Devotion has a near limitless applicability to the Christian life. One might even say that it is the general spirit of living the Christian life, doing what is beyond the written requirement of law. In Christian terms one can be devoted to figures of inspirational sanctity or dedicated intercessors for one's causes. One may find reason for devotion to a past event or minor revelation that succors one's sufferings or spiritual ailments in modern times. Devotion to feasts and their anticipation is one of the most ancient Christian devotions, most visible in novenas and the great vigils of the ancient rite. In the last millennium pilgrimage was the highest level of devotion, it being a metaphor for the greater pilgrimage from detachment on earth to meeting God in heaven. Today various types of private prayer dominate devotion, especially rosaries and chaplets. Devotion is everywhere, and after five years, going on six as of this writing, I now think that the place of devotion is one of the most noble problems in the Roman liturgy.
Devotion—an expression of love of God and His saints in the Christian life outside the essential functions of the Eucharist and the Office—is an essential part of Catholicism, if only because it is done out of desire rather than command, which reflects a spiritual maturity and an intimacy with the Divine. More often than not, contemporary devotion means kneeling near a statue in a church and saying the Divine Mercy chaplet or thumbing through the Sorrowful Mysteries on one's rosary at home. It reflects a systemic approach to private prayer and meditation. Alone, this is a reduction of past people's broader, fervent idea of devotion. In context, however, the emphasis on devotion in an atomistic, modern, post-Reformation society has elicited deleterious effects on the Roman liturgy and was one of the principal movers in its gradual disassembly.
The basic concept of devotion and its practice persists East and West. A person enters a church, goes to a corner with a holy image, lights a a candle, shoves a dollar into the box, and acts for God to intervene for the good in someone's life. Popularly, novenas once occupied an evening slot at most Latin parishes and continue as a means of private prayer; the Ascension is often called the beginning of a novena running into Pentecost, mimicking the oriental process of anticipating great feasts. More dramatically, pilgrimage to holy places in Jerusalem, Rome, Egypt, and the sights of Marian miracles, for the fulfillment of promises and the remission of sins, remains a congruity between the the Greek and Latin traditions. What differs practically, however, is that much of Latin devotional piety is based on the chiliastic premonitions associated with private apparition and their accompanying semi-salvific promises; the Miracle of the Sun may have been seen by 70,000 people, but the bestowing to Saint Simon Stock of the Brown Scapular, a common "get out of purgatory free" card, has far less reliable origins. Such complete promises of salvation shift the focus of devotion from God to the promise itself, from the mysteries of God to the bare minimum to fulfill vicariously living out a full religious life. Consequently, Marian feasts inspired by new devotional titles proliferated (Holy Family, Apparition of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Queenship feast, Immaculate Heart, the Holy Name, the September feast of the Seven Sorrows, the Maternity of Mary—which is not Christmas, and more local feasts). As local feasts these would be harmless. On the General Roman Kalendar they break up the seasonal rhythm of the liturgy and alter the attention of the seasons from the reliving of Christ's life to scattered pieties observed by the few.
|Hail O Virgin and|
Bride Ever Pure!
The greatest devotional treasure in the public worship of the Greek liturgy, however, is the Akathist to the Theotokos sung during Great Lent. This year the Annunciation will fall on Palm Sunday; last year it was on Good Friday. While the Latin Church often transfers the feasts until after Low Sunday, the Eastern tradition holds the feast to be of such great importance that it is immobile. Saint Gabriel's words to the Mother of God were initially welcomed—so theorize liturgical historians—as sung sermons or plays during the Fast, both meant to instruct and to inspire devotion.
Over time this devotion became "liturgized" and even integrated into the Liturgy itself. Although not fundamentally part of the Liturgy in the sense that the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Office are, Greek rite monasteries customarily sing the Akathist to the Mother of God during Great Compline on the Lenten Fridays prior to the feast. In practice, when parishes sing the Akathist as a stand alone service they add the traditional beginning of the Hours, with the priest's blessing, the Trisagion, and the singing of a psalm (50). Then follow the Odes, the Chants, and finally the reverence of the icon of the Virgin. Although not an Hour, it possesses all the structure of an hour and a layman attending for the first time could simply treat it like assisting at Vespers and the kissing of an image, two things he already knows how to do. In an entirely familiar way he can hear the echoes of the angel's words to the Virgin and contemplate her fiat until he hears those words spoken during the Gospel of the feast itself.
Like Patristics, the act of liturgizing devotion is not something foreign to Latin Catholicism or outside its tradition, but it is something that has fallen by the wayside and which the so-called "Traditionalists" seemingly have no interest in reviving. How did the Roman rite mirroring this seemingly Hellenic adaptation of devotions into public worship? Have you ever seen a side altar?
|Mass at the altar of St Gregory the Great in St Peter's, Rome|
More anciently, the Roman gallery of great martyrs inspired the people of the Eternal City to keep vigil the night prior to feasts at the church which housed the relics of the day's saint or at least which was under his or her patronage. Over time this praxis became recognized as the "stational churches" for Papal Masses, noted in Missals printed prior to the 1960s. Over time the acts of devotion during these stational Masses augmented into great events in their own right, like the carrying of an image of Christ from the Lateran into Santa Maria Maggiore during Lauds for the Assumption. To this day Masses are said for stational feasts and for the days of Lent at their old locations, although only sparingly by the Pope himself.
One wonders what might have happened if not for the Reformation and erection of the SCR in 1588, which stunted the natural process of adapting the traditional liturgy for the needs of those who heard it and whose beneficence enabled it. Might the Corpus Christi or Candlemas mystery plays of York have somehow become liturgical acts along of the same lines as the akathist to the Theotokos? Or might the hymnody from those plays have found place in the liturgy as they did in popular culture? Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the form of Benediction did become a quasi-part of the liturgy. Whatever might have happened did not come to pass, which leaves it to us today, in the process of recuperating liturgical tradition, to recover the proper place of devotion as part of the Roman rite's "stuff." Far be it from importing an Eastern perspective into the Latin Church, the Greek tradition cleaned the lens for looking at our Roman inheritance.