary, in that it is consciously written in the presence of God and parts of it can be addressed to God. You do not have to pretend, for you cannot fool God: he knows you better than you know yourself.

One of the most extraordinary spiritual journals was written by the Cornish Bible translator Henry Martyn. In 1812, two hundred years ago, while passing through Tokat, Armenia, he died of tuberculosis, and was buried with reverence by Armenian Christians.

At the early age of 31, he had virtually ridden himself to death in an effort to get to Constantinople and Britain to persuade his beloved Lydia Grenfell to come back to India with him as his wife. A brilliant linguist, and former fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, he had translated the New Testament into Hindustani (Urdu), Persian and Arabic.

The early parts of his journal were rescued from burning only by the efforts of his fellow Cambridge missionary in India, Daniel Corrie. There are passages of morbid introspection, but also heights of delight in God. Daniel Wilson, Bishop of Calcutta from 1832- 58, wrote to his own family in Britain:

In H. Martyn’s Journals the spirit of prayer, the time he devoted to the duty, and his fervour in it, are the first things which strike me. In the next place, his delight in Holy Scripture, his meditations in it, the large portions he committed to memory, the nourishment he thence derived to his soul, are full of instruction. Then his humility is quite undoubted, unfeigned, profound, sincere. There seems, however, to have been a touch of natural melancholy and depression...

Constance E Padwick, summed up Martyn’s life: ‘That youth in years who yet knew the abasement and the rapture of a saint, and who flung at the feet of Christ a scholar’s dreams and the heart of a lover.’ (Henry Martyn: Confessor of the Faith, 1922)

Mary Sherwood, the wife of a British army officer in Cawnpore, and writer of Anglo-Indian tales, kept a perceptively shrewd diary, which is included in her autobiography, The Life of Mrs Sherwood (1854). She provides us with a sympathetic balance to the humble and sometimes tortured passages of Martyn’s journal:

His features were not regular, but the expression was so luminous, so intellectual, so affectionate, so beaming with Divine charity, that no one could have looked at his features, and thought of their shape or form, - the outbeaming of his soul would absorb the attention of every observer.

Bishop Kenneth Cragg, now approaching a century not out, drew his inspiration for scholarship, mission and dialogue amongst Muslims, from Martyn. In his chapter on him in Troubled by Truth: Life Studies in Inter-Faith Concern (1992), Cragg refers to Martyn’s Bible translations as works of ‘theology-in-philology’ and describes the self-scrutinising pages of his journal:

Martyn’s introspective honesty, total compassion and genuine anxiety for integrity, make of autobiography itself a dialogue concerning truth – truth within and truth beyond...It was precisely the gentle quality of his earnestness which made dialogue the more engrossing both in spirit and in theme.

In Shiraz, Persia, Martyn engaged in dialogue with leading Muslim scholars. Padwick described the scene, drawing on his Journal, and on Samuel Lee’s Controversial Tracts on Christianity and Mohammadanism (Cambridge, 1824):

[A defence of Islam was prepared by] Mirza Ibrahim, a majestic and benevolent old man, ‘Preceptor of all the mullahs’, whose manner recalls the traditions of the great mediaeval doctors, as he meets an opponent with courteous subtlety... Martyn replied in a tract, the first of a series, in which he shows an astonishing mastery of the whole controversy, and in which he and his opponent throughout preserved high courtesy.

Exhausted and realising he was dying in Tokat, Martyn sent his papers on to Constantinople. The final extract from his Journal, dated 6 October 1812, reads:

I sat in an orchard, and thought with sweet comfort and peace, of my God; in solitude my company, my friend, and comforter. Oh! When shall time give place to eternity?

Martyn experienced the impulses of yearning and learning, of devotion and scholarship. Why not, this Lent, begin – or perhaps restart - your own journal of perplexity and consecration? You could buy a fine note book, relax and enjoy the capaciousness of its pages, the openness of God’s future, beckoning to you.


Dr Graham Kings is Bishop of Sherborne and theological secretary of Fulcrum. In 1996, he founded the Henry Martyn Centre for the study of mission and World Christianity, in the Cambridge Theological Federation, and is giving a lecture on Martyn in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge on 29 February at 5.00pm.

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