One of the great things about being a Catholic is how rich the traditions of prayer and worship are and just how much is on offer to us for our benefit. However, in some ways this can be daunting too. As a convert who found the idea of devotion to saints and angels a bit strange at first, I wondered what I was getting myself into. Just as I was starting to get used to one I would meet someone else with a different devotion who would passionately try to persuade me to take it on too. This came together in a picture of a dazzling, to the point of being blinding, array of prayers, devotions and practices – the Infant of Prague, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Sacred Head of Jesus (championed by Teresa Higginson, who is buried at St Winifred’s Church in my home town of Neston, Cheshire), the rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Liturgy of the Hours, novenas prayed at the drop of a hat that spanned nine hours, or nine days, or nine weeks… it just seemed to go on and on. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to adopt all of this even if I wanted to. How do I decide which to pick and what is most important?
Fortunately, I was directed to Church teaching on this and the ordering principle is the liturgy. In this regard, Shawn Tribe of the New Liturgical Movement has written an excellent article about the place of Exposition in relation to the Liturgy
which I urge readers to take a look at. He is discussing just one of these devotions, but the principles he articulates can be applied to them all.
I took a number of points from these. First was to note that while a particular devotion might be characterised in people’s minds by a particular devotional practice that is outside the liturgy – for example devotion to Mary and the rosary – this one practice might is usually not the only way of expressing devotion. Devotion to a saint, to cite an obvious example, can be expressed through the liturgy. The encyclical mentioned above, Marialis Cultus, talks at length about how the fullest devotion to Our Lady is expressed through observance of and participation in the feasts and seasons of the Church’s liturgy.
Second is that traditional devotional prayers and practices although not liturgical are nevertheless good and desirable practices that always have their place in a well-balanced prayer life. I have been told that an error of some within the older liturgical movement of the first part of the 20th century was to try to get rid of these devotional practices in a desire to emphasize the importance of the liturgy. If so this was clearly a mistake. Certainly all the Catholics I have ever met whom I respect emphasise the importance of devotions in leading us to a proper liturgical piety. The Benedictines are devoted to the Opus Dei, the work of God, which is the praying of the liturgy. But the Rule of Benedict directs monks also to other practices such as lectio divina
and compunction of the heart
Third, while the sacred liturgy (that is the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours) is higher than any of them and contains a fuller expression of what the devotions point to, one should not interpret the raising of the liturgy to its proper position as an desire to diminish the importance of devotional prayers; and finally that many of the different aspects of prayer life including the meditative and the contemplative are accessible through liturgical practice.
The Church is clear of where the primacy lies. From Sacrosanctum Concilium: “…devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.”
Take note: derived from it, lead people to it, surpassed by it.
And of course, now I am part of all this a Catholic for many years now, I am there with everyone else, enthusiastically offering my personal devotions to others with the sincerity that comes from having experienced something genuinely good. So please dear reader, I urge you to adopt…..but most of let it be ordered to the sacred liturgy.