I know a monk who criticizes devotionalism. Rosaries, novenas, consecration to Mary, that sort of thing: he sees no use for it. He simply prefers methodless silent prayer. We have an ongoing conversation/debate about this. I keep saying that such devotionalism is a valid, cataphatic form of spiritual practice. He is willing to accept that but only if cataphatic spirituality is seen as a prelude to the “higher” apophatic form of practice.
Incidentally, cataphatic (also spelled kataphatic) spirituality is the spirituality of using images (ikons, visualizations, recited prayers, etc.) to connect with God. By contrast, apophatic spirituality is imageless spirituality, characterized by centering or contemplative prayer. Since no human word, concept or image can ever capture the fullness of God anyway, apophatic spirituality seeks to connect with God by doing away with all such imperfect representations of the Divine.
What bothers me about his perspective is that I see the same kind of perspective coming from the devotionalists. They are as scornful of centering prayer as my monk friend is scornful of their novenas. It seems that those who attack centering prayer are, generally speaking, those with a stronger “bhakti” form of spirituality. If someone finds meaning in saying the rosary or praying novenas, it seems (in my experience) that he or she is more likely to reject centering prayer as a “dangerous” or “non-Christian” practice. Even those devotionalists who do accept contemplation as an orthodox Christian practice often see it as something that only a very tiny minority of people are called to, and therefore is best left alone.
Like my monastic friend, I clearly prefer a more apophatic spirituality. But I think there’s a place for cataphatic spirituality, and sometimes I find my own meaning in it. I love sacred art, architecture and music. I even enjoy contemporary Christian music (my family and I are all excited about going to see the David Crowder Band up in the mountains of North Carolina next week). I think it is one of many paradoxes of mysticism that both cataphatic and apophatic spirituality can usher us into the experience of God’s transforming presence.
In Hinduism, bhakti yoga is the spirituality of devotion. It is the spirituality of relationship with the god or goddess to whom one is devoted. It seems to me that Catholics who engage in the daily rosary, or Protestants who engage in regular conversational prayer, are essentially bhakti Christians. Meanwhile, contemplatives (those who prefer silent, non-discursive prayer) are essentially the Christian equivalent of raja yoga (“royal” yoga), the yoga of liberation through meditation (meditation, as understood in eastern spirituality, is more properly termed contemplation in western parlance). Now, I don’t know enough about Hinduism to speculate whether bhakti yogis look down on raja yogis (and vice versa), but somehow I get the impression that there’s more of a live-and-let-live approach to these two forms of religious practice. I think Christians have something to learn here. Christians who express their faith in terms of a lively devotion, and Christians who cultivate a sense of Divine presence through contemplation, are neither one better or more advanced than the other. Each type of spirituality represents a particular way of responding to grace. How lovely it is that there are so many different ways of finding connection to God in our lives.