Popular Devotions

The Armor of God PJs below belong to the same category of prayer as the Rosary. That category is called “popular devotions” — in other words, unofficial prayers and pious practices. Stuff you do on your own or with your family, as opposed to liturgical prayer. It’s the customized parts of a prayer life.

In general, popular devotions are a good thing. Anything that gets people to pray more, to pray always, to keep God and their ultimate fates in recollection — usually good.

However, there’s no denying that some people can abuse prayer just as they can abuse shopping or alcohol or any other normally good thing, and that some people can exploit prayer to exploit other people.

This is why everybody with a prayer life needs to pray sensibly. You don’t need to fear popular devotions; but you do need to figure out which ones are good and helpful, and which ones aren’t. It’s fine to explore different devotions, but you shouldn’t try to include every prayer and practice that comes down the pike into your prayer life every day. There are literally thousands of devotions out there, folks, and people make up new stuff every day.

Here’s an example: a new devotion I came across just the other day. My company did some United Way volunteering, and was sent to help out at a local non-Catholic seminary whose new facility (once a rec center) included a running track. Said running track had a sign near it about this new devotion, and the words of the new devotion were on construction paper on the walls all around the track.

So the first thing we look at, in a new prayer or devotion, is What does this devotion entail? In this case, there was nothing creepy — no weird wording, no bizarre actions required. It was a passage from Colossians: 3:1 – 3:16. (If I had been given a copy of this, I would look at it to see whether anything was weirdly translated or left out. But I think it was fine.)

The explanatory sign promised that this prayer was better than the Prayer of Jabez (so’s practically everything), and that if you said it every day for six weeks, it would improve your life.

Right there is a warning sign. The primary purpose of pious prayers and practices is not to get guaranteed results. If you do it because it comes with a warranty, you’re not being very pious. Now, nothing’s wrong with asking for what you want and expecting to get eggs instead of snakes. But.

God is your Father and Brother and the Body you are part of. He is not your vending machine. If you expect to insert Prayer A and get Result B every time, either you are talking about a covenantal promise and have a very impoverished view of the nature of covenant law (as a contract that compels rather than becoming part of a family and God’s plan), or you are talking about casting a spell which compels God to do your will. Neither attitude respects God even as a person, much less as the Creator and Redeemer and Spirit, dwelling within everything and beyond everything, in unapproachable light.

The Sacraments, for example, are covenantal promises. If you approach them with awe and respect and an open heart, putting God’s worship first, you will find that Result B is only “the same result every time” in the same sense that the sun comes up every morning. But the Sacraments are not there to improve your life, along the lines you direct and no other. They are there to transform you, along God’s lines. If you take the wrong attitude, you may turn away God’s grace, or you may force that grace to act upon you in unpredictable ways to get your attention. It isn’t like God’s a tame lion. 🙂

However, going back to our example: the next thing to ask is, “How is this a prayer?” It’s a Bible passage that’s an exhortation, not a prayer. So this isn’t a prayer at all; it’s a devotional practice. In this case, a repetition of useful words for purposes of exhorting oneself to virtue. In other words, it’s Christianized “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better” to tell yourself exactly what you should be working on to get better and better.

Which is a perfectly okay activity; it’s just not a prayer.

(So why would someone say something is a prayer when it’s not? At a very academic sort of seminary? Still kinda boggles the mind.)

In some ways, devotional practices like this require more discernment than prayers. You can accumulate pious practices all day, and not have them be more useful to you than a tic. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with putting a little Christian culture into your life. But don’t expect guaranteed results in six months or your time back. That’s just silly.

Other important discernment questions about new devotions:

How much does it cost? If it isn’t free, or requires you to pay someone, that’s a red flag. Only dangerous cults and conmen make you pay to pray. If you’re Catholic, know that nothing blessed should ever be bought or sold (because that would be selling a blessing, which is simony), especially relics. (Especially first-class relics. Don’t sell bits of people!) If you’re anyone, be suspicious of overly expensive religious goods.

What picture of God does it promote?

Is it way too obsessed with the end of the world?

Does it come with threats if you don’t do it, or do it wrong?

Is it a chain letter, or does it require similar viral distribution?

There are also discernment procedures to follow. Basically, test for the Spirit and look at the fruit. If people engaged in a practice are led to do creepy stuff, or promise extravagant results, or hate and despise people who don’t do the devotion or even question it… that’s probably not something to get into. (Even if the prayer is good, the people involved with it may abuse the devotional practice. You may not want to spend too much time with people like that.)

A good devotional practice should help you to love God and your neighbor more deeply. There are lots of ways to do that. Pick something useful, try it out, and if it doesn’t help you love God, feel free to stop. Devotions, like every other created thing, are a good servant but a bad master.

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