There's Prayer...and Then There's Prayer

February 03, 2009


St. AnthonyWhen I was growing up, anyone who came into our home could not miss the fact that ours was a Catholic family. We had pictures and statues of the Blessed Mother and saints and a crucifix in each bedroom. We prayed before we ate and recited the Angel of God prayer before going to bed. Each evening after supper we gathered for the family rosary. We went to church one Thursday a month for a holy hour before first Friday which always ended with Benediction (we had all the Latin hymns memorized). We were trundled off to church for Lenten missions, for novenas, and for May processions. We had our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise and always brought a candle home on Candlemas Day which we burned during storms. Oh, and yes, we began each school day with Mass and, of course, went to Mass each Sunday. For me, this was just all prayer. There wasn’t a whole lot of distinction in my mind between liturgy (didn’t even know the word then!) and devotional prayer.

Then along came Vatican II. It seemed like overnight most of the devotional prayers went by the wayside, especially communal ones. By now I was in formation to make vows and gave myself over wholeheartedly to a rich feast of liturgical prayer. Yes, as a Congregation we had our devotional prayers, but forefront in my mind was the liturgical life of the community. I was satisfied by the balance of liturgy and devotion my Congregation offered. Not everyone was so blessed. As Mass took on new meaning because we now participated actively in the celebration, the devotional prayer that nourished the spiritual life of so many diminished, especially as communal opportunities were no longer offered. Somehow, we got the idea that liturgical prayer was to replace devotional prayer. No so!

Liturgical Prayer Is Primary

Icon ProcessionThe Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963) makes clear that liturgy far surpasses any devotional prayer (see no. 13). This is so because liturgy’s very nature (its purpose) is to offer communal praise and thanksgiving to the Trinity as we celebrate the paschal mystery. When we celebrate liturgy (any of the seven sacraments or the Liturgy of the Hours), in the very structure and rhythm of the prayer we make present the dying and rising mystery of Christ. Baptized into this mystery (see no. 6), liturgy constantly calls us to who we are (members of the Body of Christ) and how we are to live (gospel values expressed by dying to self for the good of others). The greatest praise and thanksgiving we can offer to God is the surrender of ourselves to a full and conscious celebration of the mystery of salvation God has given us in Christ Jesus.

Devotional Prayer Is Necessary

CandlesThe Constitution also makes clear that devotional prayer is “highly recommended” (no. 13). It goes on to describe conditions that make devotional prayer authentic: they are to “harmonize with the liturgical seasons,” not be in conflict with the celebration of liturgy, and flow from and to the liturgy. Devotions are optional in the sense that people cannot be forced to pray one or other specific devotion. Some devotional prayers and practices appeal to some people, other devotions to others. At the same time, all of us are called to nurture a healthy devotional prayer life. Devotions are necessary because they can be more personal, satisfy to our affective needs, and give voice to specific concerns. Some devotional prayers may be formulae and highly structured (for example, the Rosary), which can be quite satisfying and spiritually beneficial for some of the faithful. For others, a fruitful devotional prayer life might be characterized by meditation, contemplative centering prayer, or any other of a more unstructured kind of prayer. The issue here isn’t what kind of devotions we pray, but that we do take time to pray outside of our liturgical celebrations.

A Caution

Our lady of GuadalupeA problem with some devotional prayers is theological content, and so some critique is essential, especially when using various devotional books that are readily available. An underlying theology that does not support a healthy approach to spiritual growth is never desirable (for example, any prayer that is permeated with superstition, or language that underscores anything but God’s mercy, love, and compassion; see the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines [Rome: Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, December, 2001; hereafter, DPPL] no. 12). Positively, the use of Sacred Scripture and biblical content is endorsed (see DPPL no. 16; also, Marialis cultus [Paul VI, 2 February 1974] no. 30). DPPL (no. 16) also suggests the prayers of the liturgy itself, early Christian writers, and compendia of church doctrine such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church can all be fruitful sources for good devotional prayer.

Joyce Ann Zimmerman, C.PP.S. is a Precious Blood sister from Dayton, Ohio and is the director of the Institute for Liturgical Ministry at Dayton. She is a frequent facilitator of programs on liturgy and publishes extensively.  Her books include: The Ministry of Liturgical Environment (Collegeville Ministry Series) (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004); Morning and Evening: A Parish Celebration(Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1996); and Liturgy and Hermeneutics (American Essays in Liturgy)(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998)

Photos of Saint Anthony (Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome) by Johan van Parys; Photos of Mary Procession, candles and Our Lady of Guadalupe by Mike Jensen.


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