Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Dangerous Devotions?

Bill Cork and Fr. Jim Tucker both have posts related to the recent article in U.S. Catholic, "Let's Not Be Hopelessly Devoted to Devotions." While the article offers some prudent cautions about excess, and while well-intentioned, it strikes me as another example of the knee-jerk fear of anything traditional typical of some Catholics today. While all Catholic young people may not be like those in Colleen Carroll's The New Faithful, there is a growing recognition of a strong desire for the transcendent among young people which draws them to contemplative and devotional forms of prayer. This is not just true of Catholic teens and young adults, but Protestant ones as well (see Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion, and Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church). We have legitimate resources in our tradition to respond to that desire, and we should offer them to young--and not so young--Catholics, not in the service of any ideology, but in the service of God. Too many for too long have taken the "we know better" attitude and denied the riches of our tradition to themselves and to our young people. This is in part a response to efforts of some, who also feel they know better, to beat people over the head with their insistence on devotional practices which, in the end, sometimes had the same result, alienating people. Both impulses are strong, and need to be tempered. I know, because I've been in the middle of too many fights about such things. Now, I'm not the most pious Catholic, and I don't consider myself a conservative (or a liberal), but I get much spiritual consolation and benefit when I have the opportunity to spend some time in Eucharistic adoration, and I encourage others to do the same (but I don't insist on it). I guess my point is that the rich devotions of our tradition should be offered and encouraged, but not insisted upon; but also approached with the necessary prudence, while not discouraged because of the possibility of excess (that's like never taking a drink because you might perhaps one day get drunk).

Lately, I've been reading Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions, edited by Jim Martin, S.J., which I think offers encouraging and balanced reflections on many of our more popular devotions. It has certainly encouraged me to consider incorporating more devotions into my own spiritual practice and prayer.

Consider this excerpt from a reflection on The Sacred Heart of Jesus by Chris Ruddy, 33 year old professor of theology at the University of Saint Thomas:

"I did not grow up with any devotion to the Sacred Heart, and it is only in the last few years, as I have struggled with vocation and the demands of family life, that the practice has spoken to my own heart: the fearful heart that paralyzes me when I think of the future, rendering me unable to open myself in trust to God; the cramped heart that refuses to admit my wife and infant son but clings to my own prerogatives, choosing to watch Peter out of the corner of my eye as I read the morning newspaper rather than get on the floor and play with him; the oblivious heart that holds forth at dinner on the recording history of the Beatles' Abbey Road but forgets to ask Deborah how her class went that afternoon. At times like these I wonder, Have I really let into my life those I love so much? Have I gone out to them? Are they part of my flesh or merely fellow travelers?
On a particularly difficult afternoon las summer, I took Peter for a walk. We wound up at a church in our neighborhood, and, almost unable to bear the despair and self-loathing that were consuming me, I went in to pray. I lit a candle before Mary for my wife and one for myself before Joseph. Almost accidentally, I stopped in fron of a woodcarving of the Sacred Heart. Caught somewhere between rage and tears, I looked up at the heart and, for the first time, saw beyond the barbed-wire crown of thorns encircling it, into its gentleness. A prayer rose up in me: Jesus, give me a bigger heart. I looked at Peter in shame and in hope, and I went out into the day.
I remain irritable and irritating. I continue to struggle with a stoniness that shuts out so many. I know ever more clearly my deep sinfulness. But in continuing to pray to the Sacred Heart, I have also come to know God's still deeper mercy. I am strengthened by a heart pierced but unvanquished. I am welcomed by a heart that knows only tenderness and so makes me tender. I look on that pulsing, fleshy heart: courageous and vulnerable, compact and capacious, never one without the other."


Blogger ProverbialMike said...

Awesome post. I would say that your comments are on the mark here. Often it is the contemplative that does attract young people (myself included) to our tradition. However, they also need and desire strong communal relationships with both peers and mentors. Many are seeking non-superficial peer relationships and don't have parental or mentor relationships to guide them in the bigger questions.

Oftentimes I fear that the mentors in our faith communities resort to devotions as a way to avoid the committment to mentor young people with depth and breadth. In the late 80's and 90's we may have moved away from some of the devotional aspects of the faith (to our detriment) but we also developed much in terms of community and social outreach and justice work. It seems that we have a problem with extremes in our church. We either resort completely to the horizontal approach where we only see God in community, the poor and each other; or we go completely vertical focusing only on the relationship between a mysterious God and our mysterious selves.

Can we ever merge the two? That is the challenge in ministry today. If fear that our overworked pastors have little time to devote to developing strong communities so they tend to go totally devotional. Conservative co-opters insist on devotions and brand those who don't do devotions as "less than Catholics"--driving the alienated even further away. More liberal members of the faithful also are short sighted taking a completely opposite approach of community OVER devotions (or even against devotions).

I think that the centrists have a great advantage in speaking to the young today. It's folks like you, Mark, who will be the leaders that we all will look to over the course of the next 20 years.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Susan Rose, CSJP said...

The only "danger" I see in devotions is the personal aspect of it. We are a communal church, the body of christ. And a big part of that is getting the body together.

That said, anything that brings us closer to the love of God is a-ok in my book.

I think combining the two is key.

7:31 PM  
Blogger angelmeg said...

I think anything when taken to the extreme can become a problem. When they become more important than the other aspects of the faith, or become something that causes one torturous scrupulocity then they become dangerous.

There is also an eletiist tendency that can develop when someone finds out that another person doesn't pray the rosary daily. "Oh you must", they say. I don't pretend to know what God has called anyone to do in their spiritual walk, because I have such a difficult time discerning what God is calling me to do. When a devotion doesn't work for me I don't continue to do it just because someone says I should be doing it. I just assume that the church is big enough that that particular devotion isn't meant for me at this time.

I have gone back to certain devotions at other times, and gotten great peace and profit from them, for a short time or even for longer periods. But I would never tell anyone that they had to do specific things every day for the rest of their lives.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Dale said...

Excellent--balanced and fully on target.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Tim Drake said...

What I found, in doing research for "Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow's Church" is that the young aren't merely embracing the Church's ancient devotions (i.e. the Rosary, Eucharistic adoration, 40 Hours devotion), but rather they are taking the old and making it their own.

At Marquette University, for example, students participate in Eucharistic adoration that combines praise and worship music with spontaneous petitions before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

The young are also embracing newer devotions, such as the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, and the Divine Mercy devotion.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Thanks everyone for your comments.

Tim, I enjoyed reading your book! It was part of the pile of books I consulted for some talks I gave on ministry to young Catholics recently.

It will be among the resources for a book I'm hoping to write over the next year or so (once I finish the current one!).

Glad you stopped by.



3:29 PM  

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