It was nearly a year ago, I think, that His Traddiness requested I start a series on devotionalism in the Church, as much for my own edification as for that of our readers. My discomfort with popular devotions began during my early movements toward the Church out of my schismatic beginnings and never entirely disappeared. Even that most benign devotional, the Rosary, was soaked with such an overwhelming perfume of sickly sweetness that it took over a year before I felt comfortable praying it without suspicion.
My background in Neo-Reformed spirituality subsumed the entire spiritual life within the prayerful, careful study of Holy Writ. Exegesis upon the literal meaning of the sacred texts was simultaneously the closest intimacy with the Divine Mind. Sentimentality was rarely permitted except when meditating on the comfort provided by God’s preservation of the elect forever in a state of salvation. Even the traditionally Calvinist hymns were triumphalist and overwhelmed by the awe inspired by divinity. Christ was seen as judge or as a means to the end of justification and atonement, rarely as a person capable of giving or desiring charitable passions.
The effeminate paintings of the Savior that spread like mold across the walls of our parishes only further the divide between the old world and the new. It is difficult to take icons that resemble the “bearded ladies” of outmoded circuses seriously, and pastel-drenched images of the Blessed Virgin and the multitude of saints only compound the difficulties.
Even worse are the devotionals that demand certain emotional outpourings of which not all people are capable—at least not at all times nor on command—and which create scruples when the devotee fails to correctly conjure them up. The texts used for the Stations of the Cross at a local parish during Lent, for example, insist on a very particular emotional state of mind in those reading the responses and add further problems by surprising the laity with statements that, on a literal level, amount to solemn vows.
This demand for emotional conformity has found its way into the liturgy of the New Mass as normally celebrated. Anyone in the pews who does not appear to be emoting in lockstep with the cantor and peace-givers is either shunned or chided from the pulpit. Individuals are commonly offended if you show a disinterest in their peculiar devotions or decline the offer of a plastic sacramental.
My own spirituality has been—understandably, I hope—somewhat reactionary and similar to what it was in my “Young, Restless, and Reformed” days: studious, technically theological, and suspicious of emotionality. It is easy for someone like this to lose track of the liturgical year, to have to be reminded of traditional fasts, feasts, and vigils. (Indeed, when one kalendar is being used by most Catholics, another by most traditionalists, and yet another by a minority of Roman Rite historians, it is difficult to feel vitally connected to a sense of annual ritual.) When I read of the spiritual practices found in ancient Catholic nations, I admire them with a touch of jealousy, but with little sense that I can participate in anything noticeably similar.
But while I have written skeptically about some devotions in the past, I am far from denying their efficacy for many souls, and farther still from suggesting a prohibition on any but those based on pure fabrications (see nearly everything I have written about St. Joseph to date). I also recognize that my spirituality of study is not profitable for all, and that it is wrought with its own dangers. The primal admonition that faith without works is dead rings true as well; one feels a deep need to participate in the pilgrimages, fasts, vespers, and processions of old, even if their forms must be recreated from scratch in the modern world. Something that once would have seemed commonplace, like making and keeping a vow of pilgrimage, is now itself seen as devotional nonsense by church ladies who gush lovingly over images of Divine Mercy Jesus.
“Devotion,” Aquinas writes, “is an act of the will to the effect that man surrenders himself readily to the service of God.” He argues also that devotion is tied intrinsically to the practice of religion, and is not something that normally stands alone as a simple act of charity. The privatization of devotion is a real danger in our increasingly atomistic world, as is the imposition of the devotional whims of the few upon the many.
The intent of this series is to look afresh at devotions in the Catholic life, especially those old and discarded: the pilgrimages, the processions, the sponsorship of mystery plays by guilds, and so forth. Can they be revived? Would the attempt be a foolish bit of antiquarianism? Let us hope not.