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Jennifer Aikman-Smith’s notebook of doodles. Courtesy of Jennifer Aikman-Smith

Holy doodles

Scribbling in church isn’t always rude. It could be the key to a deeper spiritual experience.

By Sara Jewell

Jennifer Aikman-Smith is drawn to worship. Literally.

Eight years ago, Aikman-Smith, who lives in Moncton, N.B., cracked open a sketchbook, poised her pen over the first blank page and began engaging in worship in a new way.

“I used to doodle in the tiny white spaces in the bulletin with the pencils that are always in the pews, if anyone said anything particularly meaningful that I wanted to chew on and think about through the week,” says the illustrator and elementary school teacher who attends Mount Royal United.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2008 when Aikman-Smith, 50, attended a conference for children’s books writers and illustrators in Los Angeles that she decided to fully embrace what had been her covert learning style since Grade 5.

That fall, then moderator Very Rev. David Giuliano visited the area, “so I brought a pen and notebook to church,” she remembers. “When he said, ‘The church can’t be all things to all people; that would be like a dog chasing 300 tennis balls at once,’  I just had to draw the dog and tennis balls,” she laughs. “That’s the moment I realized: this is how I need to take notes. . . . When I see that doodle or that sentence, it brings back the rest of the information said at the same time.”

Despite the negative connotations associated with doodling — you’re not paying attention, it’s a waste of time, it’s nonsense — research shows that doodling can help improve the process of learning and retaining information.

Jennifer Aikman-Smith’s notebook of doodles. Courtesy of Jennifer Aikman-Smith
Jennifer Aikman-Smith’s notebook of doodles. Courtesy of Jennifer Aikman-Smith

In her TEDTalk, “Doodlers, unite!” Sunni Brown, the author of The Doodle Revolution, calls doodling “an incredibly powerful tool.” Calling out the cultural norm against doodling in situations in which we are expected to learn something, Brown says, “People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain [29 percent] more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts.”

So all those sermons you can’t recall the gist of an hour after church finishes? Perhaps it’s not the minister’s fault!

Mary MacLeod, a member of Trinity United in Oxford, N.S., was surprised by what she discovered after she started doodling last spring as an in-church experiment. “You really start to listen in a different way,” says the retired teacher of the visually impaired. “Instead of listening to phrases and lines, you actually start thinking in images.”

When she compared doodling and listening to just listening, MacLeod realized she missed what would come next if she was going back over words. “And the drawing doesn’t distract from the listening,” she notes.

Having recently earned an education degree, Aikman-Smith now refers to her younger self as an “alternate learner” because in school, she used doodles to anchor ideas to the page. “We had to copy down notes from an overhead projector, and our teacher would supplement with other information. I needed to draw little doodles to go along with that.”

She says although doodling was considered disrespectful, she knew she needed to draw to stay focused. Now, doodling enhances her worship experience, and she finds inspiration in the sermon or the scriptures or even a beautiful flower arrangement. “This makes worship more interactive for me.”

According to Brown, doodling should be used in all situations where information is dense and the need for processing that information is high, like a classroom or a boardroom. “Because doodling is so universally accessible and is not intimidating as an art form, it can be leveraged as a portal through which we move people into higher levels of visual literacy,” says Brown in her TEDTalk, which first aired in 2011.

Brown could easily add “worship service” to her list of appropriate doodling situations. Imagine being able to remember not only what the minister said at the start of his or her sermon, but also what was said in the middle and at the end — and be able to mull it over several days later.

For Aikman-Smith, “It’s become the way I worship. . . . Faith isn’t one hour on Sunday; it should walk with you all week, as you think about it and mull it over.

“Doodling is a way to bring the sacred and the peace and the holiness of that one hour of worship with me on my journey,” she says. “It’s a form of devotion.”

Sara Jewell is a writer in Port Howe, N.S.

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