Q&A: Devotional Prayer

Luke asks: "I have recently begun to pray some popular devotional prayers and overall my experience has been positive. As a recent Catholic convert it seems that personal devotional prayer was an unfortunate casualty of Vatican II. Do you think devotional prayer is an important aspect of the Christian faith and what do you think might be done to renew people's interest in it?"

Oh, my, this is a good one. Yes, most definitely, I think that devotional prayer is an important aspect of the Christian faith. What do I think might be done to renew people's interest in it? In a word: focus more on Mary. It's what I'm trying to write about in my current book* and a good part of the reason that I wanted to have this blog. But whether I can explain why I think this in just a few paragraphs, I am not so sure. One problem I have is that, not being Catholic myself, most of what I think about devotional prayer comes from an earlier age. It is only recently that I have learned that many of the medieval practices that I study (e.g. saying the rosary or the Hours of the Virgin) have fallen by the wayside since Vatican II, which, truth to tell, makes me very sad.

If only (I sometimes say to myself) my grandmother had taught me how to say the rosary, praying the angel's greeting and meditating on the Joys and Sorrows of the Virgin, then I might have an anchor in the world. As it is, I feel so very dry. Protestants (at least, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, the only denominations with which I am relatively familiar) don't have any such practices. Certainly, the only thing I remember my grandmother teaching me about church is how to behave. As Presbyterians, we're supposed to read the Bible and say the Lord's Prayer, but with no images in our churches and no substantial mystery at the Mass, only a commemoration, there's precious little to hold onto other than a fairly abstract conception of God. We name our churches after the saints (my mother goes to St. Luke's), but we don't talk about them much, certainly not as intercessors to whom we might pray. And, of course, there is almost no mention whatsoever of the Virgin, other than in the Creed.

How different (or so I had always imagined) things must be for the Catholics! All those beautiful images to help focus the imagination on God, His Mother and His saints, all the candles and incense, all the music, all the Latin, all the vestments, ornaments and processions! And, of course, all the prayers, said in whispers or aloud, over and over again, kneeling before the images at home or in church. Surely everyone who knew how to say the rosary on those beautiful beads must have a real sense of intimacy with God, not just of His terrible majesty and (as the Presbyterians always seemed to put it) rationality. Not that devotional prayer is by definition in any way irrational, anymore than is faith. But it seems somehow richer in a way that liturgy or scriptural study by itself is not.

Or is it? I'm feeling myself slipping here even as I try to describe what it is that I seek in devotional prayer, for the contrasts are not necessarily always that distinct. Participation in the liturgy can be fully as moving, intimate, personal, transformative as private devotional prayer; likewise, scriptural study, whether as exegesis or lectio divina. Indeed, one of the things that I, at least, think that the Protestants got wrong was trying to isolate the one (scriptural study) from the other (devotion). But, no, that's not quite right either. Many Protestants read the Bible with great devotion; the problem is how one directs the understanding.

Why pray to the saints rather than simply directly to God? Because thinking about the saints enables us to appreciate different aspects of God, every saint being a unique reflection of the image and likeness in which he or she was made. But perhaps you were simply asking about devotional prayers to God. What place, indeed, should such prayers have in the life of the Church? It's ironic. For almost two hundred years, scholars have been arguing over whether it was the Catholics or the Protestants who were more interested in the interior devotional life of the individual, when all the time it was both--and neither. Quite frankly, I think we're embarrassed. If everyone prays together, well, then clearly it is okay, but private devotional prayer seems somehow presumptuous, as if I might be important enough to speak to God alone. As if, in fact, I were some sort of saint.

I know I'm not answering your question and I'm curious why. I guess I'm not sure why people aren't (if they aren't) more interested in devotional prayer already. Is it that they don't know what to say? That, if they are praying alone, they feel silly talking to themselves? That they feel no real connection to God, Mary or the saints? That they don't understand the difference between meditation and prayer? The only analogy I can think of is going to yoga class versus doing your practice at home. I know many of the people who take classes regularly insist that they simply can't practice by themselves and I don't understand why. In my experience, it is better to do both, for the one (the communal practice, led by an instructor) necessarily informs the other (solitary practice, guided only by oneself), and vice versa. I would say the same thing about private devotional prayer: it is enriched by one's participation in the liturgy and vice versa. Which would rather suggest that the problem lies not so much in whether people are interested in private devotional prayer as such, as in why they go to church and what they expect to get there.

*Working title: The Virgin Mary and the Art of Prayer, 1000-1500.


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