Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotionsby James Martin
In Awake My Soul, editor James Martin, SJ, offers a meaningful collection of fascinating essays focusing on Catholic devotions and their place in the life of contemporary believers. Originally published as part of a Lenten series in America magazine, each essay discusses a favorite Catholic devotion, its history, its place in an individual's life, and/i>/i>… See more details below
In Awake My Soul, editor James Martin, SJ, offers a meaningful collection of fascinating essays focusing on Catholic devotions and their place in the life of contemporary believers. Originally published as part of a Lenten series in America magazine, each essay discusses a favorite Catholic devotion, its history, its place in an individual's life, and its role in the life of today's Catholics.
Awake My Soul features some of today's top Catholic writers celebrating traditional Catholic devotions such as the rosary, the stations of the cross, holy water, novenas, relics, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and more. Contributors include Ron Hansen; Emilie Griffin; Joan Chittister, O.S.B.; and Eric Stoltz.
- Loyola Press
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
Asurprising number of recent books and studies have suggested that young American Catholics are more likely than their immediate elders to gravitate toward traditional devotions. The reasons seem varied. Some surmise that younger Catholics, having grown up without being “forced” to participate in devotions, have no built-in reactions against them. Freer to embrace or ignore devotions, many choose to embrace them. Others see in this phenomenon a turn toward conservatism among younger Catholics. Still others posit that the characteristics of the devotional life—tactile, colorful, often exotic—exert a particular influence on young Catholics seeking a greater sense of mystery in their lives.
For some older Catholics, the devotional life has never lost its appeal. Many fondly remember reciting the Rosary with parents, attending novena services (and singing special novena hymns) at their home parish, or receiving their first Miraculous Medal or scapular from a favorite aunt or uncle. Devotions can represent a powerful affective link to the Catholicism of one’s youth while continuing to nourish one’s faith as an adult. But for other Catholics the topic of devotions can provoke decidedly uncomfortable reactions. Though expressions of popular piety have long been a part of Catholicism, some see devotions as inconsistent with a mature faith, antithetical to a contemporary understanding of religion, overly reliant on things—beads, medals, scapulars—and even faintly superstitious. For some, devotions are to be avoided, not embraced. This wide variety of reactions raises some important questions: What do traditional devotions have to say to contemporary Catholics? How might a devotion that has seen its popularity wax and wane (and now wax again) speak to Catholics unfamiliar with its appeal? Can devotions that sometimes carry heavy theological and cultural “baggage” find a place in the post–Vatican II church? In short, what might devotions mean today? To begin to explore these questions, I asked a number of Catholics, some in their thirties and forties, to address this issue in a series originally published, in a much abbreviated form, in America magazine. Each contributor was asked to write about a devotion that has proved especially meaningful in his or her life as a Catholic. Each was also asked to provide a brief historical sketch and to discuss what the devotion might mean to other Catholics in current times. As many of our essayists note, the theological question of the role of devotions in today’s church is a complex one. For while devotions have historically played an important role in Catholic spirituality, they need always be seen as flowing from (and leading back to) the liturgy—the central form of worship in the church. The Second Vatican Council wrote that while devotions should be “warmly commended” and possess a “special dignity,” they nevertheless remain subordinate to the Mass, which “by its very nature far surpasses any of them.”1 Theologians and liturgical scholars have therefore rightly cautioned against devotions usurping the place of the liturgy in the life of the faithful. Indeed, in the past, excesses in popular piety may have led some Catholics to focus their spiritual lives on a particular devotion rather than on participation in the Eucharist—for example, if the celebration of the Mass at their local parish was not to their liking. (“Why should I go to Mass? I have my Rosary.”) Today, however, the tendency may be the opposite: to dismiss devotions as if they had no meaning or relevance whatsoever. Both reactions go against the grain of our Catholic heritage. A comprehensive guide published by the Vatican in 2001 noted that “the Liturgy and popular piety are two forms of worship which are in mutual and fruitful relationship with each other.”2 In other words, there is no conflict between loving the Mass and, say, having a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The document expressed the hope that “other forms of piety among the Christian people are not overlooked, nor their useful contribution to living in unity with Christ, in the Church, be forgotten.”3 This little book tries to highlight that “useful contribution.” In the next few pages our essayists offer their reflections on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, pilgrimages, the saints, the Angelus, litanies, the Miraculous Medal, novenas, the Rosary, holy water, Our Lady of Guadalupe, First Fridays, lectio divina, the Immaculate Heart, relics, the Liturgy of the Hours, Mary, Joseph, and the stations of the cross. Obviously, this loose list of devotions is not meant to be exhaustive. In fact, the very concept of “devotions” often seems difficult to define adequately or even describe with precision. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism, for example, defines devotions as follows: “Nonliturgical prayer forms that promote affective (and sometimes individualistic) attitudes of faith. They may also suggest a more effective response to personal religious needs than liturgical prayer.”4 The New Dictionary of Theology begins its lengthy and comprehensive entry with a brief statement: “Devotions are the feeling side of Christian faith.”5 But for those unfamiliar with devotions such definitions, while certainly accurate, may raise as many questions as they answer. The first definition implies that any religious practice outside the liturgy is a devotion. The second suggests that while the devotional life evokes “feelings,” the liturgical life does not. Complicating matters somewhat, the Vatican document defines devotions as “various external practices (e.g., prayers, hymns, observances attached to particular times or places, insignia, medals, habits or customs)” but at the same time distinguishes them from “pious exercises,” “popular piety,” and “popular religiosity.”6 The difficulty in providing a concise definition of devotions reflects the fact that the devotional life encompasses an astonishingly wide variety of practices and traditions. As a result, it’s often difficult to agree on what, precisely, constitutes a devotion. When some of these essays originally ran in America, for example, a few readers wrote to ask why I had included the Liturgy of the Hours, which they felt was more properly considered a “liturgy,” not a devotion. Here one can see how the boundaries and definitions remain sketchy: the Liturgy of the Hours is indeed a liturgy, especially when celebrated in a communal setting; but when practiced individually, as described by our essayist, it takes on more the quality and flavor of a traditional private devotion. Needless to say, then, this collection is not meant to include every devotion in the Catholic tradition. (It is, in fact, doubtful that such a list could even be agreed upon!) Rather, it tries to encompass some devotions that may be ripe for a kind of renewal, or that have fallen into desuetude, or that may be less well known or understood by contemporary Catholics. Each of these traditional devotions, however, continues to exert a powerful and undeniable influence on our writers and, not incidentally, on a great many of the People of God. The riches of the devotional life speak to millions of Catholics whose faith was nurtured in a world where devotions played an important role in their religious education. Today, these same devotions speak in a particular way to younger Catholics eager to rediscover their Catholic heritage, to explore new ways of prayer, and to regain a sense of mystery in their lives. As these essays reveal, the devotional life can move us to prayer and contemplation, comfort us in times of suffering or confusion, encourage us to care for others, spur us on to appreciate Scripture more fully, provide us with models of Christian discipleship, prompt us to meditate on the love of God, and, overall, draw us closer to the One who lies at the center of any expression of our faith: Jesus Christ.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus
CHRISTOPHER J. RUDDY, thirty-two, is an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. After graduating from Yale University in 1993, he worked with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps before entering Harvard Divinity School, where he completed a master’s degree in theological studies. In 2001 he received a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame. Today Mr. Ruddy and his wife, Deborah Wallace, live with their one-year-old son, Peter Augustine, in St. Paul.
Seventy-two times a minute, 4,320 times an hour, 103,680 times a day, almost 38 million times a year—over 2.6 billion times in the course of an average life. Fist sized, the human heart beats powerfully and durably. It must be sturdy enough to contract and send fresh blood throughout the entire body, elastic enough to collect spent, deoxygenated blood. Too much hardness or softness of heart, and one dies. Only a healthy heart—strong and supple—can give and receive lifeblood.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest in recent decades. It has been dismissed as superstitious in its apparent guarantee of salvation to those who practice it, as masochistic in its emphasis on making reparation for Jesus’ own suffering. Its popular iconography is—to put it generously—saccharine, kitschy, effeminate, somehow ethereal and grotesque at once. This decline of devotion is all the more striking because of its preeminence in the first half of the twentieth century, when so many Catholic families had a picture of Jesus and his Sacred Heart displayed in their homes, and when Thursday-night holy hours and First Fridays proliferated in parishes.
Like many forms of heart disease, such atrophy could have been prevented through a healthy diet—in this case, Scripture and tradition. The heart is a powerful metaphor in the Bible, what Karl Rahner, S.J., has called a “primordial word.” It signifies the wellspring of life, the totality of one’s being. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, records God’s promise to change Israel’s “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” while John’s Gospel gives the heart its most profound scriptural expression: Jesus’ heart is the source of living water, of rest for the Beloved Disciple, of the church and its sacraments, of doubting Thomas’s faith.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart began to flourish in the Middle Ages through a renewed attentiveness to Jesus’ humanity and his Passion. Its golden age, though, was the seventeenth century, when Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, and what was called the “French School” offered a tender, compassionate spiri¬tuality that helped to renew the church and counter Jansenism’s severity and sectarianism. From 1673 to 1675 at the Visitation convent of Paray-le-Monial, Margaret Mary Alacoque received a series of four ¬revelations from Christ about his heart. It was here that the devotion reached its enduring form: personal ¬consecration to the Sacred Heart, the observance of an hour of prayer on Thursday night between eleven o’clock and midnight as a way of sharing in Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, and the reception of communion on the first Friday of the month as reparation for the indignities inflicted upon the sacrament by those indifferent and ungrateful. This last revelation would evolve into a belief that salvation was assured to those who received communion on the first Fridays of nine consecutive months.
The Sacred Heart was later enlisted in combat against the French Revolution, Communism, and threats to family life. Pope Pius IX made it a feast of the universal church in 1856, and Leo XIII consecrated the entire world to the Sacred Heart in 1899. The devotion reached its magisterial peak in Pius XII’s 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas (“You Shall Draw Waters”), which emphasized God’s passionate love for humanity.
I believe that the deepest meaning of the devotion, however, is glimpsed in a poet who does not even mention it: Dante Alighieri. At the dark bottom of hell, Satan is frozen in ice up to his chest, crying tears and drooling bloody foam, his six wings bellowing cold wind upward. Wedged into the inverted apex of the underworld, he is locked in his own resentment, impotent and utterly alone. Hell, the Inferno makes clear, is not fire, but ice: cold, crabbed isolation. Paradise is pure communion, illuminated and warmed by the love that moves the sun and the other stars. 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 last 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 front 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.
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