Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotionsby James Martin
Awake my soul introduces the practice of devotions to a new generation of the faithful. The essays in this enlightening collection celebrate the traditional Catholic devotions -- those sensual, physical, time-honored forms of piety that have sustained generations of believers. Contemporary men and women are finding in the devotions what earlier generations found -- comfort in times of trial, models of discipleship, encouragement to care for others, and ways to draw closer to Jesus in prayer and worship. The twenty contributors to Awake My Soul -- which include Ron Hansen, Joan Chittester, Lawrence Cunningham, and Paul Mariani -- share their delight in this rediscovery of their Catholic heritage. Awake My Soul shows how the great tradition of Catholic prayer can help all of us to regain a sense of the profound mystery at the center of our Catholic faith and to discover new depths of meaning in our prayer lives.
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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
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
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
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.
Meet the Author
James Martin, SJ, is associate editor of America magazine. A prolific author, writer, and editor, his books include My Life with the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Searching for God at Ground Zero and In Good Company. He is the editor of Awake My Soul and Celebrating Good Liturgy. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Tablet, and Commonweal. Fr. Martin resides in New York City.
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