Devotional Prayer and Community

In early October, I was in Nairobi teaching at a program for contemplative nuns, and afterward I spent a few days with the Benedictine nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery outside the city, in rural Kiambu. As I have written about before, this is still a fairly new community, and it is fascinating to see how both their space and their life together are evolving. I was happy to see that their monastery church now has been completed, though pews still are being crafted and added one by one. While the community uses the large space for bigger public events, they still use their small day chapel for regular prayer hours.

The main church now is complete and dedicated, but awaits more pews.
The tabernacle, with a temporary paper station of the cross taped on the front.

What struck me this time, in particular, was how various devotional prayers were added to the common life of prayer. It is fairly traditional practice for communities to process in order to sing a concluding Marian anthem before an image of the Blessed Mother. Praying the Angelus as a community before Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer also seems to be a fairly common practice, at least among the nuns I have met from various African countries; the seminarians at the school where I work pray it together after midday mass. Various communities pray the rosary together at some point during the day; many also will include a regular period of communal Eucharistic Adoration.

The St. Joseph statue before which the community gathers to pray before Lauds and other hours.

In addition to these, however, at Our Lady of the Angels, Lauds began down the hall from the chapel, with the community gathered around an image of St. Joseph. Here they prayed for his protection and providence before processing to the chapel for the actual Liturgy of the Hours. Another hour of prayer began in the same place, but with community recitation of a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Other prayers to St. Benedict, Our Lady, and St. Michael the Archangel were prayed by all immediately after the conclusion of other hours.

I found these practices fascinating, in part because I have come of age in a post-Vatican II Church where much communal devotional prayer has been stripped away, consigned to private usage, if at all. Even practices like a Marian anthem before the Blessed Mother, the Angelus, Adoration, or a the rosary cannot be presumed to be regular shared communal practice in every religious house. Devotional religious art, similarly, in some communities has been left to the individual to steward in private spaces.

St. Therese graces a doorway adjacent to the St. Joseph shrine space.

What I can say of this limited experience of praying these devotional prayers as a community is this: it made me appreciate the presence and role of the saints in the daily life of the community. St. Joseph is known to be protector and provider. Of course a struggling new community needs his help, and has every right to request it! St. Michael protects against evil. A community that rose up on a stretch of road formerly known for violence can use a healthy awareness of God’s protecting angels. The Blessed Mother is the patroness of the house; at her intercession, during the building process, abundant clean water was found for wells. She regularly is petitioned for help and guidance, and it is clear that the community depends on her quite affectionately. St. Benedict is the patron of the order; those who seek God according to his Rule are strengthened remembering him and all those who have walked this path before us. Jesus is the reason for pursuing the Christian life at all, and cultivating love for him sustains the emotional attachment key to maintaining the spiritual journey to heaven. A communal practice tending this kind of love helps uphold the heart of consecrated life together. In all of these prayers, community practice helped guide individual spirituality.

The Blessed Mother in the courtyard, to whom the community processes to sing the Marian anthem and be blessed with holy water at the end of Compline each day.

I can appreciate the concern of the Council to reassert the primacy of liturgy, and the centrality of the Eucharist. What has emerged in its wake, however, at least in my Anglo experience of the Midwestern North American Church, is something of an uncertainty about how to cultivate a healthy, balanced devotional life. Perhaps in response to this, in 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. Here the Congregation lists some initial observations on the state of devotional life, or “popular piety”:

Following on the conciliar renewal, the situation with regard to Christian popular piety varies according to country and local traditions. Contradictory attitudes to popular piety can be noted: manifest and hasty abandonment of inherited forms of popular piety resulting in a void not easily filled; attachments to imperfect or erroneous types of devotion which are estranged from genuine Biblical revelation and compete with the economy of the sacraments; unjustified criticism of the piety of the common people in the name of a presumed “purity” of faith; a need to preserve the riches of popular piety, which is an expression of the profound and mature religious feeling of the people at a given moment in space and time; a need to purify popular piety of equivocation and of the dangers deriving from syncretism; the renewed vitality of popular religiosity in resisting, or in reaction to, a pragmatic technological culture and economic utilitarianism; decline of interest in popular piety ensuing on the rise of secularized ideologies and the aggressive activities of “sects” hostile to it.

Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 1

Certainly a common devotional life could be distorted with superstitious belief. History has documented various excesses and distortions of various times. It is important in every age for our beliefs and practices to be rooted in good theology. And yet, as the Congregation notes, “manifest and hasty abandonment of inherited forms of popular piety [results] in a void not easily filled.” If some of our religious communities are at odds with each other about how we ought or ought not to engage in common devotional life, it may be due in part to different experiences of the “void.”

My experience of praying these prayers with the sisters had me feeling that it might have been a bit of overkill, given that we also prayed the rosary each day on our knees without kneelers, and spent plenty of time on our knees in Adoration, in addition to praying all 150 Psalms in a week. And yet, it also had me wondering: how would an individual know about these prayers if some community did not introduce them? How would I know to tend to some of the spiritual connections we were cultivating if no one showed me how?

As the Directory notes, in some places, the riches of popular piety are seen as being worth preserving; it has the power to counteract “a pragmatic technological culture and economic utilitarianism.” I wonder if the decline in shared devotional life might be more symptom or perhaps also a contributing cause of some of the “rise of secularized ideologies” that plague spiritual life today.

The tabernacle and icon of Christ in the monastery chapel.

If the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith, all other forms of prayer should come from it and lead to it. We can relegate “devotional prayer” to the individual sphere if we like, at least the forms that can be undertaken alone. However, if devotional life is to be cultivated in harmony with the liturgy and the theology of the greater Church, would it not be helpful if the wider Church community assisted us in modeling what healthy balance looks like?

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this post–as Catholics, we can only be grateful for the great centering on the Eucharist to which we’ve been turned in the last decades of the twentieth century. But, in my own experience, liturgy lives more brightly and deeply in our lives with a rich fabric–not a void–to support it. Thanks for sharing your experience with and reflections upon the sisters in Nairobi.

  2. I don’t want this to become a new vs old Mass thread, but will say that one of the biggest draws for the Traditional Latin Mass was the seamless integration of private/public devotions, the saints, and the calendar into parish liturgical life. That is to say, there is less of a strict divide between home and church at a typical EF than one will find at a typical OF.

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